Bandra is Deconstructing Human Courtship

Last month, good friend Supriya tweeted:

She followed it up this month with:

I think this is indicative of a larger and more significant trend. Bandra is reinventing romcoms, but in reverse, and for yourself.

See, humans have always been masturbating, which is having sex with yourself. Considering that monkeys and chimpanzees also masturbate, maybe this goes back to our common ancestral primate. But the point is that having sex with yourself came first.

In the last few years, we have had the self-esteem and self-love movements, which encourage you to love yourself, not just have empty and meaningless sex with yourself. So now when it comes to ourselves, we have both sex and love.

But jumping straight into love is indicative that you are from a bad Bollywood movie, or possibly Bingo Little. Surely there should be some interaction and exploration of shared interests and attraction which leads up to love instead of just diving in and giving your heart away? And that is where Bandra Zumba classes come in: they encourage you to flirt with yourself by winking at yourself in the mirror. Bandra has essentially made self-love much easier by creating the important preliminary step of self-flirtation. Combined with other great inventions like Elco’s panipuri, the Pali Village Cafe sangria, and the Bandra East to Kurla skywalk, this will surely help Bandra in coming close to the standards of greatness set by Mumbai’s premiere neighbourhood, Mahim. But I digress.

In the future, Bandra will no doubt complete the deconstruction of the romantic comedy by somehow inventing a situation in which you accidentally encounter yourself thanks to a contrived coincidence. I urge the august members of the GRCA[footnote]Guys who love Romantic Comedies Anonymous, but also Gentlemen’s Romantic Comedy Association[/footnote] to keep a watch out for this happening.

Christmas Tree Whataboutery is the Stupidest Whataboutery

For the last few years, Delhi in Diwali seemed to be getting better and worse simultaneously. Better, because as the campaign against firecrackers in schools continued, and as the police started enforcing the midnight (was it 10 pm?) limit on bursting crackers, cracker use was dropping, and crackers themselves became less noisy. Worse, because despite dropping cracker use, Diwali getting more and more commercialised meant that traffic kept getting more nightmarish and costumes got more garish.

In the last two Diwalis, though, the shift away from crackers, which until now just had to overcome force of habit, ran up into sudden, vicious pushback of “How dare people tell us not to burn crackers! This is a threat to Hinduism!”

The idea that burning crackers is related to Hinduism on any level beyond sixty years of habit is stupid, but I won’t go into that right now.

The idea that Hinduism is under threat is even more stupid, but I won’t even go into that right now.

No, what I will write about in this post is one particular brand of whataboutery that is trotted out in dubious support of the original ‘threat to Hinduism’ argument. Because there are multiple whatabouteries which people are pushing in defence of crackers. Including:

  • If you love the environment so much, why don’t you stop using cars first?
  • If you love the environment so much, why don’t you stop using air conditioners first?
  • If you love the environment so much, why don’t you fix crop burning first?
  • Where’s your love for the environment when millions of goats are slaughtered on Eid, huh?
  • Where’s your love for the environment when thousands of Christmas trees are chopped down on Christmas?

All of these except the crop burning one have nothing to do with firecracker pollution. Cars and air conditioners are admittedly greenhouse gas emitters, but don’t directly fill the air with unburnt sulphur and toxic gases. Neither does goat slaugher, and nor does chopping down Christmas trees.

But the Christmas tree whataboutery is such a special kind of stupid that I will now devote the rest of the post to debunking it. In a vast universe of stupid statements, this manages to be simultaneously ordinarily stupid, and, Pratchett-character-like, so stupid that it goes around into the other side to be sensible.

First, the ordinary stupidity. Worldwide, Christmas trees are not chopped down from virgin forests, you idiots! They are cultivated on farms and fresh ones are planted every year. Christmas tree decoration is not causing deforestation or denudation. Meanwhile, while they are growing, they are happily acting as carbon sinks.

Does that mean that they are completely environmentally benign? Probably not, because wherever they were planted was once a diverse forest or grassland rather than a single-species plantation. To that extent, a Christmas tree farm is a bad idea. But then, so is every other intensive farm on the planet, including wheat, rice, and marigold and chrysanthemum.

And on to the bit where the argument is so stupid and wrong, that it turns into something that actually makes sense.

Accusing Indians of choppping down trees for Christmas is stupid because most Christmas trees sold in India are not Christmas trees at all, but metal or plastic rods with green plastic leaves. So no actual trees are getting chopped down.

Why the argument still makes sense at some level despite being so wrong is because all that plastic is ultimately coming from petroleum or wood pulp extraction. If it’s from wood pulp, again, it would in all likelihood be coming from a managed forest and not from denudation; and if it’s coming from petroleum, that’s your carbon footprint right there.

Fortunately, there is a very simple, and environmentally friendly way to have a Christmas tree in India that involves neither plastic trees nor cutting down a tree from a forest, nor cutting down a tree at a tree farm. It was advised to me by Nilanjana Roy last year: get a potted plant, decorate it for Christmas, and then look after it for the rest of the year. Your garden gets an extra plant, and your Christmas decorations look all that nicer. So that is just what I did last Christmas.

 

IMG_20161224_194913459

It was fantastic.

Punjab’s Resource Curse

A resource curse is when a place that has abundant supplies of natural resources (usually crude oil) ends up worse because of it. The concept explains, for example, why:

  • Saudi Arabia, which has so much crude oil, is nevertheless such a horrible place for human rights
  • The Democratic Republic of Congo, which is a supplier of all the rare minerals that go into our cellphones, is torn apart by civil war
  • Jharkhand and Chhatisgarh, which produce so much of India’s coal and iron ore, are miserably poor and underdeveloped compared to places which only buy up the power and steel products

Less extreme and gruesome examples of the resource curse include Dutch Disease, in which having lots of natural resource exports makes all your other industries less competitive. So even though the Netherlands didn’t descend into poverty or dictatorship after the discovery of natural gas, the rest of their economy suffered.

