Announcing a New Podcast

About nine months ago, Ashish and I started a podcast. We started out at it being both very bad at it and very irregular at it. However, things changed since March – being locked down at home, we found lots of spare time to become much better at it; and after months of thinking of everything we recorded as a trial run; I now feel confident enough about it to call it a finished article and not just a trial.

Our podcast is called That Reminds Me. It features Ashish and me talking about what we’ve read, or watched, or even about other podcasts we’ve listened to. There are lots of digressions. Frequently, these digressions are about coffee, or PG Wodehouse, or cities, or about how good the internet was in the 1990s. But they’re also about all the other books or articles or movies we got reminded of while reading or listening to the original subject of discussion. If you want to listen to middle aged men talk excitedly about the things they find cool, we are just the podcast for you. If you’d like that, but with fewer middle aged men, we’re working on getting guests, and if you have cool stuff that you get excited about, please go ahead and… be our guest.

The podcast website lets you listen right there, and to subscribe to the podcast feed. We’re on Apple Podcasts already, so if you have a podcast app, you can search for That Reminds Me and you’ll be able to find us.

If you want to try before you dive right in, here are three recent episodes you can pick from:

When This is Over (For a Given Value of Over)

I exited lockdown about five days ago, after at least thirty days of not leaving the house at all – and more of not leaving my neighbourhood. I was at my family home in Delhi when flights started getting canceled, remained there when the Indian lockdown began, and have been here since; with no fixed date on when I can reunite with my wife (in Singapore) or with work (outside Kanchipuram).

That’s been more than enough days spent locked down to realise that even once lockdowns are lifted, perhaps even if or once we have a working vaccine against Covid-19, things will not go back to how they were before the outbreak started immediately. They may never go back at all, or it may take years for that to happen. The businesses we relied on may have gone bankrupt during the lockdown. Workforces which fled for their villages may not come back, and probably definitely won’t for the same wages or living and working conditions. Flights and travel could become rare and expensive luxuries once again.

It’s also been enough days for my mood to change from day to day about the same thing. Sometimes, the memory of being able to walk to a cafe brings about immense melancholy, and sadness at not having done it since the middle of March1. And sometimes, it brings about immense excitement at the prospect of one day being able to do it again.

The past month has had me trying to focus on the excitement of doing something again, or something new; rather than get melancholy about not doing it at all. I haven’t always succeeded, but I’m trying to get better at it; and listing those things down in this blogpost is a further attempt at that.

Things From Before Lockdown that I Hope are Coming Back

  • Stepping away from work to stretch my legs and have a coffee or a snack while people watching or writing something.
  • Chocolate and cheese being easily available.
  • Travel, and being able to fly to another country within my disposable income
  • My company’s sales growth
  • Online shopping of “non-essential” goods. Being stuck at home for a month with very little work is a great opportunity to do home improvement projects. Unfortunately I haven’t been able to get parts.
  • Being able to take public transport without any fear of catching something

Things that Started in Lockdown that I wish would stick around

  • high fuel taxes
  • farmers being allowed to sell produce outside mandis
  • being able to see the stars in night at Delhi. With skies clearing up; Castor, Pollux, Procyon, Sirius, Regulus, and Arcturus have been visible every evening. Out of the planets, only Venus seems to be in the northern sky for now.
  • being able to see birds in Delhi. My family house’s trees have been hosting bulbuls, mynas, and parakeets in much larger numbers than any time in the last ten years. There are also more cheels, though they prefer to sit on genset chimneys, and I’ve even spotted a rufous tree pie and a yellow-footed green pigeon for the first time ever in Delhi.
  • Social video calling, especially group calling. I spent my twenties without reliable internet, and never got into the habit of using Skype for calls. Then the pandemic came along, and turned video calling from a benefit to a necessity for work. But in the process, friends and family scattered across the world discovered it, and now regular group video chats are happening with people who I was struggling to remember to call in the pre-pandemic life.

New Things That I Hope Will Emerge After the Lockdown Ends

  • Face masks becoming part of every day wear and etiquette, the way that they did in South Korea after the SARS epidemic.
  • And leading on from that, facemasks as stylish as the South Koreans’. Chennai adopted the camo-print earmuffs so enthusiastically ten years ago – will we get something similar with face masks? We can hope.

