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!

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.

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.

A Requiem for Exes

I have been thinking about exes. Not mine, but other people’s.

Specifically, I have been thinking about the exes whom I never got to meet.

In some cases, this was because the person whom I did know had a relationship when they were living somewhere else, and then broke up before I ever got to meet the partner. Sometimes it wasn’t even geographical separation, but never getting to meet the partner for one reason or the other.

In other cases, it was reading somebody’s blog, and over the months or years, seeing the partner once referred to, change from name to allusion, and then vanish altogether. And made all the more poignant because the ex had no online presence, no blue link underlining their name, to give them an identity other than once partner, then ex, now cipher. The same applies to Twitter and Facebook, I suppose.

What happened to all these exes I never knew as persons, but only as partners, I wonder. Did they take the breakup badly? Did they move on? Did they see it as an opportunity to become aggressively single and Lothario their way through life? Go to the Rocky Mountains and shoot grizzly bears? I shall never know, particularly when the breakup was either messy or embarrassing.

Perhaps they’ve all gone to the same place, and Scott Pilgrim style, formed a League of Evil Exes.

Sugar! Tolstoi! KRK Sir!

A couple of weeks ago, I read this Hindustan Times oped by Manu Joseph. I call it an oped merely because it appeared on the Opinion page. It would be far more appropriate to call it a masterful piece of trolling of anybody who enjoys sweets:

Sugar operates in the same way as evil because it is. It is an allure that hides deep inside culture, and in the notions of love, celebration, freedom, sharing and being endearingly flawed. And in our fundamental right to mediocrity. The only time human beings question the virtues of perfection and excellence is when you take sugar away from them.

There are multitudes within that paragraph. The correlation of sugar and evil; which is hyperbolic by itself but so understated in the context it appears in. The contemptuous scorn for “being endearingly flawed”, which I too find annoying when I find that particular self-projection infecting my Twitter timeline. The rage at love, celebration, and freedom all being hijacked by bad dietary habits. And that is just one paragraph. The rest of the oped pours the same scorn on Aditya Chopra movies’ suspension of logic, fruit juices, the moral panic over Maggi, and… pretty much everything else, actually.

What explains all this scorn and rage? And why is Manu Joseph angry at everything? Why are so many of his opeds what the good old days of blogging used to call puke fests? After giving the matter much thought on my commute (which runs from South Delhi to Sonepat so I had lots of time to give it thought), I was rewarded with an insight. The insight was this:

Manu Joseph and Aakar Patel are the Safe-For-Work versions of Kamaal R Khan (hereinafter referred to as KRK sir).

The rest of this post is full of bad language. Kindly proceed accordingly.

Continue reading “Sugar! Tolstoi! KRK Sir!”

Ideas, Events, People

Great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, and lesser minds discuss people.

This was one of those homilies from childhood that I encountered again a while ago somewhere on the internet, and I realised that as with most homilies, it doesn’t really stand up to application in the real world.

Because if the ideas you are discussing are on the lines of:

  • Vaccination causes autism
  • Genetically Modified foodstuffs cause cancer
  • Taj Mahal is actually a Siva temple called Tejo Mahalaya
  • Muslim men are seducing Hindu women into marriage for nefarious purposes1
  • Jan Lok Pal will solve all corruption everywhere in India

then honestly, you and society at large are probably better off talking about the people on last night’s episode of Bigg Boss. In fact we should celebrate and praise Bigg Boss as a sort of storm water drain that takes conspiracists away from the high streets of policy discourse.

1: The worst thing about this particular conspiracy theory is that it never gives an explanation of what Muslim men get out of this.

Real Estate and Travel Fetishes

A long time ago, somebody on Twitter shared an article (possibly on medium) about how, instead of looking forward to your next vacation and a life full of travel, you should make your career and life so fulfilling that you never wonder where your next vacation is going to be. Unfortunately, I forgot to bookmark it, and can no longer find the link, but I am certainly one of those people whom the article was chiding. Sadly, despite all my cool product development projects at work, I still get more excited by the prospect of travel.

In my defence, it is easier to share the excitement of travel with friends, family, and loved ones, than it is to share the excitement of developing a flame-retardant conveyor belt.