Although the Netherlands (and Norway!) managed to stay intact as democracies1, having lots of natural resources certainly does seem to make you more susceptible to dictatorship or authoritarianism, or at least make it harder to build democracy and the rule of law. This EconTalk episode, in which Leif Wenar talks about refusing to trade oil with dictatorial regimes is an interesting discussion on that. (For what it’s worth, I found it highly worth hearing, but it left me unconvinced because it didn’t really address the issue of oil and other commodities being very fungible in trade. But still very intriguing; and the bits about how to use resource revenues for the community or nation rather than to enrich dictators has interesting tie ins with the work of Elinor Ostrom2, which I am also reading these days.)

After hearing the episode and ruminating on it for a while, I had a moment of insight. That insight was this: Punjab has a resource curse too. The resource in question is fresh water.

My narrative goes something like this: for centuries, the five rivers (plus the Indus) in the Punjab made it a little more fertile than, say, the Ganga-Jamuna Doab or the Cauvery delta. But in the 1950s and 1960s, the Green Revolution was to Punjab what the invention of the oil well was to Texas or Arabia. The introduction of thirsty and productive hybrid varieties of wheat and rice meant that suddenly the abundant water resources, instead of being left to flow, were being rapidly converted into foodgrains3.

As irrigation, electrification and groundwater pumping stepped up, so did foodgrain production (though productivity eventually stagnated). Simultaneously, the slow decline of manufacturing began. And in the 1980s and 1990s, the freshwater resource curse became as bad in Punjab as the petroleum resource curse became for Arabian states, playing out in:

  • Khalistani separatism and terrorism
  • Police retaliation and brutality
  • The steady consolidation of the Badal family over the Shiromani Akali Dal

Meanwhile, as the state itself went bankrupt, and the power company even more so, manufacturing became practically unviable (being so far inland from a decent port doesn’t help either); and the drug abuse epidemic took off. And here Punjab is today, where manufacturing is unviable, agriculture itself is looking unsustainable after years of pumping groundwater and growing rice has left the soil waterlogged and unsuitable for cultivation, people across the state are drug addicts, and the best option for anybody with ambition is to migrate to Canada or Italy4. What a mess.

 

Saints, Transhumanists, and Death Eaters

In the past few years, my regular reading and podcast listening included:

And a few months ago, I realised that all these books and articles and episodes, which I had read as part of regular subscriptions, or unconnected curiosity, shared a common theme, and a theme, in fact that was linked to my reading from ten years ago: the Harry Potter series. That theme is the quest for immortality, and the pushback against it.

This will require a little bit of detail. Allow me to explain, because summing up will be inadequate. Let’s start with the Peter Brown book.

Reading The Cult of the Saints, you find out just how weird early Christianity was2. There were all sorts of different sects, any holy person could wander off and start his own, and, of course, there was the role the saints played after their lives.

According to The Cult of the Saints, the fact that Christianity made room for saints rather than just holy men was one of the things that helped it spread far and wide (even if with inconsistent practices), especially compared to Judaism. Judaism enjoined you to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, which was an onerous task in the ancient world. But with Christianity you could always go to the closest shrine of a saint.

What truly connects the early saints to everything else I mentioned, though, is what people believed about their lives and deaths. Which was this: that the saints weren’t as dead as ordinary people.

The gleaming white shrouds, the incense, the strict control of demonstrations of grief were a triumphal reminder of Christ’s triumph over “black death.”

The “shining way to Paradise” of Christian art and liturgy had in no way rendered translucent the facts of death for the average Mediterranean man.

Hence the emotional force that thrust the graves of the martyrs into prominence. Here, at least, were the graves of the very special dead. They had died in a special way; they lay in the grave in a special way; this fact was shown by the manner in which all that was most delightful and most alive in late-antique life could be though of as concentrated in their tombs and even (perhaps, as we shall see, particularly) in detached fragments of their dead bodies.

The late-antique cult of the martyrs represents, therefore, a consistent imaginative determination to block out the lurking presence, in the cemeteries of the Mediterranean world, of “black death.”

Their holiness meant that their remains didn’t decay3, and that their extant, non-decaying remains made their gravesites sources of powerful holiness that you could tap into to get your wishes fulfilled.

Peter Brown writes further that eventually – with the Protestant reformation and especially the Puritans – Christians came to look on death as natural and sweet grace, but this was very far from how Christianity had started out:

… the distance between early-modern Christian attitudes to death and those applied in late antiquity to the cult of the martyrs. The martyrs had triumphed over death; the iconography of the saints in late antiquity made no attempt to encompass “grim death” and “sweet grace” in one symbol. As Andre Grabar has written, “The imagery of a martyr’s relics is never in any case an imagery of the memento mori; rather it strives by all means in its power to proclaim the suppression of the fact of death.”

This was the first connection I drew: that the attitude of early Christians towards martyred saints was much like the admiration a Death Eater would feel towards Voldemort for managing to overcome death4.

I, who have gone further than anybody along the path that leads to immortality. You know my goal – to conquer death.

And it was the early modern Christians who took up a more Dumbledorish view of death:

And then he greeted Death as an old friend, and went with him gladly, and, equals, they departed this life.