What I Worry Won’t Last after the Lockdown Ends

  • Chennai. I love the city, but first the floods, and now the coronavirus have exposed its vulnerabilities. But I don’t know what will happen next. Nothing, so that it continues to lurch from disaster to disaster; suburbs taking over, or British Raj style “knock down the diseased slums and shift everybody”.

Which of these will actually happen? I don’t want to say; because the last few weeks have had a parallel outbreak of people making predictions, most of which are suspiciously on the lines of “After the pandemic, people will end up doing what I used to do before the pandemic” or “After the pandemic, people will realise that my social and political views were correct all along”; and I don’t want to go down the same path. The lists above have been a confession, not a prediction; and I’m happy to wait and see.

What I’m Watching In My Lockdown

Readers who are still sticking around here, I am delighted to have the opportunity to plug something to you that is funnier and more regular than I am: the India Wants to Know quiz-(ish) show.

Friend Hari Shenoy (whose blog, alas, is now an ex-blog) has been working, along with the rest of Team #9 on a small webseries where the quiz questions are real, but the answering is an opportunity to bombard viewers with puns. They’ve put out ten short episodes so far, and will have more to come. Whether your primary problem in lockdown is anxiety or boredom, this spate of punnery is the solution.

You can start here:

and work your way onwards. Please like, subscribe, et cetera, et cetera; and help build support for a second season.

A Wile E Coyote Theory of Religion

I was listening to the BBC’s In Our Time program / podcast, and it had an episode about the rapture, the Christian belief that at some point God will physically carry people away to heaven:

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the ideas developed by the Anglican priest John Nelson Darby (1800-1882), drawn from his reading of scripture, in which Jesus would suddenly take His believers up into the air, and those left behind would suffer on Earth until He returned with His church to rule for a thousand years before Final Judgement. Some believers would look for signs that civilization was declining, such as wars and natural disasters, or for new Roman Empires that would harbour the Antichrist, and from these predict the time of the Rapture. Darby helped establish the Plymouth Brethren, and later his ideas were picked up in the Scofield Reference Bible (1909) and soon became influential, particularly in the USA.

At one point, one of the panelists said that Vice President of the United States Mike Pence has gone on record saying that he believes in the Rapture, and literally, not as a metaphor. The panelist also said that while many people believe in the rapture, we shouldn’t worry too much about this affecting their actions.

I scoffed and rolled my eyes a bit when I first heard this claim, but after about five minutes, I realised that it was actually plausible. After all, we humans have an amazing capacity for hypocrisy, or to put it in more polite terms, to ignore cognitive dissonance as long as we can get away with it. Even when we believe or know that some things are inevitable or so likely as makes no difference – asteroid strikes, climate change, an earthquake on the Cascadia fault line – we carry on regardless.

As Terry Pratchett put it:

[…] one particular planet whose inhabitants watched, with mild interest, huge continent-wrecking slabs of ice slap into another world which was, in astronomical terms, right next door — and then did nothing about it because that sort of thing only happens in Outer Space.

Yudhishtira telling the Yaksha that the greatest wonder in the world being that everybody knows that death is inevitable, but that they behave as though they will live forever may be one very specific example of our ability to behave as though the future will never happen.

So, yes, your beliefs, logically applied, would lead you to behave in one way. And yet you behave in another way. It happens all the time. To take a trivial and prosaic example from my own life, I knew for a long time that if I made mushrooms along with an omelette for breakfast, it would make me happier. I would buy a box of mushrooms, too. And then, for an entire month, I would wake up in the morning, get the eggs out of the fridge, and completely ignore the mushrooms until remembering after having eaten my breakfast that it would have been much better with mushrooms. Just knowing something doesn’t lead to action.

It makes you wonder about Socrates, who claimed that once somebody knew what was good, they could not act otherwise. Considering all the examples to the contrary, the possible explanations are:

  1. Socrates had superhuman self-discipline, or
  2. Socrates had somebody else to make mushrooms for him, or, to put it in more general terms, Socrates knew what was good, and delegated it to other people

But so much for refutation. Let’s get back to where this train of thought had started, the Rapture, that is. As I said, my personal experience, and the history of the human race points to the face that religious people can believe something, and still act as though it isn’t true.

