Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Half-happy with India turning into a Trillion Dollar Economy (Revised)

When half of my nation sleeps
with half-filled bellies, under the half-roofs,
with half-hopes of a mouthful tomorrow,

when half of my nation grows up with half-rights
to education and employment,
with half-health produces babies, with a half-heart
chokes before the stoves that burn wood,
and cook half-water curries made with half-salt,

when half-length men walk the streets
half-naked, willing to work for half-wages,
half-grown women slip into beds at half-price,

when half-sane leaders pocket half-funds,
and divide the nation into halves that fight,
(haves and not-haves all half-fooled)
when half-castes organize into brigands,
and seek half-reservation for their half-intellect,

when half of the news is of rapes, riots, extortions,
half-nation worries about Naxalists, Maoists, terrorists,
half-resolved cases haunt the courts,
where victims of the crime wait half-lives
for half-compensations,

when half-history is distorted or concocted,
sacrifices of men like Gandhi half-known, half-respected,
when half-heritage is lying like wreckage, and half-religions
have pocketed half-faith and finished the better half,

when half-talented sportsmen cloud TV with ads,
half-naked woman talk of modernism with half-minds,
half-cultured men, hypocrites, type half-lies into their
tax returns, and half-acknowledge their sexual slights,

when half of my nation cannot even read or hear my voice,
and other half will ignore it by their own choice,
and half-close their eyes to see half-blessed dreams
of half-American lives.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Lines of Grey, Suchitra Vijayan and Social Change through Photographs

Lines of Grey is a project of social change through photography conceptualized and cultivated by Suchitra Vijayan. The idea is to provide cameras to the children, enabling them to capture their world in pictures. The concept is similar to the award winning documentary film "Born in Brothels", where children of the red-light district in Calcutta recorded moments of their lives through cameras handed out to them. Using the donations from friends and volunteers around the world, Suchitra supplied disposable cameras them to the street children in Tanzania. Cameras in the hands of these children first flicker a smile on their lip. A dream flourishes when their camera captures what any eye merely glances over, never stops to see. The idea rests upon a slogan associated with the project, called "Every child is an artist."

Suchitra is a barrister by training and used to work for the UN. After schooling from Padma Seshadri Bala Bhavan in Chennai, Suchitra moved to UK where she graduated with a LLB and European Law (Hons.) in 2004. Since then she has worked for UN War Tribunal for former Yugoslavia and UN War Tribunal for Rwanda. Suchitra is as young and relentless as she is passionate about her NGO effort. She epitomizes the modern Indian woman, who is global not only in her aspirations and achievements, but also in her pursuit of her dreams and ideals. Her own photography is quite fascinating, and she recently was awarded with the Nikon Imaging - Emerging Talent of the Year award. Suchitra is very well read, widely traveled, and immensely inspiring person, and I am sure this allows her to be an exemplary mentor.

I owe my friendship to Suchitra to our shared love for poetry and literature. Back in 2004, when she was still a student, we exchanged several emails, discussing authors, philosophers and poems. Even back then, I was amazed at her intensity, work ethic, and nature of her will to effect change. Many of us are able dreamers, capable but lazy poets or many times, well meaning mortals trapped in our daily circle of money, education, career, love, relationships, parties and movies. It requires a strong sense of purpose to go out there and try to organize something voluntarily, without a material gain in sight. Suchitra has been actively harvesting creativity in form of images from the children in Tanzania, and has managed to get to a point where some of these will be exhibited in Bay Area in US, and in Chennai, India.

While the intentions are noble, the effort is charged with single-minded devotion, the approach is based on aesthetic, the labor is of love, there are many hurdles in realization of real goals. Let us assume that such an effort can indeed empower kids to channelize their creativity. Yet to make a significant change, one needs volunteers around the globe to carry this effort. The whole issue of logistics is baffling one, and so far Suchitra has limited her scope to Arusha, Tanzania. One might argue that what the kids need most is education, clothing, housing and means to earn a livelihood. The photography seems like a distraction, as if, from those goals. Having worked with children in slums in Delhi, I figured that most children were motivated by play, by humor, by adventure. Poverty molds the scope of their imagination, but does not curtail it. The richest tales would surface through conversations with these children, and the only lesson I learned there was this: No amount of money or schooling distributed randomly to these children can help them as much as a personal attention, where both their angst and amazement at this world are interpreted, addressed and cultivated. Suchitra has been working to provide the flash of hope, a snapshot of creativity and joy to these children.

I shot few Questions to Suchitra and here they are:

  1. Why lines of grey?

To answer why “Lines of Grey “ I need to talk about my fascination with the colour grey. This goes back to my own love affair with black and white photography. Like all great love affairs, it started with this heady feeling of getting the winds knocked out of me and I was in an expedited hurry to learn and discover everything there was to know about this medium. In that process I came to understand this subtle but complexly layered colour called “Grey”. Grey is an achromatic colour between white and black that exist in the state of great lightness, caught between the lighter side of black and darker side of white. Grey is a shade of remarkable gradation, it is its own complement. Grey remains grey when its colour spectrum is inverted, and therefore has no opposite and alternately is its own opposite.

Lines of Grey represent the street children who are a part of this project; each shade with its complex mixture of shadows, highlights and mid-tones. They are the product of economic and social injustice that is rampant in this world. These children are prisoners of prejudice, social attitudes and numerous negative associations. Just like the shade grey, these children live on the marginalized edge of extremes. They are the existing reality and the beautiful abstraction.