Did the obsession with longevity or immortality transitioning into an acceptance of peaceful death happen only with Christianity? I haven’t read enough to say about, for example, Judiasm, Islam, or East Asian religions. But in India, Jainism talks about Tirthankaras having extraordinarily long lives; so a conflation of holiness and immortality is there too. And in Hinduism, where you find all sorts of contradictory statements depending on where you look, we have:

  • The claim that lifespan keeps dropping as we move from the Satyuga into the Kaliyuga; so that longevity is a desirable thing, but one that is associated not just with individual effort, but with the age and environment as a whole
  • As a counterpoint, we have the Mahabharata where Aswatthama is cursed with three thousand years of immortality; in which he will suffer all manners of disease and wounds; while also being isolated from any human contact – again, echoed by Voldemort’s shadow existence in the Harry Potter books.

suppose that the closest Greek myth comes to immortality and warning against it is the story of Orpheus trying to pull Eurydice out of the underworld and failing. But as I said, I’ve not read enough.

Let’s move on now to Hannu Rajaniemi’s trilogy. Because of his simultaneously admirable and frustrating way of never spelling things out so that you, the reader, have to do a lot of the work, it took me some Googling and Wikipedia reading to realise that the Jean le Flambeur trilogy is set in a world that took the ideas of early twentieth century Russian cosmists and set about making them real:

Fedorov argued that evolutionary process was directed towards increased intelligence and its role in the development of life. Humanity is the culmination of evolution, as well as its creator and director. Humans must therefore direct evolution where their reason and morality dictate. Fedorov also argued that mortality is the most obvious indicator of the still imperfect, contradictory nature of humanity and the underlying reason for most evil and nihilism of humankind. Fedorov stated that the struggle against death can become the most natural cause uniting all people of Earth, regardless of their nationality, race, citizenship or wealth (he called this the Common Cause).

Achieving immortality and resurrection of all people who ever lived are two inseparable goals, according to Fedorov. Immortality is impossible, both ethically and physically, without resurrection. We can’t allow our ancestors, who gave us life and culture, to remain buried, or our relatives and friends to die. Achieving immortality for individuals alive today and future generations is only a partial victory over death – only the first stage. The complete victory will be achieved only when everyone is resurrected and transformed to enjoy immortal life.

Fedorov stated that people needed to reconcile the difference between the power of technology and weakness of the human physical form. The transition is overdue from purely technical development, a “prosthetic” civilization, to organic progress, when not just external tools, artificial implements, but the organisms themselves are improved, so that, for example, a person can fly, see far and deep, travel through space, live in any environment. People must become capable of “organodevelopment” that so far only nature was capable of.

(Wikipedia: Nikolai Fyodorovich Fyodorov)

Clearly, Fedorov took things much further than the early Christians (who believed that only saints could conquer death) or the Harry Potter mythos (in which anybody can conquer death but only Voldemort did); and prescribed conquering death for everybody. Without giving detailed spoilers, let me say that Rajaniemi’s books are about how the consequences of this actually happening are horrible.

And more interestingly, the Wikipedia page claims that Fedorov and the other Russian cosmists are the link between Christianity (though the Russian Orthodox flavour and not so much the Mediterranean late-antiquity flavour) and current day transhumanism. That is to say, the cosmists started off from Russian Orthodox Christianity, and came up with cosmism; and cosmism then inspired modern day transhumanists.

I won’t quote in detail from the New Yorker piece or EconTalk episodes, because the links above are free to read or listen; but current day transhumanists and life-extenders certainly do give off a vibe of having decided that any technological means necessary to end death are worth pursuing. To be fair, the article and the podcast both do draw distinctions between the sort of transhumanists who want to increase the quantity of good health and the ones who want to eliminate death altogether, but even so, there is a substantial number of people out there who seem unwilling to accept the finiteness of life.

The New Yorker piece does end with an equivocation about how the human race has always wanted to live longer while also seeing beauty in death; but I think the Peter Brown quotations above show that the two impulses may not have been equal at all times, but ebbed and flowed.

But it has certainly been there for a very long time, I realised recently. Because, in the period of laziness between realising this connection, and actually writing it up, I coincidentally came across one more literary work where the tension between chasing immortality and accepting death, and that literary work is supposedly the first ever piece of human literature: The Epic of Gilgamesh. The In Our Time episode on The Epic of Gilgamesh describes how Gilgamesh, horrified by the death of his friend (and perhaps lover) Enkidu, journeys across the world to find the immortal Utnapishtim and learn how to be immortal himself; only to be told that immortality is no longer on the shelf, and to be content with a life well lived. And Gilgamesh accepts.

Perhaps the transhumanists are right, and this time is different. But if they are, they will be running up against, and overturning a preoccupation that has been with us as a species since we created culture, and one where for the most part, we’ve been on the side of accepting death. Who knows just what painful changes we’ll need to make, to adapt to life without death?

Trying to Define Dignity

As I mentioned earlier, I have been reading Deirdre McCloskey, and her books are so maximalist that they have left me with lots to think about (in agreement or disagreement). One of those things that has been preoccupying me for the last month or so1 is from her book Bourgeois Dignity (which is a sequel to The Bourgeois Virtues but I read it a year before reading TBV).  The relevant bit is this, from early in the book:

Dignity and liberty are admittedly hard to disentangle. But dignity is a sociological factor, liberty an economic one. Dignity concerns the opinion that others have of the shopkeeper. Liberty concerns the laws that constrain him. The society and the economy interact. Yet contrary to a materialist reduction, they are not the same. Laws can change without a change in opinion. Consider prohibition of alcohol and then of drugs over the past ninety years. And opinion can change without a change in laws.

Hmmm.

