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.