2. How long do you plan to carry out this project? What happens when you move from your present appointment?

The photography project was designed to last for a period of six month. Then the process of compiling the children’s images, their stories and thoughts begins. This will culminate with the launch of our website and series of exhibitions. The money generated from this project will go back to these children. The website is also geared toward having individuals sponsors for addressing the education and other economical needs of these children. Since I no longer live in Africa, I am planning on getting my friends from that area and some of the older kids form the Project to co-ordinate and continue the project.

3. What is future of lines of grey?

Right now 24 hours of sleep doesn’t seem enough to accommodate the collective dreams and aspiration of everyone who is a part of LOG. Not surprising since most of us are dreamers first. Left to our devices we would conjure an imagine where LOG would solve all of the worlds problems. (Chuckles) . On a more serious note, there are plans underway to start similar projects in India. In June 2007, Lines of Grey was registered as an NGO in India, and plans are underway to launch the NGO in the United States. Right now the projects focus on photography as the medium. If every child is an artist, then art should also take different forms.

Honestly I am not sure what future lies for Lines of Grey. I am not sure if we can generate enough interest, enough momentum to sustain the NGO. I am not sure if it will make any sustainable change. But Lines of Grey is not just a project, it’s an idea. Everyone who is a part of this project decided to be a part of an experiment that seeks to make a difference at a personal level. The project runs on the inherent belief that individuals still possess the power to make that little difference that will one day become a part of the critical mass required to change this society and change it fundamentally.

4. Do you have plans of expansion outlined for your idea or project?

Expansion is a big word for the small acts we do. When I think in terms of expansion, I think about mainstream awareness about this kind of work. Every time I return back to India, I feel the phase at which the country is heading towards its intellectual death has been hastened. We have become a celebrity hungry society tuned only to the stories of rich and famous. We have become characters in soap opera in search of an author. Series of reality shows with “celebrities” shaking their legs to the latest bollywood number has become the nations pre-occupation. Urban India with its increasing disposable income has become deaf and indifferent to the stories of the “other” India and the underdogs of this world. If these stories do surface from time to time they become marketable commodity in a culture of sensationalism. True voices become buried and often do not have a platform. In this context Lines of Grey is a form of social documentary through the eyes of the “others”.

For instance, imagine giving cameras to the kids from various fishermen villages affected by the Tsunami. Imagine the powerful images these children would harvest from their reality. Their images have the power of self. If there is an expansion, that expansion to me is not kick starting more projects all over India and other parts of the world. But merely getting enough people interested to look and maybe think.

5. Have you noticed any change in lives of kids over last many months?

I wish I could say with brimming confidence that “yes I have”. But the harsh reality is not so. This project hasn’t altered their life drastically. But I can vouch for the happiness and joy that I witness every time I handed over the camera. I remember the immense pride, I felt when I saw the first set of pictures when it was developed. How they reacted when they saw their pictures. But these are not tangible and I am very aware of that. Inheritances of fond memories cannot be converted to currency. But they are nonetheless inheritance everyone should have a stake in and I can but only hope that LOG is contributing towards this in some measure.

On the more pragmatic side, in the great Indian art of self justification, I often tell my self the project just got over. When the website is done, when the exhibitions happen things will be different.

Here are few websites that provide images and information about Suchitra and Lines of Grey:

Thursday, October 18, 2007

The Rainmakers by Clark C. Spence

The Rainmakers by Clark C. Spence is a delightful read about the history of rainmaking in America. It is based on true stories from the days when charlatans and quacks, for profit or science, promised to cause rain at whim. There is whiff of science, but mostly this is a tale of deception. Grand claims, backed by coincidences made some people appear as successful rainmakers. Most ran out of luck, and vanished into obscurity after being in thick of action from weeks to years.

The newspaper reports mentioned in the book as well as the description of the tricks employed and the sales pitch adopted by Rainmakers are funny for a modern reader. Yet only a hundred years ago, there were farmers and senators, scientists and laymen in Kansas as well as Los Angeles who were being duped by tall claims for methods to make rain and remarkable coincidences which helped Rainmakers. Seen in the light of hoaxes practices and the amount of money scammed, the first artificial rain seems like a more momentous achievement than we credit it as.

Atmospheric science has made most progress in last hundred years and has been instrumental in last two hundred years for inspiring studies about a large number of interesting physics issues that involved great men like Clausius, Stokes, Langmuir, Aitken, Coulier, Rayleigh, Huygens, Newton, Einstein, and so on. Yet the history of rainmakers resembles the history of miracle curers and healers who have provided for hope in desperation and for rain or cure to people where natural course of events was going to end a drought or disease. History of Theories of Rain by Middleton on the other hand is more of a scientific history and a great read. The texts Cloud in a glass of beer by Bohren, and A short course in Cloud Physics by Rogers and Yau could be good resources for reading about our current understanding of rainfall. But when it comes to reading about deceit, conceit and deceptions, Rainmakers by Spencer is entertaining in its own right. The science part is minimal, so it can be read by anyone and everyone, as a history of how easily men are led to believe in miracles when they are faced with a difficulty.

While these tales seem fictional and funny now, it was only a few generations back that people wanted to fly pointed balloons, or use fuming fluid placed in close labs, or chimneys that released steam or charged carrying sand air-dropped into clouds to cause rain. To celebrate the geniuses of the day, requires us to know the other end of the spectrum, and this book manages to do it with tongue in cheek humor.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Ganesha Goes to Lunch (Classics from Mystic India) by Kamla K. Kapur

Ganesha Goes to Lunch by Kamla K. Kapur is a collection of twenty four stories drawn from the oral tradition of mythical tales in India. The stories are retold in contemporary language, and maintain the essential structure and characteristics of the folklores. Kamla's choice of stories ranges from tales about why Ganesha has elephant's trunk, to the marriage of Shiv-Parvati to the creation of Brahma and universe. The story of the friendship of Sudama and Krishna is retold as is the tale of Vishwamitra-Vashisht rivalry.