This sort of “Dignity is what other people think of you” definition ends up being in opposition to another definition of dignity, which stuck in my head from reading about the difference between honour and dignity societies. I don’t remember where I originally came across that, but this blogpost is a nice summary, and throws in bonus descriptions of experimental research2:

[Honor] culture is based on the idea that a person’s worth is based on his reputation. Reputation, in turn, is based on positive and negative reciprocity. This means that in order to be considered honourable you need to repay favors, but also revenge insults, even very small ones. If you fail in these obligations, especially in revenging insults, other people will shame you by laughing or expressing disgust, and your reputation/honor will be ruined. The motivating emotion that makes people do what they are supposed to do is shame.

The dignity culture is characterized by the conviction that all individuals have an inner, inalienable worth. The ideal person of dignity is one who stands by his principles and doesn’t listen to gossip. This attitude will of course not protect your life or property so it requires a state that enforces the rule of law. The person of dignity is less prone to corruption since he follows his internal standards and is less swayed by what other people say.

So, what McCloskey calls the “opinion others have of the shopkeeper” sounds more like honour than dignity, the way she has defined it. Of course, you could say that by this she means that other people recognise the inherent self-worth of the shopkeeper, and that practically, your inherent self-worth has no benefit if others don’t recognise it as well and refrain from humiliating you or beating you up.3  But it’s odd that what she has written doesn’t seem to acknowledge what seems to be a reasonably well accepted definition of dignity.

What is also interesting about dignity and honour is the role which shame plays in them. The post linked above defines shame as the anti-honour, and guilt as the anti-dignity. But I’m not sure they are directly comparable, and maybe there are really two different types of shame, both of which have the same word in English, and so we find it difficult to see the difference.

One type of shame, in honour cultures, is what other people inflict on you through their actions. And the other type of shame, in dignity cultures, is what you feel yourself, because your own actions have reduced your self-worth. I remember that some years ago, after khap panchayat members were convicted and sentenced for ‘honour killing’, I had been sarcastic about Jats thinking that their children marrying out of caste or in to the same gotra was more shameful than the shame of being a murderer. And that when they were so worried about what people would say or think about the first, did they not worry about people saying that they were criminals?

But this distinction between honour and dignity societies may explain why that is so. In one, shame comes from what other people do, and honour has to be regained. In another, shame comes from what you do – and even if you are shameless while doing it, the shame of being found out will weigh on you. At least, I hope so. I suppose that if you are a psychopath, then even being found out will not cause any shame.

To belabour the point a little bit with examples, these are the things you might be ashamed of if you are high on dignity and low on honour:

  • doing a bad job when you are capable of doing better
  • not keeping promises
  • not taking care of your family and loved ones

(I am mostly giving examples related to work and trade because of the Bourgeois Dignity hangover, but there would be examples in the personal sphere too.)

And if you are high on honour and not so high on dignity, you are more likely to be ashamed by:

  • your family members disobeying you (and of course it becomes all that worse if these are women)
  • people you consider to be your inferiors in the hierarchy insulting you
  • An outsider realising that your city or home is quite terrible (and so you put up Potemkin villages rather than be dishonoured). This was of course very evident in India in the context of the 2010 Commonwealth Games – not being dishonoured in front of foreigners was more important than the dignity of having nice sports facilities for ourselves.

Perhaps we should call the first one being ashamed and the second one being beshamed.

I may be getting unnecessarily hung up on the definition Professor McCloskey uses, but considering that Bourgeois Dignity is a comprehensive and polemical book about why and how it is dignity more than technology, political systems, or financial systems that has driven the industrial revolution, the end of poverty, and human wellbeing in the last three hundred years, I feel it is an important thing to get hung up about. Does McCloskey really mean that what other people think of us is crucial to prosperity, or does she mean that not having to worry about what other people think of us is crucial to prosperity? I wonder if she replies to fanmail.

I shall close this post with a rumination on societies transitioning from honour to dignity, and how it gets reflected in literature and the arts. Deirdre McCloskey has written about how Jane Austen’s novels are a mirror of this transition, and how they describe the transition at a very personal level instead of the macroeconomic one which Bourgeois Dignity describes. Persuasion, especially, shows this on two levels4: first, by showing the dignity and virtue of naval officers in contrast to the honour obsession of the landlords who keep slagging them off; and secondly, by showing Anne’s regret at having worried about what other people think. For me, the fact that Anne is an extraordinarily sensible person surrounded by idiots highlights her dignity – even if she and Captain Wentworth, contra McCloskey, are not held in high opinion by the other characters.

And what of India? I haven’t read early Indian novels, or for that matter, seen a lot of old Indian movies, so I could be way off here. But I propose that the pioneering work of art which celebrates dignity over honour and gives a giant raspberry to the fear of being beshamed and insulted is Amar Prem. Take it away, Kakaji:

 

The Propensity for Narrative

One of the most interesting books I’ve read in the last seven years has been Geoffrey Miller’s Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behaviour. For many years, I have been somewhat restrained in expressing my fascination with this book. This is less because of the dubious reputation evolutionary psychology has (and evopsych underpins the book), and more because Miller’s conclusions so precisely matched my own thinking (which did not even have the backing of evopsych) that I was unable to decide if I was a genius or if Miller was talking something so banal that I thought of it too. Anyhow, that (along with laziness) explains why I am writing about this book almost six years after having first read it.

In Spent, Miller makes the case that all of modern civilisation and consumer capitalism is the outcome of our genes’ desire to pass themselves on. We want to have sex, and therefore we want to attract mates, and therefore we want to signal how great we are, and in the process we buy things which we hope will signal said greatness.

Today we ornament ourselves with goods and services more to make an impression on other people’s minds than to enjoy owning a chunk of matter—a fact that renders “materialism” a profoundly misleading term for much of consumption. Many products are signals first and material objects second.