For a certain kind of atheist, of whom Richard Dawkins is probably the prime voice, this can be exasperating and infuriating. It’s as though the inconsistency is even more annoying to these atheists than the theism itself. How dare these religious believers enjoy the fruits of science, complain these atheists, while completely denying the basic tenets of science? How can you refuse to believe in evolution, while still benefiting from all the pharmaceuticals that couldn’t have been developed if the theory of evolution didn’t check out?

And yes, inconsistency is annoying. But complaining about this inconsistency is a terrible idea. If humans have evolved to the point where they can hold two contradictory opinions together, then for the most part it means that everybody is getting on with life. As long as our brains are performing their superb job of compartmentalisation and keeping us away from cognitive dissonance, we are like Wile E Coyote, blissfully chasing the Roadrunner. Jesus could only walk on water, but we can run on thin air.

If you point out that somebody’s religious belief is inconsistent with their modern way of life, you run the risk that they’ll give up the modern way of life rather than the religious belief. It is like pointing out to the coyote that he is no longer on solid ground. Gravity will take over.

Obviously, this is very disturbing, because pointing out to religious people that their beliefs are disproved by reality is a great source of joy, or if not actually joy, at least smugness. If we give it up, where will we get a substitute source of joy, or at least smugness, in its place? I have no answers yet, but I will keep searching.

Small Aubergining

Many years ago, before the 🍆 emoji gave it a double meaning, the brinjal’s greatest nonculinary achievement was to be in the catchphrase of Meera Syal’s grandmother character in the BBC’s British Asian sketch comedy series, Goodness Gracious Me.

The sketches aren’t online, alas, so I’ll summarise quickly for anybody who hasn’t seen them. The grandma, in any situation where somebody is buying something – informs them smugly that she can make it at home for nothing. All she needs is an ingredient, another ingredient, and a small aubergine. The situations range from supermarket shopping to fine dining, to Masterchef, and eventually to a heart transplant.

I now propose that we honour this frugal grandma by using the term ‘small aubergining’ to describe a particular sort of shopping. That is, to spot some sort of clothes, jewellery, handicrafted accessories, or similar on an international website; to then roll your eyes at the first world prices, and finally, to take a screenshot or printout of the said product to your local tailor, jeweller, or carpenter and have them duplicate it at Indian prices – that is, practically nothing. Bonus points, or the term ‘advanced small aubergining,’ if you don’t even take it to a local craftsperson but do it yourself.

For example, a British lady is selling covers for A5 notebooks on etsy for $17.63 plus shipping. They are extremely nice covers, but my mind revolts at paying that much. So I small aubergined these covers by taking an old pair of jeans to a tailor in Hauz Khas market, who turned them into four covers for just 500 rupees. Like so:

 

Yes, the notebook sticks out a bit, and if the cover could have had a zip or button or other fastener it would have been even better, but I’m considering this an early prototype. The point is that I found a First World Solution on Etsy, and small aubergined my way into paying Third World Prices. It feels amazing.

Dr Amulya, Or How I Failed To Love The BuJo

A long, long time ago, I asked on Twitter if there was any advantage to using bullet journals rather than calendars or todo lists:

For a long time after that, the question went unanswered, until white-streak-rocking tasteful item-number connoisseur and writer extraordinaire Amulya Shruthi used Instagram, and then her blog, to walk the general public through how she uses a Bullet Journal to track her habits. Having read her blogpost, I am now writing my own response to it; in order to express my awe and appreciation for:

  1. How comprehensive her habit tracking is
  2. Her discipline in sticking with it day after day
  3. How good she makes her bullet journal look
  4. Her willingness to share this with us all so that we can learn from it
Look how good this looks

Now for the bad news, or if not bad news, the step back from wholehearted enthusiasm. I’ve been reading and rereading her post for two months, and I’ve now realised that I cannot do this kind of journal-driven tracking myself, for multiple reasons.

The first reason is that for the past year and a half, I’ve been living a nomadic life, rotating between three cities. And to do this sort of multi-colour pen driven tracking, I would have to carry not only the journal everywhere; but all the pens too. Replacing the pens as they ran out of ink or got lost would be exasperating.

So amazing in outcome, so hard in maintenance

The second reason is that at the time I asked about Bullet Journaling on Twitter, I had already been journaling for a couple of months1, in a notebook where I would handwrite both the things I was feeling proud about and grateful for; and the ones which made me feel anxious or ashamed. This journal2  has been helpful to me in dealing with my mental health, and I kept on at it. By October, I had also started a separate, (online) journal where I would write about every movie, TV episode, podcast episode, or book that I watched, heard, or read3. The point is, even without a habit tracking bullet journal, my existing journalling would take almost an hour a day; and I don’t know if I want to add another journal on top of that. Time apart, it would add another journal or notebook to my backpack, which has at least three notebooks already. The notebooks weigh more than my electronic devices as it is.