The Bharatiya (Indian) tradition thrives on stories passed on from generation to generation. Each generation adds its own experience to knowledge and reinterprets the understanding passed to them. The Hindu myths by their very nature don't have absolutes. They represent Gods or men trapped in their vices, roused or limited by their virtues, acting in response to the demands that existence as humans on earth demands from us. The attempt is to create examples as prototypes to deal with contradictions and complexities that daily strife, be it in war, peace, family matters, need, greed, valor, and amorous desires lead us to. This had lead to several epics about avataars or incarnations, and as humans Gods lead exemplary lives, faulting at times, and suffering for them. In Kamla's collection, the gems from the boundless sea of folklore are picked, polished and repackaged to lure Western audiences as well as those Indian readers who have learned most from English education and English Literature.

The book has a number of pictures and illustrations, which allow a non-Indian reader to visualize the God or character in question. We Indians grow up with these tales, and somehow we imbibe their lessons into our being without realizing when or how. The modern age has brought a slew of stories and media into our household, and in these times, it is easy to be overwhelmed by the shallow characterizations and sensationalist serials. The demands of materialistic modern life, makes it even more important for us to connect to the spiritual wisdom of centuries, the philosophy both rich and humbling is present in highly entertaining form in these stories. Kamla Kapur's effort is commendable in both the spirit and the style of execution.

While most of these stories can be read out to children, a few characterizations are little more sensual than I would have hoped for. The discussion about Shiva and Shakti, the male and female powers, is done quite boldly, whereas my encounters with these stories as a child were in an understatement, and in euphemisms. Perhaps the retelling must respond to the contemporary world, where the Victorian writing, the euphemisms are considered trite and cliched. The tale from Ramayana, incorrectly mentions that Hanuman brought Sanjivini (or the hill with that herb on it) for reviving Ram (I am certain that it was needed for Laxman). Aside from these quips, most of the stories are brief and well written, and will form a good reading for people of all ages.

Myths by their very nature appeal to the heroic, and the virtuous elements of our being. Kamla's rendition ensures that the heroic and mystic elements are distilled into a reader's consciousness. The simplicity of language, the delightful imagery, the translation as if of whole oral tradition of myths into this eclectic collection speaks volumes about Kamla's craftsmanship and reverence for these tales. While the tales are derived from Hindu myths, the structure, the impact, the ideals, the virtues they inspire transcend time, space and religion. I enjoyed these, and so I hope you will too.


Too hot to handle (Short Story)

What she lacked in looks, she supplied with her taste. Bold like a mushroom growing on a garden track, she called for attention at places where none of her kind could venture. Spilling skin like cracked shells of peanut, she sashayed through the malls, the local trains and poorest sections of the city. Her boots cover more legs than her skirts. Her shirts tested the bulging ability of eyes that followed her like dogs wagging tongues and tails. She was protected by her own wantonness. Her beauty was not of a well-designed nose or a nicely chiseled body. It was something else, indefinite like her promises, unexplained like her smile.

When I first failed her, I was twenty year old confused intellectual. Raised to conservatism, that valued books over looks, veil over skin, meekness over boldness. She was like a thorn on a stem, and I, who valued no roses, was disturbed by the red drop that came out of my flesh. She made the room around her shrink, such that bodies whispered around her, dancing to her voice, steps around her fell into a rhythm where she was the centerpiece, the piano in the sonata of sensations that unfolded in the drumbeat hearts of the dancers who were numbed by their free fall around her perfume that was an aphrodisiac. I was a twenty year old confused self, who felt that the sensations grip me like a vice, and in stead of feeling exhilarated, I felt choked. The commotion in my mind cursed her as a witch, for wasn't it her witchcraft that was rapturing the crowd with a touch, without a lick, without a whisper?

Five years later, I was in a strange city, traveling in my designer suit, packaged to please the buyers and sellers, as I represented my company that overpaid me for my craft. My craft was in my words that pleased the men like a balm on their tired backs, and touched the women like wind on their necks. My craft was in talking through wit and nuance, unfolding in them a curiosity for what our company was to offer, and leading them into a decisive yes, mainly by intonation of my voice, the demeanour of my hands and body, always inviting and promising control, release and future. I was the cupid sales director as my co-workers called me, and my University of Chicago MBA found me inside doors that businessmen dare not enter.

In an evening party, dressed in a dazzling evening gown, she sauntered down the stairs,. I watched her drift into the consciousness of the crowd, with a smile in their eyes, hum of approval on their lips. As an aftertaste, she had fashioned into a respectability that glided with her; her husband, proud and powerful, carried her like a trophy, displaying his joy like a guild of gold. Years ago, she was a sonata, and now her personality oozed as if a melody from the flute of Himalayan tribals, so unadulterated in its rendering, flowing like a hill stream, surging force at a pace that makes your heartbeat hear itself trickle into peaceful delight.