Miller says that when you come down to it, there are only six unique traits which we actually signal: intelligence, openness to experience, conscientiousness, agreeableness, stability, and extraversion. Meanwhile, brands and their managers themselves catch on to our desire to signal these traits and tailor brand images to associate them with particular traits. So, for example:

  • The Economist associates itself with intelligence
  • Mountain Dew associates itself with openness to experience
  • Life insurance companies, especially in India, associate themselves with conscientiousness and stability (but to be fair, what else will they associate themselves with)

To some extent, this association may actually have a basis in the product itself. At other times, it exists only in marketing communication (really, just how much will 15% sugar water that looks like urine make you more open to new experiences?). But howsoever strong or weak the connection, at some point consumers will take it seriously.

At about the fifteenth chapter, Miller gives up description and takes up prescription. And that is what this post is really about. Everything until now has only been background. (Sorry.) Miller says:

… buying new, real, branded, premium products at full price from chain-store retailers is the last refuge of the unimaginative consumer, and it should be your last option. It offers low narrative value – no stories to tell about interesting people, places, and events associated with the product’s design, provenance, acquisition, or use.

He continues with a long list of things that buying premium products fails to accomplish, but what I’m really interested in is the point about narrative value. On which note, let’s skip a few paragraphs in the same chapter, and go to Miller’s parable of a high powered lawyer who decides not to read GQ, drive to Neiman Marcus, and buy shirts; and instead:

… he could have driven to the nearest thrift store, used its logical arrangement of stock by garment type, size, and color to quickly identify some interesting shirts, tried them on, picked one, and bought it, in a total shirt-purchase time of about one hour. If his wife doesn’t like the shirt, no problem: it only cost $5. It could be burned impulsively on the barbecue to display his respect for the wife’s superior aesthetic judgement, and she would love him for it, and they could have connubial canoodling for two whole hours, and he would still come out ahead. Plus, the whole episode would make such a great dinner-party story.

(Incidentally, the above paragraph illustrates the appeal of Spent. Even if its argument is claptrap – and I have still not been able to find a reason why the argument is claptrap – the writing is so deliciously self-assured and sardonic that you will love the book despite its claptrapness. But back to narrative value for now.)

For many years, amazed at how much Miller and I thought alike, especially when it came to the bit about narrative value, I used to feel dismay and frustration watching people buy expensive brand name products that had little underlying utility, and brag about them with little underlying justification. This would be more sharply triggered with some product categories than others. Flooring, for example, is a product in which this rankles even today. Why buy Italian marble at Rs 650 a square foot, when tiles do the job at Rs 110, or when red oxide gives you the opportunity to talk about how you once read Amulya Shruthi’s blogpost about it and were utterly carried away by her reminiscing.

With other types of consumption, my reaction was more amusement and derision than frustration and rage. Luxury handbags, for example. I have once had the privilege of hearing a Bavarian thatha who manufactures glue rant ferociously about how useless the quality of these handbags is. And to this day, seeing people talk about Hermes or Louis Vuitton bags makes me giggle as I recall that rant, and mentally thank them for spending so much money to bring that back for me.

But, to really, really get back to narrative value. After three years of either rage or amusement, I began to wonder about why people could not see this for themselves. And I then began to wonder: what if some people simply do not have the capacity for narrative?

After all, we are living in India, where so many, too many, parents react in horror if their children reads “storybooks”, or anything other than assigned textbooks. There is also the disturbing push to see the Mahabharata and Ramayana as literal history instead of inspired and wonderful fictional fantasy – and that means that any attempt to build upon  or remix the narrative will be seen as ruining the story instead of improving it. But even if you think that these explanations are rubbish, do consider the possibility that something – Twitter, TV news, the Gods know what – is leading to people having lower and lower capacity for a deep narrative – and that as their capacity drops, the only narrative they can absorb are shallow brand identities like “Italian marble = made it in life” and “iPhone = pinnacle of usability”. And thus luxury marketing marches on.

Tangential points have arisen during the writing of this post that are perhaps too big to be footnotes:

  1. If you take Miller’s point about signaling at face value, the troll tactic that accuses you of ‘virtue signaling’ whenever you talk about feminism, human rights, or some such becomes both additionally tiresome and easily refuted. The correct answer to being accused of virture signaling then becomes: “Yes. And your point is? Signalling virtue is what has allowed us to leave the savannah, invent agriculture, start the Industrial Revolution, and bring about the gigantic improvement in longevity, health, wellbeing and prosperity that has culminated in you barging into my replies. So what is your fucking point exactly, and do you imagine that your barging into my replies is anything other than your own attempt to signal audaciousness and knowledge?”
  2. The value I place on a good dinner-story is so high that it has led me to maintain grudges against family members that have run for up to fifteen years (and counting). My motivation for this is that making up with said family members would, at best, give me a decent relationship with somebody extremely boring at best and annoying at worst. But carrying the feud on lets me tell stories about it for the amusement and entertainment of friends and family members whose presence is actually enjoyable, and with whom the relationship strengthens and deepens by sharing such stories and judgement.
  3. The Discworld, of course, takes the narrative capacity up to an extreme, and runs primarily on the power of narrative and less so on the laws of physics. If you accept Miller’s thesis, then conspicuous consumption of branded merchandise is the anti-narrativium. Jaguar and Jimmy Choo are therefore the agents of the Auditors of Reality.
  4. Punjabi pop music, in recent years, has been severely namedropping brands associated with such conspicuous consumption. That needs a blogpost in itself and I hope you will hold me to writing it.

Hope, Faith, Love

About a month ago, I read Deirdre McCloskey’s The Bourgeois Virtues. What a book! In a year where I have read so much great nonfiction, this stands out for voice, ambition, scale, and provocativeness; and I feel that this is one of those books that influences you for life.