But, looking at my Facebook news feed, I certainly get the feeling that the scolding in that missing article had a point. There are so many people who seem to give off the impression that all that their life is missing is a vacation to somewhere cool and undiscovered.

That’s Facebook. And then there’s advertising on FM radio in Delhi.

Delhi radio is chock full of advertisements about buying apartments (and also commercial real estate sometimes). And the vast majority of these advertisements feature emotionally maudlin husbands or wives or children crying (or as Jagadguru used to say, crying up and down) about how miserable their lives are, and how the new real estate development can magically solve all this misery.

I find the radio advertisements far more awful than my Facebook feed, though that could be because of two sorts of bias:

  1. Cringing at what my friends say on Facebook would be awkward because they are my friends
  2. I share the hankering after travel but don’t see the point of buying real estate, to the extent that I roll my eyes at people who do (especially in India). This is probably the result of reading all those internet pop science articles about how experiences make us happier than things. (For an enjoyable pop science book that takes it a step further, I recommend Geoffrey Miller’s Spent, of which I really ought to write more in another post.)

But even with this bias and the previous excuse, I have to admit that both the hankering after travel and the hankering to own real estate are a sort of cargo cult which imbue either vacations or houses with magical powers. To wit:

  • All my problems will be solved if only I have a 3 BHK in which everyone in my family has a room to themselves and covered parking!

or

  • I will achieve remarkable insights and self-knowledge if only I travel to all the spots on this list of 25 places to see before I die!

Although I know many remarkable people who are free from either of these fetishes, the people I know personally who do suffer from this all seem to fall in Category 2 rather than Category 1, with minor exceptions like my bua (who does not so much believe that all her problems will be solved by buying real estate, as that everyone’s problems will be solved by buying real estate, and indeed that the source of marital discord is in living in rented accomodation). I know very few people who overlap, which leads me to suspect that these are mutually exclusive (perhaps because of that experiences versus things dichotomy).

This acquired relevance a while ago, when Gradwolf and I were discussing this article about online dating for rich people, and he was wondering what the entry qualifications were for such a thing. It was then, that I had a flash of insight and realised that to join these gated singles’ networks, the deciding factor was not how much you earn, but how much you spend and on what.

That is, if you are the sort of rich person who gets excited about buying a 3 BHK flat in Greater NOIDA (West), Floh and A World Alike will probably regretfully decline to let you in. But if you are the sort of rich person who travels to vineyards in Tuscany (or at least Nashik) and posts pictures of it on Facebook, they will probably welcome you with arms wide open.

This is potentially the source of the next class civil war between the different types of rich people.

A Modest Proposal for Persian Gharwapsi

There is a question that has been bothering me for a long while: how are we (as a species, but particularly as Indians) going to cope with the looming extinction of the Zoroastrian Parsi race? In the past week, two things have brought this question from merely background, low grade worrying to a major preoccupation: Navroz, and Justice Rohinton Nariman’s judgement on Section 66A. Within four days, we saw how much we have to lose if India no longer has Parsis: not just dhansak, but also a robust defence of the freedom of speech. The stakes are high enough that I am putting down my thoughts on the problem, and also advancing a possible solution with the hope that it may find support among the concerned stakeholders – though, as I hope to demonstrate in the following paragraphs, all of us are concerned stakeholders.

As I grow older, I find myself agreeing with Aakar Patel more and more. Most recently, I agreed with him on the ridiculousness of Indian formal wear. But this was something that really started back in April 2012, when I visited the Godrej office in South Bombay, for a panel discussion with Supriya Nair, Sidharth Bhatia, and Sathya Saran about Indian cinema. This was a talk conducted by the Godrej India Culture Lab, which was something started by Godrej to regularly showcase artists and writers and filmmakers both to Godrej employees and to the public at large. That in itself is quite a remarkable way for an Indian corporation to spend its money. However, what was even more remarkable was the venue itself: the terrace garden of the Godrej office.