 

The third reason is that Amulya’s journal looks so intimidatingly good that I feel that I’ll be unable to match its radiant splendour. I realise that her post addresses this:

But overall, there seems to be a super-creative, artsy and craftsy, expensive, heavily key/legend-ed *look* to BuJos that could come across as intimidating.

and

  • It will take some of your time and attention – but ONLY at first, it gets almost reflexive if you let it. I’m venturing a guess that it’s a bit like growing a beard.
  • It is going to be MESSY at first, so start in a notebook you aren’t too attached to (you know, Canara Bank type diary, or that glittery flowery notebook someone gifted you three years ago), or start on loose sheets of paper that you can stick into a more favoured diary

Even with this foresight and reassurance, I’ve not been able to overcome my insecurity about achieving some sort of standard when it comes to journals, and so, I decided that rather than agonise for a few months over how to make a bullet journal look good, I would start immediately with a functional, if not especially pretty, online solution. So I turned to Google Forms.

(Where digital solutions are concerned, Dibyo had recommended the Loop App, a habit tracking app which he uses himself, but I didn’t like that all answers on that have to be Yes / No; or that all questions have to be framed as developing good habits.)

I created a Google Form for myself to fill in every night. I make myself answer questions about:

  1. Remembering to take my medication
  2. How much I exercised
  3. Whether I wrote in my other journals that day and if I updated my work calendar and todos
  4. Practicing the flute or foreign languages
  5. Writing for leisure (not including journals)
  6. Which bad habits I’ve indulged
  7. What I’ve done for my wife that day

(And I’ll probably add more questions and areas as I go along.)

Note: in the process of building this form, I realised to my horror that Google Forms does let you ask conditional questions (that is, you get different follow up questions depending on whether your answer to an early question is Yes or No), but that it achieves this with the equivalent of GOTO statements. What the hell, Google?

The Google Form will record each day’s answers as a row in a Google Sheet. That sheet looks horrifically ugly compared to the Bullet Journal; but on the bright side, I can download the sheet and then make graphs and pivot tables for whatever I want to look closer at, for the specific period I want to look at. At least, I hope so. It’s only been two days of tracking with this form so far, so I can’t say for sure how much insight the tables and graphs will provide. But it’s a start; and if it goes well, I’ll probably share that on the blog as well.

The Hangover of Demonetisation

Much to my delight, I was able to catch up with my old friend Neha Natalya Pandey last week. To my even greater delight, in this reunion, I was also able to meet Neha Natalya’s brother, Prof. Dr. Dr. Boris Bhartriraj Pandey, who over the course of dinner, explained to me the hidden significance of Yo Yo Honey Singh’s recent song, This Party is Over Now. Prof. Dr. Dr. Pandey insisted that his insight was trivial and not worth putting out to an academic audience. However, in view of the fact that nobody among the lay public has had the same insight, this represents a perhaps excessive level of modesty on his part. I was able to prevail upon him to quickly write up his observations on this song for a popular audience, and he agreed to let me carry it on my blog. I am, of course, indebted to Prof. Dr. Dr. Pandey for so raising the intellectual tone of this blog, and I trust that my readers will also be thrilled and enlightened after reading the below monograph.

Continue reading “The Hangover of Demonetisation”

Exit, Voice, and Rachel Chu

My father has a poster on his office pinboard, which says “Love It, Leave It, or Change It.” If I have a failing, it is that I tend to leave it rather than change it or love it; but my personal failings are not a subject for this post; and perhaps not even for this blog. What I wanted to say is that I vaguely imagined Albert Hirschman’s Exit, Voice, and Loyalty to be a scholarly framing of this very sentiment; with Exit being “Leave It”, Voice being “Change It”, and Loyalty being “Love It”. A major problem with this is that I had never actually read the original Hirschman book, only seen lots of references to it, especially in all the Deirdre McCloskey books I had read last year. But I resolved to read it as soon as possible, only to encounter unexpected hurdles: first, there was no Kindle edition. Second, Amazon didn’t have it in stock in India and was demanding an import fee depost and proof of identity to ship it from the USA. Finally, grumbling, I imported it in August; and read it over August and September.