There is so much happening in The Bourgeois Virtues and I am so badly out of touch with writing long and focused articles that I can’t do justice to the whole book here. I will say that there’s lots to agree with, lots to disagree with, and even more to go back and reread before committing myself to agreement or disagreement. But for now, here is a quick reflection on the bit of the book that affected me most personally.

McCloskey speaks of seven virtues, and divides them into the four classical or masculine ones:

  1. Justice
  2. Prudence
  3. Courage
  4. Temperance

And the three Christian and feminine ones:

  1. Faith
  2. Hope
  3. Love

At present I can’t say if the reasons she gives for calling them feminine or masculine are faff or not. So let’s not get into that. Let’s not also get into whether her definitions, or expositions, of the virtues are valid or not, and simply take them at face value. What I found interesting was how she chose to talk about the three Christian virtues.

Faith, says McCloskey, need not necessarily be religious faith. Instead, she gives it (among other definitions), a definition that sounds very close to sanskaar. She says that it is a sense of connection with the past, or where you come from, or where you are rooted. So it need not be faith in God, or your church, or your religion. Even a sense of nationalism, or connection with something you were born with, or into, will qualify as faith.

Hope, she says, is the forward looking twin of faith. It isn’t concerned with where you came from, but where you think you’re going. It’s a positive feeling about the future.

And love need not be romantic love. Family relationships, kindness, charity, and any feeling of wishing well for another whether or not you get anything out of it counts as love, according to The Bourgeois Virtues. That’s possibly the widest (and some would say vaguest) scope of the three virtues, and accordingly, the most interesting.

Now, most of the book left me feeling excited but also skeptical and thinking I should read it once (or many more times) again. But the description of these three feminine virtues left me feeling a bit shaken.

Why so? Because looking at my surroundings and circumstances, I find it hard to have faith, even in the expansive way McCloskey describes it. India and Delhi in particular are short on empathy, and heavy on filth and pollution. The religion I was born to, even if it started with magnificent philosophical underpinnings, is now characterised by superstition and pettiness, and the horrific taint of the caste system. Even if I take refuge in having been born into Arya Samaj, a relatively progressive corner of Hinduism, the past few years have left me with the gloomy conviction that Arya Samaj has moved from reforming Hinduism to being coopted as an apology for its excesses to those who want further reform. (That probably needs a blogpost in itself). At best, my faith can be tied to my family’s success and values, but even that requires careful cherry picking and ignoring all the shit my relatives have pulled (fraud, passive aggression, wastefulness, financial insecurity, getting themselves conned, and more). But perhaps those tiny patches of success could form a foundation for faith.

What about hope? Well, it’s there in the short term. But, again, as I look at the world, and see temperature rise hurtling past two degrees Celsius, my hope for the long term is also dwindling.

Which means that the only (feminine) virtue left to me is love. Oh no. Five years ago, I couldn’t have imagined that wishing my fellow humans well was the only path to a virtuous existence. Even today, I feel I would be happier if half the human race didn’t exist (and with the exception of about two hundred people, I wouldn’t really care which half disappeared). And with such an absence of a proclivity for love, I still have to take it up as the only way to lead a useful life.

Well, I had better get to it then.

The Ideal Buyer for Air India

Apparently the Indian government has finally decided that selling Air India is an option. I am not super confident that anything will come of it. For starters, right now there is only a cabinet resolution; which gives them a lot of wiggle room to back out of it later on. The working group, not yet constituted, could come up with impossible sale conditions. Parliament might scupper privatisation. Union politics might make the government do a hasty U-turn.

Also, as someone whose cynicism with regards to Arun Jaitley grows every month, the fact that the original announcement was made by him, makes me even more doubtful that anything will ever happen. The man seems to be trotted out every so often on to television to make the BJP palatable to liberals, and then nothing actually happens. Do you remember how:

  • before the Lok Sabha elections, he said that of course Parliament could legislatively repeal Section 377? Then when Shashi Tharoor brought in his private member’s bill, the BJP voted against it.
  • two budgets ago, he said that starting the next year, he would cut corporate tax rates by a percentage point every year? I’m still waiting.
  • he decided to not legislatively bar retrospective taxation, after all that sound and fury, instead just promising that he would never do it?

So when Jaitley says that selling Air India is a desirable objective, I for one suspect that this is just a new round of talk before meeting with funders, and actual action will be short on the ground. Of course, this assumes that anybody actually wants to buy Air India, which is a bit of an ask. So far, we have had the fun spectacle of seeing Anand Mahindra saying he isn’t brave enough to take it on, and its shareholders panicking at the thought that Indigo might be.

Which is the biggest problem, really. Even assuming that Bharat sarkar is sincere in wanting to sell Air India, and not just making suitable noises; and that union opposition is overcome, then what? Nobody who was accountable to shareholders, or had any sense, would buy it.

That doesn’t mean that nobody would buy it. There are people who aren’t accountable to shareholders, or who can defy them, and who don’t have sense. Ratan Tata, the past few years have shown us, comes close to that happy situation. But even he is surpassed by a certain class of dilettante airline operators. I speak, of course, of Arab sheikhs.

In the past few years, the Middle Eastern airlines have recklessly and cheerfully expanded. They run half empty flights to the United States, introduce new and unprofitable sectors just for the prestige of running ‘the longest flight in the world’, and are engaged in an arms race when it comes to just how ridiculously luxurious they can make their first class product. Alas, as oil prices have fallen, some cost cutting has started taking place, and maybe even the Middle East 3 won’t be brave or foolhardy enough to buy Air India. Emirates or Qatar Airways might just buy Air India to replicate the Etihad – Jet model and run shuttle services to Dubai or Doha as applicable, but I wouldn’t count on it.