This was the second time I failed her, for what I just said is what I understood after the night was over. Her entry into the room trembled like a memory that is not easy to shake off, and roused my five years of want into a pledge of making her some kind of offer. I was still in the spell that a twenty year old boy made appear even more surreal. Her picture to me was of the vice I wanted in my veins and all my recent successes made me even more tempted and assured and hungry. I approached her with a pride in my shoes, flash in my tie-pin, and gurgled my words before saying, "Hello." Her recognizing me made me hope. I splurged compliments, laden with metaphor and meaning. Her cheeks reddened, a color that encouraged me further, and then suddenly, her words, "Are you in your senses? Go home. You are drunk!" fell like a hammer on a glass-box, shattering the protected toy house shrine I had built for her.

It was only a chance that I went alone to the symphony. In ten years after that party, I had evolved from a world of pleasure to that of luxury. My pride has become a fine representation of my class, my words were now folded and pocketed like an advice from an expert and my social position made me watchful of my every sigh or smile at a body or a voice. My personal space was shared with a pretty wife and two kids. The two year old and five year old hunted from my back, told me their own stories so rich in dialogue, so flourishing in detail and yet words that came out like blossoms in the wild, standing up for their own pleasure and perhaps my own. It was only a chance that my wife was not accompanying me. And she, she of my youthful fancy and failings, was present, draped in a black, lace shawl. I saw her first, in a row behind me, as I sat down, to hear Pavarotti slam his youthful voice out of his decaying body, till music of eternity silenced every breath and movement.

Yet here I was sitting rather unsymmetrically, with a hand over my face, and my face eyeing her changed self. The music had faded into a drab hum, only her profile was ebbing and echoing. Like painting made softer over time, like childhood memories made more delightful by the effect of nostalgia, like a completed poem or picture or symphony, she sat there, ever so beautiful in her own distinguished way. The face lacked what it lacked fifteen years ago, the forms were still common, and yet like always, she carried an attraction for me, and maybe it was always so, maybe it was always for me that she carried an attraction so vigorous, and violent, that I was ready to risk my smile and sigh for her.

We talked of her deceased husband and my lovely wife in the intermission. The third time I failed her, was perhaps my last, was that day as she offered to meet me for dinner and tell me her story. I cited a promise I hadn't made to the kids to keep me away. A curiousity flashed like a momentary flinch at her brow, and a smile rushed to conceal it. She bid me farewell, leaving me gaping after her. She left with words, "A dinner with your wife and kids would have served for a lovely introduction."

Saturday, October 13, 2007

A Day in Spring by Ciril Kosmač

A Day in Spring is beautifully narrated tale by Ciril Kosmač, a Slovene poet, author. The book that first appeared in 1953 is a terse account of nostalgia and life of a writer who returns to his homeland after spending fifteen years away at wars. The story progresses through reminisces the writer has about his childhood. It yields, in a poignant and heartwarming detail, the development of narrator's personality through the two world wars in the backdrop. Essential to the story is the character of Kadetka, who the writer remembers lovingly as a child embedded with his nostalgia. His Auntie narrates some bits of the novel, and the contrast between the voices reveals what difference in insights experience, age, travel and education brings to us.

Several parallel tracks come together in this mature and modern novel. The affair of a Slovene girl with a Czech soldier, and years later another affair of her daughter with Italian soldier bring out the complexities and absurdities of war out in a very taut novel. The writer reveals his love for the mountainous country, the river Idrica and his people through descriptions that are lyrical and border on poetry. The personalities of the characters in the novel are revealed mostly through events, and the dialogues are kept to minimum. There are occasions in the novel when the reader feels sheer joy or compassion or love and in creating these occasions nearly a dozen times through the novel, Ciril Kosmač manages to arouse my whole hearted admiration, applause and appreciation. It was indeed a pleasant surprise to find this 169 page novel to be so aesthetically pleasing and rich in imagery and experience.

I have to quote the following extract from the book, for I think if it was relevant to Yugoslavians in 1950s, it is even more relevant to young nation of Slovenia now. It must be remarked that Slovenia is young nation in Eastern Alps, with population of two million. It is located close to Italy and Austria, and in the World War II, was the arena where partisans fought against Germans and Italians. Here is the quote, that is both a homage to his country and in some respect to his own terse novel:

"Yes,it seems to me that we small nations love our land more dearly than great ones do, or at least in a manner different from theirs. Our native land is small, and as we cannot sing of its greatness, we celebrate and sing of the details which are full of beauty. Because beauty is like truth. Truth does not require bulky tomes to make herself plain, nor does Beauty need a wide, boundless space wherein to unfold herself, to thrive and blossom. Let Expanse thunder forth its mighty song, true Beauty grows in silence. We know our country as we know our mother's face. Her lines and wrinkles are familiar to us, her expressions of joy and happiness, her furrows of grief and anxiety. We are always aware of the clasp of her hands, rough as a peasant's but kindly and warm; we cling to her and have defended her for a thousand years, often with simple means, yea, often with bare hands, but with success - because the chief sponsor of our victory is impassionate love, which does not calculate and therefore does not yield, even when faced with overwhelming odds."

(PS: I thank my friend Matija for this gift, which I enjoyed even more than Alamut, other novel translated from Slovene language, that I read last year.)

Monday, October 08, 2007

Googlies: India beat Australia; Dhoni leads from the front; Randomspeak

India kept her nerve, and won by eight runs. This headline is enough for certain people. It shuts them down, and it lets you start your day with happy relief of having watched a tense and thrilling encounter, and reached the triumph in style. The drama is in the detail. Tendulkar, for example, batted either circumspectly, (we can say that in retrospect), or maybe batted in fear of losing his spot at the top order. So did Ganguly maybe, for he is thrown of out equation quite easily these days. Twelve half-centuries in this year, and string of good batting have kept Ganguly at crease, against all odds. To have Tendulkar on the other end, and to see him play a dot ball after dot ball, meant that the onus of scoring fell on Ganguly. He perished attempting a slog shot, but he had ensured by then that India had their first good start of the series. Even in the match where rain saved us, we had lost Tendulkar's wicket within the three overs that Australia bowled.