This terrace garden was not the usual terrace garden which is a bunch of potted plants placed around the corners of a concrete terrace. Someone had filled the terrace in with soil, created a lawn, and then put paths across the turf. Which is impressive in itself, but again, not unique. A bunch of people have done that. What made it truly remarkable was that this terrace garden had trees. Full grown ones, big enough that you could sit in their shade on a hot Bombay afternoon (and really, eleven months of the year, is there any other kind?). These were trees which had to have been planted at least ten years prior, perhaps even earlier. They could not have been so large, full grown, and shady otherwise.

Think through the implications of that. Whoever was in charge of managing the Godrej head office in South Bombay would have been fairly senior. Let’s say, late thirties at the youngest. In twenty or twenty five years, they would have been retired and out of the office. When they planted these trees (or had them planted), it would have been with the awareness that it would take them at least five years to enjoy their shade; and that they would perhaps never get to enjoy the shade. Certainly, they would never get to see the trees they planted be as full grown as possible. And without any immediate or major benefit to themselves, they went ahead and did it anyway. Ten years on, shameless dilettantes such as myself were the ones to reap the effort of their vision.

It was this, that for the first time, made me realise that Aakar Patel’s wild generalisations are not merely trolling Indian smugness (which is worth trolling even if the means being used are idiotic), but actually arise out of a kernel of truth. So here was a stark validation of his claim that Parsis are the only people in India to make an effort to do good for other people.

Aakar Patel’s characterisation of non-Parsi Indians as merely cultured (if even that) and not civilised is, of course, reckless exaggeration. But the rest of India truly has a way to go before it can catch up with the Parsis. In this I am optimistic, and think that we will get there someday – and that day will come faster as long as we have Parsis to be role models. In fact, another Parsi had once drawn the analogy on his now defunct blog about how all change is like making dahi – first you put in a starter (the role model), then you churn through furious effort, and finally you end up with something delicious. To my annoyance, this analogy conflicts massively with Aakar Patel’s article: he thinks the Parsis have a civilisation and not a culture, but dahi starter is a culture and not a civilisation. And it also conflicts with the origin story of Parsis in India, in which they claim to be sugar being added to milk, and not curd added to milk. Even so, my original point of Parsis being vital role models to the rest of us, who can improve Indian society as a whole, stands.

There is, alas, one problem with this: by the time other Indians get around to behaving like Parsis, the Parsis may themselves be extinct. The Parsi population is plummeting. What can be done?

Well, the government of India is on it, and has started a campaign of moral suasion to get Parsis to make more babies. Like so many other efforts of the Government of India, it has been widely criticised for being really stupid and really insensitive. But even if the campaign had been sensitive and well done, there is no guarantee that it would have worked in the long run. Surrounded by a hegemonic Bollywood culture, any new Parsis might have grown up doing disco dance instead of listening to Haydn. Some of them might even end up adopting (shudder) Bengali culture and propagating the virtues of rosogollas. Then, there would be many Parsis, but no Parsi civilization. And while the more Parsis the better, retaining the Parsi civilization is equally important.

The simplest way to spread the Parsi civilization would be for the Parsis to start converting all the non Parsis around them to Zoroastrianism. By itself, this wouldn’t be good enough – after all, Sikhs, Muslims, and Christians have been carrying out conversions but the cultural baggage of the caste system persisted – but at least it would speed things up. Alas, Indian Zoroastrianism doesn’t do conversion, possibly because of the origin story I mentioned earlier, so even that is ruled out. Is there no way out?

Actually, there is! And it relies on a loophole. When the Parsis came to India, they were asked not to carry out conversions of the local population. But nobody said anything about not converting other Persians, of whom there is luckily an abundance.

My solution to the whole vexed problem (which, as we shall see, also ends up solving other problems) is for India to throw open the borders and offer Indian citizenship and residency to any Iranian who is willing to start speaking English and/ or Gujarati, adopt Zoroastrianism, and act by the Parsi virtues.

The advantages of this are massive. First, as Sumeet Kulkarni points out, people who become Parsis by choice will probably be much more motivated in their propagation of Parsi civilization than those who just happen to be born Parsi.