Though the ideal buyer for Air India, in my opinion, isn’t Emirates or Qatar. It’s Saudia – the national airline of Saudi Arabia.

Why, you ask? This is not because I am a fan of Saudia (I have never even travelled on it) and feel that nothing would improve Air India flights like a no-liquor policy. It is more that I feel that the greatest contribution the government of India could make to world peace is to saddle Saudi Arabia with an airline that haemorrhages money every year, will give its owners severe grief when it comes to human resources issues, and pit the irresistible force of Ravindra Gaikwad against the immovable object that is the Ministry for the Prevention of Vice and Promotion of Virtue. Every riyal Saudi Arabia spends on keeping Air India aloft, will be a riyal they are not spending on setting up radical mosques or bombing Yemen or doing the dirty on Iran.

Maybe the way to get this to happen is to get Qatar Airways to express interest. And then Saudi Arabia would try to buy Air India instead, out of pure spite for Qatar. After which, we could try to add on persuasion by suggesting that running Air India would be the ideal way for one of the surplus princes to occupy himself.

One can dream.

Artificial Insemination and Drona

There are many, many claims in the genre of “All modern technology is to be found in the Hindu scriptures”. They include:

  • “Pushpak Vimana in Ramayana shows that our ancestors had aeroplanes.”
  • “Deadly weapons in Mahabharata show that our ancestors had nuclear weapons.”
  • “Shiva cutting off Ganapati’s head and then replacing it with an elephant’s shows that our ancestors were skilled transplant surgeons.”

All of these assertions are annoying for a variety of reasons. One major one is that a literal reading of the epics makes us think that our ancestors were fabulous scientists and engineers (except for the vital matter of documenting their procedures) while devaluing their skill as creative writers. Another reason is that the corollary of claiming that your ancestor was a brilliant scientist who invented powered flight or interspecies head transplants, is that you are forced to admit that your slightly more recent ancestor was an idiot who lost the knowledge so comprehensively that you had to wait two thousand years for somebody else to invent all this. But so it goes. But there is one assertion which is annoying not only because of the above reasons, but because it is so contrary to reality. I speak, of course, of the claim that the birth of the 100 (plus one) Kauravas, Drona, and Satyavati shows that our ancestors knew all about artificial insemination and cloning.

Specifically, these births are:

  • Satyavati: The king Vasu was called away from his palace and his queen. Never really getting away from this cockblock, he ended up ejaculating while thinking fondly of his wife. He directed the ejaculate on to a leaf, and requested a friendly bird to deliver the payload to his wife. Unfortunately, en route to the palace, this bird was attacked by an eagle, and ended up dropping Vasu’s semen into a river, where it was swallowed by a fish, who then gave birth to Satyavati. (Actually, she didn’t give birth. Satyavati was maintained in utero until the fish was caught by a fisherman, at which point the infant Satyavati was pulled out whole.)
  • Drona: When Bharadwaja went to bathe in the Ganga, he saw the apsara Ghritachi and was so overcome at hear beauty that he ejaculated. Being a neat and orderly person, instead of letting his bodily fluids out anyhow, unlike some current day cabinet ministers, he did this into a pot, called a drona. Out of this semen, and thus, the pot, Drona sprang forward.
  • The Kauravas: at least the conception was reasonably normal here. Vyasa impregnates Gandhari, who then remains pregnant long beyond the expected nine months. In exasperation, she strikes her belly, miscarries a lump, and then the lump is divided into a 101 pieces, placed into jars of ghee, and the lumps then germinate into the 100 Kauravas and there sister.

Because all these births are so removed from the usual way of making babies, some people feel that the Mahabharata shows impressive knowledge of assisted reproductive techniques and human reproduction.

No, you fools! It shows nothing of the sort. What it does show is that both the Mahabharata and you are ignorant of the basic way in which human reproduction works. At least Ved Vyasa lived in an era before human reproduction was studied scientifically. What excuse do you have for not paying attention during the Class IX biology class on Life Processes II? Even if you went to one of the schools where the teacher skipped the chapter out of sheer embarrassment, you could have read it yourself in your free time.

The thing about human reproduction is that it needs a human sperm and a human egg. What we see from the stories of Satyavati and Drona, is that the Mahabharata thinks that all you need is semen. This was a common misunderstanding back in the day. Aristotle, too, claimed that only men had generative capacity, while women were mere incubators. Reading the Mahabharata in translation, chapter after chapter suggests that the view it has of human reproduction is that semen is like a plant seed. We know today, of course, that a plant seed too is formed from fertilisation of two different gametes; and that the comparable analogue to a seed is not semen, but a fertilised egg. But the Mahabharata didn’t. This is such a fundamental and conceptual shortcoming of knowledge that it would make reproductive technology impossible. Where assisted reproduction is concerned, there’s no wiggle room to claim that the ancients had the knowledge, but the not-so-ancients lost it. The ancients didn’t even have the knowledge. With what they knew and recorded, it would have been impossible to make a baby. At least with pushpaka vimanas you can conspiracy-theorise that there was a flying machine, but all documentation on how to build it was lost, and there is no archaeological trace of actual vimanas, but that art and literature are enough proof. Here, the art and literature directly refute the possibility.

Can we at least claim, then, that the weird births of Satyavati and Drona are poetry, or symbolic, or allegory of some sort? Where the Satyavati story is concerned, it’s so full of weird details that I can’t even draw a well formed allegory out of it, and have to conclude that it was just a total storytelling trip. But maybe with Drona, there is a moral to be drawn.