Now that I’ve read it, I can confidently say two things:

  1. It’s a fantastic book, one that is short and yet very dense with insight
  2. If Albert Hirschman ever intended his framework of exit and voice to be applied to families, he didn’t reveal it in this book. He was more concerned with how either business firms or organisations like political parties, committees, unions, or governments responded to exit or voice. His acknowledgement of families as a sort of organisation wasn’t non-existent, but it was tangential.

But that doesn’t mean that we can’t take Hirschman’s ideas and apply them to families. For many of us, our families are the first tiny dictatorships – or, if we’re lucky – semi-authoritarian but principled structures – that we encounter. And as such, they too will respond to exit or voice. And one sort of exit and voice keep cropping up in pop culture: young lovers whose getting together is ferociously opposed by one or both of their families.

In the twilight period between knowing about Exit, Voice, and Loyalty; and having actually read it, I remarked to the incomparable Chilli that we should categorise movies (and songs) into Exit, Voice, and Loyalty based on the decisions taken by the romancers with regards to their family. Yo Yo Honey Singh’s Desi Kalakar, with its exhortations to Billo to run away with everything from her passport to a packet of roti and bhindi1, is very much on the exit side. The chorus of chhad de, chhad de, chhad de takes it to the pinnacle of exit as a strategy.

As a grimmer and darker votary of exit, Sairat starts off with exit, and closes with a message of what a mistake it is to choose voice or loyalty.

Practically at the opposite end from Sairat lies Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge, which pushes loyalty to absurd levels. Hours of refusing to either run away or to do anything to persuade Amrish Puri to cancel the arranged marriage lead up to Amrish Puri magically changing his mind2 Loyalty for its own sake and bearing the consequences is one thing, but loyalty getting you what you wanted all along is quite another.

And as for voice, there’s… well, that’s the thing. Indian pop culture isn’t very good at voice. There are bizarrely few movies where couples talk other people into seeing their point of view. Admittedly, an open and honest statement of positions, followed by negotiation, doesn’t make for very riveting movies if you’re used to chase scenes and fights, but there could still be negotiations that do make for good drama? Which brings us to another point that Exit, Voice, and Loyalty doesn’t go into great detail on: what does count as voice?

Exit, Voice, and Loyalty first tries to point out that sometime the point of deserting is not to kill a bad organisation; but a way of communicating that its quality is poor and needs to improve; and secondly, that because economists are obsessed with the possibility of switching from competitor to competitor, that they don’t consider the possibility that frustrated customers (or members) simply tell their supplier or organisation that the quality is lacking. His major insight is that telling somebody that the state of affairs is unsatisfactory, and asking for a change is also a valid strategy. But that’s where it ends; and it doesn’t break down the different types of asking for, or bringing about, change.

If voice is anything that doesn’t involve quitting or switching to a competitor; or accepting that you’re stuck with bad quality; then all of these count as voice:

  • Polite requests and petitions, like the Indian National Congress’s early days
  • A bargaining session filled with negotiation
  • A flaming row (which usually get nowhere, so they would be followed by loyalty or exit)
  • Or customer imposed quality audits and factory acceptance tests
  • Civil disobedience movements
  • Negotiation made under false pretexts (think of PG Wodehouse’s Summer Lightning, where Sue Brown impersonates Myra Schoonmaker in order to be taken seriously, but honestly, think of most of Wodehouse)
  • Negotiation that shades all the way into blackmail (Wodehouse again, and think of Aunt Dahlia threatening to cut Bertie Wooster off from Anatole’s dinners)
  • Storming the Bastille and beheading Marie Antoinette
  • Expelling or massacring anybody who happens to be inconveniently sitting over the crude oil that you want, as in Tintin in America

I am hesitant to place blackmail in the same category as a three month long drafting of a product specification document; and immensely queasy about placing violent revolution in the same category as an election campaign, but that’s what broad and simplifying categories get you. I wonder what would make the Exit, Voice, and Loyalty categorisation more useful – to separate out violence3 and deceit as separate categories; or to place them all on a spectrum of ethical and less ethical voice.

Let’s return to our frustrated lovers, and let’s also consider the spectrum of voice. On the spectrum, they could start with politely asking their parents to change their minds; move on to bargaining; move on to guile and trickery; and end with violence.