The approach was full of grit, patience and focus. When you see Tendulkar (and to some extent Ganguly) fight like that, you must praise the quality of bowling. But I write Googlies, and they turn into corners where they are not expected. So today when Tendulkar batted with that grit, the question that really bothered me was, till when my friend, till when? Like in most dramatic movies, the demise of better looking guy, or departure of the more obedient son, brings the other hero to stage, it was Ganguly's dismissal that helped Tendulkar realize that a batsman at crease is a mortal. He started showing signs of actually knowing where the ball is coming from, and where it is going, and piled on runs. Ganguly silenced his critics, and so did Tendulkar, and India won in the end. But the next ten matches will be perhaps best in terms of how Saurav and Sachin bat. They have the caliber, experience and skill to dictate terms and of course, filling their shoes is still a hard task. But till when my friend, till when?

Gambhir, in spite of his scores in Twenty20 and Sehwag, in spite of his occasional brilliance are the horses that I won't buy for a long haul. Dinesh Kartik has been good, but the bullock cart of Indian team requires a pair to pull it. Could Mr. Parthiv Patel, the man of 22, who has scored five consecutive centuries (four as part of India A team, and most recent 179 fighting knock in Iranian trophy) be that buddy? As a batsman, Patel should make the cut, given his string of scores. The baby boy has grown up, bats much better and like Kartik and Dhoni, can be in the team just on merit of his batting. Another friend who must return is Manoj Tiwari, the little dada from Bengal, who helped himself to another important knock of 130 in the Iranian trophy. Last time he was included in the team, an injury forced him out. His return is imminent, given how well he bats and how heavily he scores in all the important matches. But if he returns, who shall be replaced?

Dravid did not get the time to redeem himself today. He would have loved to blast off a few more fours, but he was trying to play to the galleries. Playing to galleries gets you roars of laughter and claps for sure, but if that is your criteria for success, then you are headed to doom. A great artist thrives not on the instant roar of laughter, but on a memory that his performances stamp on memories of those watching. Dravid is great for batting with a correctness that is hard to emulate, and pretty to watch. This requires patience, waiting for right balls before scything them, slices at cute angles and wrists of supple nature. For the moment, by giving up captaincy he has increased rather than reduce the pressure on himself, and I hope he will get out of the shell soon. We definitely will need his best form for Tests, but we will like to see our third God to battle and win as well.

The stars of the day were the young guns. Yuvraj had certainly become a commodity after Twenty20 World Cup. Batting at the home ground, he made boundaries look so easy. I realized how symbolic that display was. Ganguly, a left hander is replaced by another lefty in Yuvraj. Then even though Tendulkar is batting on the other end, everyone is expecting everything from Yuvraj and he looked more in control than his senior partner. When Uthappa walked in to replace Dravid, I had a similar relief, and I argued with myself for behaving like that. Yet both Dhoni, the new captain, and Uthappa only confirmed why my subconscious self thought of being pleased with their presence. Uthappa was brilliant once again, hitting a string of much needed fours. He just walks out of the crease like Hayden, and dumps the ball out of the boundary. Dhoni led from the front, with brilliant innings and a six on last ball to get his half century and then superb fielding to top it off. This was his first win as Captain, and it came with a Man of Match worth performance from him.

Lastly, India bowled well in last ten overs to achieve an unlikely victory. When India had 187/2 after 39 overs, predicting a final 291 seemed unreasonable, for the best bowlers of the innings had some overs left with them. When Australia were 190/4 only after 34 overs, Australian victory seemed likely. The opening spells of Indian bowlers had got them hammered and the situation was saved only by some good spin bowling. But again RP Singh bowled a remarkable 47th over to turn the tide in India's favor, and we won. The script, as I wrote it, doesn't do even a whit of justice to the bowlers, who put up a more improved performance than last four times. Hopefully they will bowl even better in the next match, and we will get to sing their praise.

Cheers and beers till then.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Janki and Mansoor (Chapter 5)

(Suryakanth Tripathi)

When I went to Mr Agrawal's house the first time, the pretext was Satyanarayan Pooja. But I am a policeman and I take nothing at face value. It was true back then and it is true now. The twenty years have helped me to get better view of faces behind masks and masks behind faces. So when I accepted the invitation, I expected at least a thousand or two as "gift".

I was twenty-six then, and had been married for a year. My lugai, I mean wife, was lodged in Barabanki with my parents and three younger sisters. We had a small piece of land, and my father toiled on it for the fun of it. You see, unlike rest of the village, he wanted the land to grow wheat. How can you grow wheat on a land that is fit for weed? By weed I mean the Weed that sells like gold, ounce by ounce. The Weed could feed more people from one crop, one small holding of land, than the whole twenty years of my childhood wheat was able to.