Second, it avoids the whole conversion mess. Since the people being converted to Zoroastrianism are people whose ancestors used to be Zoroastrians themselves, it’s actually much more like a gharwapsi. In fact, from my (admittedly very limited) observations from my visit to Iran in 2012, Iranians are extremely proud of their pre-Islamic heritage, to the extent that you could make a case that converting to Islam for them was like doing an operating system upgrade on an existing phone, not throwing out an iPhone and getting an Android as it is made out to be in India. Extending this analogy, going back to Zoroastrianism is like installing a previous OS version because you find it’s better for battery life. Or to use the gharwapsi analogy itself, it’s not even coming back home, but moving from the first floor to the ground floor of the same house so that you can help your cousins out with taking care of their kids or aged relatives.

Thirdly, it benefits the Iranians themselves, who are currently suffering under the sanctions regime. They get a chance to move from a wrecked economy to a… well, also tottering economy, but not a wrecked one, and importantly, one in which they will be looked up to as business and professional superstars and in which a hugely rich Zoroastrian Parsi community stands ready to subsidise their housing and children’s education.

Fourthly, if the civilisational and societal advantages are not enough to convince you, there is a baser motive to support this: an influx of Iranian people will make the average attractiveness of the Indian population skyrocket.

Finally, there will be benefits even at a governmental level, since this pool of freshly arrived Iranians will be able to spur Indo-Iranian trade and carry out Track II Diplomacy. Nitin Pai and K Subrahmanyam’s dream of India getting involved in Iran-centric diplomacy and carrying out a USA-Iran rapprochement could come one step closer to reality.

The many benefits of this plan mean that Persian gharwapsi is a win-win scenario for all involved. It has massive and visible benefits for all concerned, which is much more than can be said about the VHP conducted gharwapsi, which has no benefits for anybody, except perhaps VHP officials who are desperate footage seekers.

I hope, therefore, that my plan is taken up by anybody competent to implement it. I profess, in the sincerity of my heart, that I have not the least personal interest in endeavouring to promote this necessary work, having no other motive than the public good of my country.

Android R

Google names major Android versions after desserts. Which is why, two and a half years ago, when the ‘K’ version of Android was scheduled to be released, Indians started campaigning for Android Kaju Katli. In a great blow to deliciousness, Google named Android 4.4 KitKat instead.

The year after that, Laddoo was bypassed for Lollipop. We now face a situation where at one major release a year, there could be a few years before another Indian sweet is in the running. Consider:

  • This year should be Android M, where the best contender from India is Mysore Pak. It faces fierce competition like marshmallows, macarons, macaroons, marzipan, and marble cake. Its prospects are not good.
  • After M comes N, and I can’t think of a single Indian dessert that begins with n. Whereas the west has nougat. Which is disgusting, but at least it has a name beginning with n.
  • Next we have O, where again I can’t think of a single Indian dessert. Even Asian desserts, which I thought might have a chance, because apparently the preferred spelling is Umm Ali, not Om Ali, which is just Indian caterer spelling. So… Android Orange Marmalade?
  • Android P next. We could potentially have Android Pedha, Android Petha, or Android Piste ki lauj. But if you can’t get Android Laddoo, no way are you getting Android Pedha.
  • I can’t think of anything, Indian or Western, that starts with Q and is also a dessert.

Which brings us to R, where for the first time India has a serious contender: Rasmalai.

It would be wrong to call Rasmalai the king of desserts. For starters, it’s feminine in Hindi. But more than that, it has no monarchical pretensions, so you couldn’t even call it the queen of desserts. Go to a sweet shop – particularly Evergreen Sweet House if you want to have the greatest rasmalai in India – and you’ll find rasmalai lying placidly (in plain or kesar form) among the gulab jamuns, kala jamuns, and cham cham, not at all suggesting that it tastes better than anything else around. The laddoos may occupy the top shelf, the anjeer ki barfi may come at the beginning on an alphabetical listing, but the rasmalai is content to maintain a low profile until it comes to the crucial question of how it tastes. It is, therefore, the primus inter pares of desserts. It is a dessert for republics, not decadent monarchies. For reasons of deliciousness as well as reasons of politics and philosophy, we should therefore devote all our energy to campaigning for Android Rasmalai, even if this means taking away our chances for an Android Mysore Pak.

At one Android release a year, there are five years to go. This gives us enough time to build up our campaign. You might say it is too much time. You would be wrong, because we have to defeat the enemy within: Rasgulla/ Rosogolla.