So when it comes to fiction, violence is a different kind of story. The dramatic possibilities of politely asking and getting what you want are highly limited. Thanks to PG Wodehouse, we have lots of stories centred around guile and trickery. Smooth talkers who negotiate a happy outcome for themselves without resorting to tricks, bluffs, or a hidden card up their sleeve can be interesting too; though the suitability for fiction goes down the less smooth a talker you are. And as fiction goes, it’s probably the most acquired taste, having none of the things that immediately appeal to our sense of drama.

Which is why it’s such a pleasure to come across fiction that does cards-down, no-trickery negotiation – and successsful negotiation – well. And there’s a shining example of it I came across recently – the Crazy Rich Asians movie. Note: spoilers for the movie follow, even if you’ve read the book, as the movie departs significantly from the book.

I am referring, of course, to the end of movie mahjongg parlour showdown between Eleanor Young and Rachel Chu. Up until that point, the couple – Nick Young and Rachel – have been trying honest and polite, but not very firm voice to win over Nick’s family; only to be rebuffed in ugly terms. So, finally, Rachel Chu meets Nick’s mother, Eleanor Young, for a final settlement of terms over mahjongg.

This is the major departure from the book, where things just sort of happen, and the main characters roll with events, culminating in Nick and Rachel walking out on his family in despair, or as Hirschman would put it, exiting. The movie, however, turns Rachel Chu into a stupendous badass4, who decides to sieze control of events instead of just going with them. So, over mahjongg, Rachel tells Eleanor that Eleanor has created a no-win situation for Nick, and that she, Rachel, refuses to be made to play this no-win game5; and is therefore deciding to leave, but on her own terms. And to reinforce how she’s doing this on her own terms, she passes a crucial mahjongg piece from her own winning hand to Eleanor, letting Eleanor win the game.

Good grief, what amazing writing that scene is. It was ostensibly exit, with Rachel deciding to walk out rather than be pulled into what her mother-in-law would make a miserable marriage; but instead of the simple, voiceless exit that Hirschman accuses his fellow economists of celebrating, it was exit combined with voice, or perhaps even voice masquerading as exit6, and it makes such an impact on Eleanor that the very next scene is Nick proposing to Rachel with his mother’s implicit blessing. All in all, the movie ends up being what Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge could have been if all its characters had been sane and reasonable human beings instead of complete idiots.

Of course, Crazy Rich Asians is a movie. The depressing thing about reality is that no matter how good your arguments, or how persuasive you personally are even if your arguments are terrible, you might always find yourself stuck in a situation where voice just isn’t getting you your happy ending; and having failed to change it, you have to love it or leave it. But, as I frequently have to remind myself, you don’t know if trying to change things will work or not until you try.

My Tryst With Juvenile Dramatics

I have always had a low grade resentment towards children’s theatre, and had expressed this resentment back in the early days of this blog. Back then, I had cited three unpleasant run-ins with the activity. Those wounds have healed somewhat, but my suspicion of the theatre remains.

These days, my main problem with children’s theatre is the claim its practitioners make – that it is a cure for shyness. My reaction to this claim is very much like the reaction of the X-Men to the ‘mutant cure’ – rage and insistence that there is nothing to cure. Shyness, I tell everybody who will listen, is a personality trait and not a disease. It can often be a very useful personality trait, in that it rescues you from prolonged interaction with other people, who can often teach you stupid things that it will take a long time to unlearn. This is all the more poignant considering that shyness isn’t even  communicable. Even if you’re not shy yourself, you don’t risk catching it from a shy person. So why not just let them be?

Recently I remembered that I had forgotten to write about my first ever, probably formative, encounter with juvenile dramatics. I may as well tell the story now.

The story dates back to either Class 5 or Class 6 – more likely Class 5, so sometime between April 1992 and October 1993. My aunt Gugloo1 Masi had arrived from the United States (or possibly France) and was in Delhi visiting her parents, in-laws, cousins (which included my mother), and friends (which included either Lushin or Lilette Dubey – possibly both, as she had been to school or college with one of the Dubey sisters). Anyway, as things turned out, Gugloo Masi was at the home of whichever of the sisters was her friend – probably Lushin – and invited my mother to come over and meet her there. Ma in turn took me along. Once we were there, the three ladies became engrossed in conversation. I became engrossed in the bookshelf.