I don't blame the man. He was an ex-armyman turned into a school teacher. Imagine my childhood: tyranny of school teachers combined with discipline of an armyman! When he was away, his father, my toothless grandpa, ruled with a nicely oiled lathi, a walking stick that was a constant enemy of my bones. When father returned, the walking stick battering was replaced by spanking by his footwear. The Rexona bathroom slippers, made from soft rubber, were considered unacceptable by him. My father's logic was a little cuckoo, I think. He used these leather chappals (floaters for you loafers who don't know colloquial Hindi) with soles made of discarded tire rubber. I loved the beating, for it always inspired my mother to cook delicacies for all of us. Ma was not allowed to speak in front of grandpa or my father, and her only weapon to encourage war or truce was her food.

Talking of my father; he was just idealist who grew up believing that India will turn into a land that Mahatma Gandhi aspired and toiled for. Such was his deception, that like many other in my nation, for decades they voted for Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi, thinking somehow they were related to Gandhiji. Nehru's daughter and grandson, and yet related to Gandhi. "Only a Gandhi could realize the Gandhi's dream" was their logic. It was only when few of villagers were forced into getting their "manhood out", or "nasbandi" or vasectomy done, that they started investigating Sanjay and Indira Gandhi's claim to their votes and the Gandhi connection. To their horror, they found that the real grandsons were elsewhere. To their horror, they discovered that their decades of voting was siphoned to the wrong family. But Indira's timely death allowed her son Rajiv to come to power. I always blamed the Indira-Nehru-Rajiv-Sonia for taking away the sheen of Mahatma Gandhi. My father, the idealist, always blamed me in stead. I always wanted to tell him, that he thinks too highly of me, but the sound of approaching leather chappals always quietened my tongue.

I guess I did learn a few things from my father and grandfather, and one of them was watch your back. They had served in army, fought Pakistanis and survived many a battles. The key, my grandpa, would tell me was to stay out of the direct line of fire. "There is a little difference between foolhardiness and bravery. Bravery lies in triumphing over the enemy in spite of your shortcomings. Foolhardiness lies in standing up when someone has just loaded a gun, and wants a body for a target. Cover your tracks. Have a back-up escape route. Always keep your seniors happy, and obey them, at least make them believe that you are sticking to their orders." Anyway, their long drawn lectures bored me as much as the few lectures I attended at the Lucknow University did. I got a Bachelor in Arts in Hindi Literature. Like everyone, I suspended my idealism, and bought exam papers in advance. Each paper was available for hundred bucks, and being a teacher's son, I had a knack for memorizing the right information. So I passed my degree with distinction.

I worked quite hard for the Allied Services and State Services examinations. I am not the brightest, but I guess I was one of the few in Uttar Pradesh who actually knew what they had studied in school. See if you can pass year after year through cheating, copying from the books as the teachers look elsewhere while you do so, and if you can buy your way through to even Master degree, why would you know anything? When you knew that it is not the knowledge but buying power that determines your career in government service, why would you know anything? If your teachers were chosen by a method where fake degrees bought at Dehradoon or from Bundelkhand or Jharkand were considered acceptable, and hence they knew nothing themselves, why would you know anything?

Leather chappals forced me to actually know what I read. Yet even though I did well to get an interview call, I never got the job. There were five committee members, and each expected a hundred thousand rupees. Another half a million was supposed to be shared by the Home Minister and the Home Secretary, for their final signatures sealed the deal. My father had his idealism and three daughters. I was quite frustrated for months and then an unexpected prospect sealed the deal. I got a marriage proposal, and my father-in-law got me a policeman's garb in Delhi as dowry. Of course, my father was made to believe that I married without any, and a policeman's job was not his idea of serving the nation. But he accepted. Likewise, the need to have enough money to marry three daughter's allowed him to accept all the money I earned from the likes of Mr. Agrawal.

Mr. Agrawal had a past which I had dug out before I went to the Pooja. He was suspended from the job of a Junior Engineer (JE) in Haryana. He was said to demand exorbitant sums for simple tasks. His idea was to do this as long as possible and pack bags and become a contractor once he had required sum. The police raid which led to his suspension was orchestrated by a powerful contractor who believed that greed is a friendly vice, as long as its manageable. Mr. Agrawal used all his connections to revoke his suspension, and be cleared of all charges. The contractor was a man of business, who had no intention of punishing Mr. Agrawal. As long as there was a JE who did his bidding, he cared not for who the JE was. Mr. Agrawal, though, resigned from his job with some fanfare; announcing that after the mistreatment given to him by his department, he could no longer serve without bitterness. Perhaps it was the lessons learnt as a JE, that really helped him to get government concessions and contracts to build a formidable fortune in a matter of few years.

We were seven Brahmins at the Pooja. Each chosen with a future blessing in mind. Each was given a white silk dhoti, a Kullu wool shawl and a thousand and one rupees at the Pooja. The extra one is considered shubh, i.e. makes the gift sacrosanct. This was done in the public view and we were told that there was a box of sweets for each one of us. We all knew what a box of sweets meant, and were grateful for the generosity shown by him. He knew how people disliked a fresh bundle of notes with a continuous series of numbers printed on them. If you want to trap someone, all you need to do is inform police in advance, note the number series in presence of a Vigilance officer, and later have that number series show up at the house of the guy you wish to be indicted for taking bribery. Mr. Agrawal had been indicted likewise. So he had made bundles from random series, and when we opened the boxes and checked, we all agreed that Mr. Agrawal had a bright future.

We all imagined the bundle to have hundred notes of hundred each, but I marvel at that businessman's brain. He stapled only ninety notes together, so that everyone got exactly ten-thousand and one rupees. What else should have I expected from an Agrawal?

(to be continued...)