I made the claim above that the Mahabharata thinks that biologically, only semen is needed to create a baby. But it would have taken wildly obtuse people to completely ignore the empirical reality that children do inherit the traits of their mother. So perhaps, in the worldview of the Mahabharata, semen is sufficient to create a body, but the body is imprinted with traits from whoever gestates it.

In Satyavati’s case, this means that she smells of fish. So it goes. But what of Drona? He doesn’t even have a fish-mother, and is born out of a pot. I think that this is a foreshadowing of his personality – filled with rage, carrying grudges all his life, and although born a Brahmin, acting like a Kshatriya.

It’s as though, born without a mother, Drona is also possessed of no feminine – or at least what stereotypes portray to be feminine – traits. He lacks compassion, humility, and and a sense of proportion. Karthikeya aka Subramanya aka Murugan too is born of semen alone, and ends up being the god of war. But he at least has adoptive mothers – the Kritikkas and eventually Parvati. Drona, born and brought up without either female nature or nurture, can only put his immense knowledge and training towards ultraviolence.

This too, is stereotypical and melodramatic, but, hey, at least it’s a step up from making a human being without an ovum and then germinating it inside a fish.

How Debjani Thakur Created The Best of All Possible Worlds

In a previous post, I showed that Anuja Chauhan’s Those Pricey Thakur Girls is, in addition to being a super enjoyable romantic comedy, also a work of science fiction, where we get to witness timelines go awry as events are reshaped.

Now, let us turn our attention to the sequel, The House That BJ Built. In the past post, we discovered that TPTG ends on a day in February 1989. From this, we can work out when THTBJB takes place. The first paragraph of the first chapter tells us:

Twenty times the Amaltas trees along Hailey Road have burst into glorious yellow flower since the day Dylan Singh Shekhawat threw himself off a terrace six stories high.

Right. Amaltas trees bloom in May. Usually. Thanks to climate change, they have now started blossoming even in early April. But since there have been only twenty blossomings, this places us sometime between May 2008 and April 2009 – and in 2009, things were not that bad. In fact, here is a Delhi Walla photo essay from May 2009 talking about amaltas trees blooming in May and June.

Shortly after that, we are able to narrow the beginning of the book down even further, to between December 2008 and February 2009, thanks to this line:

Today, as the watery winter sunshine filters in through the grilled windows of Number 16, it sparkles upon the tiny diamond nose stud of the lone Thakur girl in residence.

But if it’s December 2008 or early 2009, it’s a very odd 2009. As we can see from the prologue:

Samar drops the phone onto the bed and looks about blearily for his iPad.

The iPad first became available in April 2010. How has it appeared a year and a half ahead of its release?

Then, in Chapter 3, we discover that a certain biopic has been produced and released long before 2013, which is when we watched it:

So many bio-pics take creative liberties- look at Milkha Singh. You think Milkha really got it on with a hot blonde Aussie chick the night before his big race?

In Chapter 6, it turns out that Connaught Place has a Starbucks. Which makes it four years ahead of the October 2012 launch that we experienced.

In Chapter 12, Samar and the Trings are checking YouTube on their phones – two and a half years before there is 3G service in India; and for that matter, widespread smartphone availability.

And finally, in the epilogue, we find a reference to a movie that released in 2014:

Chandu, who has got sense now and returned to her husband, and whose hair is looking so cute, like Anushka in PK!

If you assume conservatively that the epilogue takes place exactly a year after the prologue, and so, in December 2009, that means that PK has released at least five years ahead of schedule.

Why has so much popular culture and technology shown up so much earlier in The House That BJ Built than we know it to have arrived in our own lives? What explains this unseemly haste? Is it the same timeline jolting that took place in Those Pricey Thakur Girls? Possible, but I have an alternate theory. Which is this: the timelines have settled, but by the time 2009 and The House That BJ Built roll about, history has been irrevocably altered.

This changed history starts with Debjani making her rogue broadcast towards the end of Those Pricey Thakur Girls. In history as we know it, the state owned broadcaster challenging the state itself never happened, and so the government served out its term until the 1989 Lok Sabha Elections, after which we had two years of instability, followed by fresh elections, the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, a balance of payments crisis, and then economic reform.

But in the world of Those Pricey Thakur Girls, Debjani Thakur going rogue means that political instability arrives in February 1989 itself, and to add to this, Purushottam Ohri and Dylan Singh Shekhawat’s entry into television news meant that investigative journalism never let up the pressure on any government to follow. The balance of payments crisis arrived much earlier, and so did structural economic reform.

In turn, this meant that the Indian market opened up to the world a year or so earlier than 1991, and continued crisis forced even more economic liberalisation in reaction. The one year early start doesn’t seem like much, but it, and the cumulative effect of muckraking journalism meant that by the late 90s, India’s economy had grown to a point where it was influencing and accelerating the development of social trends and technology. Thanks to a much more open economy, Starbucks could enter India well before 2009. Thanks to the massive Indian demand, Apple could develop and release the iPhone and the iPad simultaneously, instead of with a three year gap between the two. Data spectrum too was made available much earlier, and with the increased cultural openness, the terrible movies of the mid-90s bombed miserably, prompting directors and writers to bring their more experimental ideas – biopics of athletes and satires of religion – to production much earlier.

The alternate timeline that Debjani Thakur brought into existence is far superior to the one we live in. It is wealthier, sweeter, and possibly has even less global warming. It is a universe where Hailey Road has a delicatessen and charcuterie – which would have been so useful to me when I used to go to German classes at Max Mueller Bhavan! – and one in which taking giant amounts of cash on an international flight is not an economic offense. It is an idyllic world, and I wish I lived in it.