The bookshelf was magnificent. It stretched from floor to ceiling, and my nine or ten year old self could only examine the upper shelves by dragging a chair from the writing table to the shelf and then clambering on top. It had what looked like the collected works of Agatha Christie, whom I had started reading in the summer of 1991. If I remember right, the Harper Collins paperbacks in those days were priced between Rs 75 and Rs 125; and seeing the collected works, as it were, in the wild, free for the picking, was a powerful stimulus to my soul. I gazed at the bookshelf in rapture. Conversation from the sitting room, some of it to do with the benefits of theatre in curing shyness, drifted through, but I paid it no heed.

Alas, my plans of communing with Agatha Christie were scuppered by Ma, who yelled at me for climbing on people’s chairs without their leave, and we eventually left, though in the intervening period Lushin Dubey said I was welcome to visit the bookshelf again.

Some weeks later, Ma informed me on a Sunday morning that an opportunity to visit said bookshelf had come up, and I excitedly accompanied her to the Dubey house. It was only once I got there that I realised that I was the victim of treachery. True, the bookshelf was still there, and it was still full of Agatha Christies. But my path to it was blocked by about eighty children who were there to audition for Peter Pan – or possibly The Jungle Book – and to my horror, I found that I was expected to do the same.

I was taken in hand by a girl, one or two years older, who explained what I had to do in the audition. I would play a young child, she would play my older sister, and a third person would play a drug dealer. The drug dealer would offer me a sweet, I would accept, my sister would see me taking unidentified substances from a stranger, and rush over to a) make sure I didn’t swallow them b) warn me about the danger of taking things from strangers c) warn me about the danger of drugs. She asked me if I had got all that. I said I had. So she kicked off the audition.

Things started smoothly. The drug dealer did indeed ask me if I wanted a sweet. So far, so good. But at this point, reasoning that I already knew about the dangers of drugs and strangers thanks both to the initial briefing and in general being a well read and informed person, I might as well come to the same conclusion as the script with far less tedious exposition. So the audition went more like this:

Drug Dealer: Do you want a toffee?
Aadisht: no.
Drug Dealer (unprepared for this): what?
Sister (rushing up): Don’t take that toffee from him!
Aadisht: I didn’t.
Sister: what?
Aadisht: I don’t take things from strangers.
Sister and Drug Dealer: …

At this point the actress playing the role of the sister suggested that I wait on the staircase, which I did until Ma came to take me away.

As things turned out, I did not get the part, and my habit of skipping to the end when I already knew the answer meant that I spent the next five years having marks cut in maths and physics exams for not showing all the steps. But most importantly, I never got to read the promised Agatha Christies. Very possibly my lingering resentment towards juvenile dramatics has its origins there.

Pastry and the Progress of Civilisation

On the weekend gone by, I was attending a class on how to cook Hokkaido Cheese Tarts and Xiao Long Bao, the famous and delicious soup filled dumpling. The class was a birthday present from my darling wife, and as birthday presents go, has been the best one since she got me Ticket to Ride, which continues to provide hours of fun to this day. In time to come, the ability to make xiao long bao or cheese tarts may provide more cumulative pleasure and meaning than Ticket to Ride. But why speculate? For now, I shall write about the insights I gained during the class.

As I went through the class, the teacher pointed out that xiao long bao, for all its fame, does not have particularly exotic or expensive ingredients. It’s made with flour, minced pork, gelatin, and the same seasoning ingredients – sesame oil, vinegar, soy sauce, and salt and pepper – as are found in any East Asian chicken. The only really unusual ingredients are yeast and gelatin, which are procured easily enough. The reason you have to pay almost a dollar a dumpling, said Ms Tan, is that making the dumplings is both time consuming (you start the night before by adding yeast to the flour) and highly skilled; and that restaurants have to scour China to find skilled dumpling makers. Xiao Long Bao, she said, was all about the people making it, and not about what they were making it from.

This, I realised, is an interesting parallel to my older aunts’ and uncles’ idea of a good time. But as I thought more about it, I also realised that it is brought about by dramatically different circumstances. Let me elaborate.

My older aunts and uncles, all born before 1947, started adulthood as post-Partition refugees in Jammu and Delhi. Those were bleak years, not just for refugees, but for India as a whole. Material luxuries were scarce, or didn’t even exist. Automobiles and telephones were on a waiting list. Fruit and butter were major treats. But even with fruit, variety was limited; and so the treat was more to have a lot of a single kind of fruit, than to have many different kinds of fruits.