Previous chapters found here

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Clouds in a Glass of Beer: Simple Experiments in Atmospheric Physics by Craig F. Bohren

Craig F. Bohren writes science books with a delight that is infectious. There are few books like this where science and education are turned into an entertaining commentary. Bohren shows us that the things we see normally, in our day to day life, contain the science truths which can be used to teach concepts, useful for understanding and solving more complex problems.

The book is an amazing survey of simple experiments that can be done to understand the concepts relevant to the cloud physics and atmospheric phenomena. A fascinating introduction to formation of clouds, including role of salt particles in nucleation, relies on carefully observing the bubbles formed in a glass of beer. Surface tension is introduced by example of dew formed on bath mirror. Concepts related to evaporative cooling or mixing clouds or relative humidity, come with a baggage of simple experiments that debunk scientific myths and illustrate essential physics. A textbook on Atmospheric Thermodynamics, published by the same author, is an entertaining and more course friendly account of the same ideas. The science of clouds by Tricker is an equally delightful text on classroom demonstrations and cloud physics inherent in simple observations.

Bohren tackles many concepts of light scattering which are quite difficult to grasp initially or say teach to young students, in a brilliant series of examples about what we observe in our daily life. Be it a discussion about "blue moon" or colors of sea or rainbows, Bohren takes the essential ideas and expresses them with his characteristic wit and brilliance. He supplies you with a tangible set of experiments to illustrate the concepts further. Bohren's treatise on Absorption and Scattering of Light by Small Particles (coauthored with Huffman) is most definitely the resource for looking at detailed physics and mathematics associated with scattering. The classic text by van de Hulst "Light Scattering by Small Particles" is a useful supplement for those interested in theory of small particle scattering.

Bohren has written another book titled: "What Light through Yonder Window Breaks" with some more hand-on experiments about Atmospheric Physics. "Clouds in the Glass of Beer" and its sequel are two books that every atmospheric physics student must read and own. The books are throughly enjoyable for anyone even remotely interested in everyday science. No equations involved! No education beyond high school required! Only for fun loving scientists, who believe that true understanding comes when a difficult concept can be explained by simple analogies and in simple language. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

A Stranger in the Land: Jewish Identity Beyond Nationalism by Daniel Cil Brecher

In A Stranger in the Land, Daniel Cil Brecher creates an engaging narrative about the Israeli Nationalism. As a Jew who grew up in Germany and as a historian who worked in Israel, Brecher came face to face with anti-Semitism in Germany and chauvinistic nationalism in Israel. By incorporating personal experiences and contexts from Middle East conflict, he supplies an account that is at once personalized and representative of biases, prejudices and myths that Israelis have build to rationalize their relationship with Arabs and Arab States.

The justification of certain excesses committed by the Israel state rests on their own victimization during holocaust. Brecher identifies the rational and irrational arguments advanced through propaganda and myths to portray Jews as being driven into conflict after conflict in Middle East. He examines the choices made by various Jewish leaders in past hundred years, be it armed conflicts in Palestine, Syria or Lebanon, or acquisition of land, and details the contexts by which every choice was justified, defended and is celebrated in retrospect. As a historian, he found access to sources and facts that he uses to serve us an analysis which captures difficult human contradictions, epitomized in Middle East conflict.

Israel is a relatively young, but powerful nation. By merely existing in a land bought, annexed, captured or taken away from Arabs who lived there for centuries, as a nation, Israel has been a defiant, unwelcome neighbor for most Arab nations that surround it. Israel presents itself as a territory battered by terrorists and hostilities from all sides. In Brecher's view, the hostilities are fed by Israeli ultranationalism, and the need or greed to carve out a Jewish state in spite of gross human cost involved. By emphasizing their claim to land as just and as ordained by religious edicts and Western support, the Israelis are able to treat the claims of Arabs or Palestinians as secondary and unreasonable. The whole education system, employment, businesses, media, government and daily life of an Israeli promotes this nationalism. Holocaust looms as a grey background which sanctions splashing of the non-Jewish blood for the protection of a Jewish state and the Jewish identity. Yet and here Brecher's presentation stimulates the question that Arabs have asked for decades: Why should Palestinians or Arabs be punished for the excesses that were committed by Chirstians or Nazis in Europe?

Of course, the Middle East conflict is fed by armed and political struggle or unrest kept alive by Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), Hamas, Hezbollah and various other radical Muslim outfits. In this war, every side has its share of bitterness and bad blood. Revenge drives some, religion motivates others and for some, it is a simple question of seeking a homeland. The idea of attracting the world attention to Palestinian issue by making loudest noises (bombs) or through dramatic episodes (hijacks) seem to have originated by political climate where Jews hold the cards. The approach has repeatedly resulted in severe backlashes and have in fact helped Israel market their side of the story, which portrays such acts as terrorist acts. Sometimes the backlashes have been evoked to articulate the Palestinian situation of a weak victim being trounced by the strong Israeli military. While Arab nations buy the Palestinian version of story, the same story sells in US and UK and Israel as struggle of a tiny nation against a strong neighborhood of terrorist states. Injustice is considered as the attribute of enemy by both sides, and of course both sides need to step back and consider if bloodbath can ever resolve this vicious circle of hate.

Brecher, in his remarkable analysis, also portrays the complexities inherent in the Israelis. The contrast between the original, pre-world war settlers and those driven to the land by Nazism or Hilter; people of the Eastern European vs Western European origin; the conservatives and liberals; the agricultural and industrial citizens & between the natural born and naturalized citizens is brought out by the book. In the quest for a common identity, and a nation, Israelis have relied on religion as much as they have relied on creation of common myths, fears, memoirs (of holocaust), and perhaps the conflict binds the diverse groups within the country much better than any other attribute could.