The thing that wasn’t scarce in those days was people. And so for my older relatives, their idea of luxury involves people doing work for them. The more work, the better. For my bua, bliss is having her driver drive around in the rains with no destination in mind. The driver, who has to control the car in miserable weather and driving conditions, may disagree. But anyhow. As they – and India – became richer, they started treating themselves to newly available material goods as well, but never quite lost the habit of thoroughly enjoying themselves by getting other people to do the work on their behalf.

Today, the situation is dramatically different. Free economies, free trade, and internet shopping, among other things, mean that we are spoiled for choice when it comes to material things; and they all cost much less thanks to the Chinese manufacturing miracle. Smartphones and motorcycles are within everyone’s reach! There are five different kinds of grains in the market. The fruit shop has fruits from all over the world, and farmers in Uttarakhand are now growing zucchini. What a cornucopia!

The trouble with cornucopias is that if everyone1 can have a smartphone, a smartphone ceases to be a signal of status and wealth. So if displaying your status and wealth is important to you, you can’t really do it with material things; unless you get really rare and exotic material things. Or, you could buy things which require something else scarce to make them – that is, skills. Such as xiao long bao.

So, sixty years ago, when money was limited, but things you could buy with it were even more limited, the only way you could show off was by buying labour. Today, money is widespread, things you can buy are even more so; and so the only way to show off is again by buying labour. What a full circle, and what a sandwich generation it makes those people who grew up in the 1990s and early 2000s and could impress others with laptop computers or automobiles.

This is possibly overgeneralisation, but I think there’s another difference between buying labour in a scarcity era and in a post-scarcity era. In the scarcity era, you paid for conspicuous waste, like having five domestic servants run around to find your glasses; while in the post-scarcity era you pay for conspicuous skill2 like folding the perfectly symmetrical dumpling. Which brings us back to the class.

At the end of the class, I can testify to the importance of skill. Making the dumpling dough is easy enough, and the stuffing is even easier. But picking out the perfect quantity of dough, rolling it out into a flat disk that’s thinner on the edges, and then folding the disk into an aesthetically pleasing dumpling are skills that take probably take months of practice to get right. Frustrated at my fumbling efforts, Ms Tan frequently took over the doug rolling herself, and the bun folding even more so. About twenty dumplings in, my folding technique finally became adequate, if not good. It was hard to overcome habit and heed Ms Tan’s advice to do the folding right rather than do it quick3.

During the class, demonstrating a method of squeezing out dough, and noting my Indian origins, Ms Tan told me that it was the same method as would be used in making pratas. Too embarassed to admit that I have never made a paratha by hand, and buy frozen ones from packets when forced to make them for myself; I merely nodded; but this observation, coupled with her comments about xiao long bao being all labour and skill and not material cost, made me remember a classified advertisement that had gone viral a few years ago.

I’m not sure if the classified was real or a photocopied joke, and I can’t even find the image any more, so I’m describing it from memory. It was in Tamil, and listed several job openings, along with the salary offers against those openings. Beginner software engineers, or something similarly white collar, were being offered 8000 rupees a month. A parotta master (or perhaps it was a dosa master) was being offered something much higher – ten or twelve thousand rupees a month. In general, people were amused at a blue collar occupation making much more than a white collar occupation. Further commentary, if any, focused either on the utter commodification of IT skills, or on pointing out that domestic and cooking skills were actually in very short supply and worth paying for. But it was only on Sunday that I realised that Douglas Adams too had made a pertinent comment on the situation, many years before the classified had come out. It is this quote from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series:

The history of every major Galactic Civilization teds to pass through three distinct and recognizable phases, those of Survival, Inquiry and Sophistication, otherwise known as the How, Why and Where phases. For instance, the first phase is characterized by the question ‘How can we eat?’ the second by the the question ‘Why do we eat?’ and the third by the question ‘Where shall we have lunch?’

So yes, a parotta master making more than a software engineer has a lot to say about the dignity of blue collar jobs, the commodification of coding skills, the changing demographics and economic fortunes of South India, and our tendency to carry around too many expectations. But at a very big picture level, it also suggests that South India, as a civilisation, has started the transition from Inquiry to Sophistication. Hurray!