Likewise, the Palestinians are torn between the radical elements and peaceful protesters. The escape route to Jews or Muslim in Middle East is to emigrate to US or Europe, and both communities discourage it by showing an aversion to materialism or profit-intensive capitalism. Again in exercising that option, a Jew is more welcome than an Arab. Be it per capita income or land holdings or education or propaganda, the Jews are at much more advantageous position, and while this feeds the ego of an Israeli, it also accentuates the bitterness of a Palestinian.

I recommend this book as an essential reading for anyone vaguely interested in understanding the genesis and complexity of Middle East conflict. By looking at Jewish identity beyond the nationalism of the state of Israel, Brecher provides a perspective which seems less biased than most Jewish takes on Middle East conflict. His book is critical of Jews as much as it is critical of the Palestinians involved in the conflict. Just playing the blame game can never end this conflict. The attempt to compile the intricacies of the problem usually reveals how problem can be solved. Brecher manages to supply us with a narrative that gets us to sit down and mull over details. The book has value as both as a memoir and a history text, and above all, as a script of contradictions that present themselves when we look at our beliefs about our nation, religion and past.

Bitter Sweets by Roopa Farooki

Bitter Sweets by Roopa Farooki is an easy read. You can take it on a few hours flight and read it from cover to cover. It is a story of deception, adultery, extra-marital affairs, and influences these have on the life of three generations of people.

An ignorant, not-so-rich Bangladeshi Henna is married to rich Culcutta bred, England educated Rashid by deception. He ends up with a thirteen year old wife who he took for a seventeen year old. Years later Rashid as well as his daughter Shona come to discover love outside their respective marriages. This creates a web of lies which is crafted nicely, and captures reader's attention. Rashid meets his soulmate in a British woman, while Shona finds courage to leave her Pakistani husband and seek solace in the arms of an Irish man. In third generation, sons of Shona have to deal with their own identity as UK born desis, and also with their unconventional career choices and sexual preferences.

Bitter Sweets turns out to be one of the novels that have only "once read value." While the book description (back cover) seeks to put Roopa on same pedestal as Jhumpa Lahiri and Arundhati Roy, the contents are quite lacking in caliber or quality of prose that the more famous counterparts have received accolades for. Bitter Sweets can be compared to Six Point Someone, or Inscrutable Americans, but Roopa Farooki adds so much melodrama here that it will not match the expectation of humor then. Perhaps one should just read the book for its contrived story, with various twists and turns. In the land of soap operas, the book contains enough bitter and sweet ingredients to become a popular read.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Googlies: Australia stun India. Love and betrayal of the Rain Gods!

Australia shot a blot from the blue and defeated India by 84 runs. It came as a surprise, for we were convinced that we have dented their confidence beyond measure. What really hurts is the fact that in spite of much speculation and promise, there was no rain this time. India have had made a pact with Indra, the rain God. In England, the first test match was slipping away fast, when Indra came to our rescue. Indra, the king of Gods, the God of thunder and rain, was awaken from years of inertia to resume his duties as a crucial influence on the wars and battles on earth. The thing closest to a sword was a cricket bat, and the amount involved betting (satta) was so immense, that he realized that this must be a battlefield. Like always, Indra works for his own profit first, and I guess Australian bookies paid him a bigger amount to keep the rain away.

They said, "Rain, rain go away, little johnny wants to play." In his heydays, Indra would send rain or lightning at crucial moments to alter the course of war. Even Homer had heard about Indra and invoked his influence in the Illiad. Australians were not even born then. I mean the blokes are from a young country, which is actually only twice or three times the age of my great-grandfather (who has scored his version of a century). Australians are from such a young country that they neither know the role of Gods or rituals, nor hero worship and promise of superstition. That is why we have found it hard to beat them. We have to appease all kinds of Gods first. Then we need to take care of superstitions, like which bat to use on what surface. Then comes the actual ground, where we need to display glamor and ensure that the products we market sell well. Cricket is a stepping stone to something else. Like Sangeeta Bijlani. Like ICL. Like Movie or Advertising Career. Like a role in some saas-bahu melodrama serial.

The season of one day cricket has just begin. I was able to sleep for mandatory five hours after watching first hour of play and wake up in time for seeing the last hour of Indian batting. Had I been awake all night, I would have screamed and cursed. Thankfully cricket has reverted to its old form. Someone said, Twenty20 matches are the length of a Bollywood flick. I agree. One day match is the length of Bollywood movie like Kabhi Kushi Kabhi Gum with a million advertisements, (as shown on TV, specially formatted for small screen). When you limit the screen size, (space), the length of the movie (time) expands (ask Heisenberg for explanation).

The long and the short of the story is: In both matches, Australia showed us that Indian bowlers are only as effective as the pitches allow them to be. Clarke, Hayden, Haddin, Saymonds, Hodge are names that will soon arouse the same terror as their predecessors. Tendulkar, (Ganguly) and Dravid will need to stand-up and deliver, while Gambhir, Yuvraj and Uthappa need to stay on crease for longer than usual. We won in the Twenty20 because the team fought together, tooth and nail, till the very last ball of each match. This time, the whole team was bundled out before fifty overs were bowled. Come on guys! Forget the rain of prize money that was yours only a week ago. Our memory is fickle, and the same masses, the same public will rebel and cry for your blood if you don't show us the fighting spirit we have started to expect from you. It is just the beginning: go redeem yourself in the next match.