There is a grave threat that by the time Android’s R release is coming up, the insidious Bengalee lobby will try to promote Rosogolla as an alternative contender for the name. This is all the more sinister, because if they succeed, not only will they have scuppered the chances of the more delicious Rasmalai, they will have further succeeded in promoting the originally Oriya Rosogolla as something Bengali. For the sake of both deliciousness and Oriya pride, we must not let this happen. It will be a matter of great shame for all Indians if the first Indian dessert to make it to an Android codename is an abominable, oversugary mess instead of a perfectly balanced, nutty and spicy rasmalai. Besides, the Bongs can always try for Sondesh.

Join me to promote R for Rasmalai my comrades!

Rice Must Be Annihilated

When I moped last week about the dust and haze in Delhi, I forgot all about the reason it’s so particularly horrific at the beginning of the winter: because farmers all over Punjab and Haryana are burning rice straw to clear the fields; and the smoke from this is drifting over to Delhi. This means that you actually see the air getting darker and more horrifying as you leave the urban parts of Delhi and enter the rural parts towards Haryana (whether towards Gurgaon, where I bicycled yesterday, or towards Sonepat, where I drove on Thursday). The urban parts might be nastier in terms of automobile exhausts pumping the air full of nitrogen and sulphur oxides; but the outskirts just look horrible.

The Times of India had an oped last week about how air quality is not the only ecological disaster that rice cultivation causes. It’s also sucking up groundwater, turning land fallow, and runaway power consumption.

For one, withdrawal of groundwater substantially exceeds annual recharge, with the result that the water table falls continuously each year. As the water table falls, each additional kilolitre of water requires more power for its extraction than the last kilolitre. The subsidy on power thus increases continuously and is met from the state budget.

In many regions the water table, which was initially less than 10 metres, has already fallen below 500 metres, leading to a huge adverse impact on state finances.

(The Times of India)

All things being equal, this would have hit a limit when power tariffs (or diesel prices for gensets) kept rising to respond to the demand. Or, additional power would have been generated.

However, thanks to a combination of subsidised power tariffs for agricultural users, state owned utilities, and agricultural landlords’ grip over politics in Haryana and Punjab, it hasn’t happened. The state owned utilities are too broke to put up new power plants or buy more power for that matter. All that happens is status quo, and less and less power availability, so everyone just starts running their pumps or factories on diesel gensets.

All this limited electricity supply being used to help produce something that isn’t that tasty, and could make me diabetic; when it could instead be used to power my Haryana factories hurts me personally.

The oped also cribs about the part Minimum Support Prices and FCI procurement rules play:

Coupled with attractive minimum support prices (MSPs) and policy directives to FCI to procure the bulk of its rice supplies from these two states, an irresistible economic incentive is created for the farmer to grow rice, rather than the alternatives – maize, other grains, pulses, horticulture, that are more suited to the natural ecology of the region.

The writers suggest moving to average cost pricing for power, hiking MSP for rice, and getting the FCI to purchase rice from eastern India instead of Punjab and Haryana to fix this problem. All well and good, and I hope this happens. But this works either on the supply or the intermediary side, and doesn’t really fix the problem of demand. And the problem of demand is this: Indians are obsessed with eating rice. If nobody was eating rice in the first place, it wouldn’t be getting sold in the private sector, non-FCI market.

How do we get people to stop eating rice? One way is to appeal to their better sentiments and point out that they’re just bringing horrible air pollution upon themselves. But in a society where people refuse to stop bursting firecrackers, even though with firecrackers they suffer the pollution effects of their behaviour directly and immediately, I have my doubts about whether this will work. We will therefore have to resort to guile.

I think the best way to discourage rice eating is with a flanking attack of shame and aspiration. When rice eating is shown to be a matter of shame, people will feel embarrassed about doing so; but also ask ‘What shall we do instead?!’ When an alternative is presented that is actually better and more aspirational than rice eating itself, this objection will also crumble.

Fortunately, this alternative already exists. The keto and other low-carb or no-carb diets preclude rice eating altogether. And they lead to awesome fitness and good looks, as seen in low-carber Hariflute.

Look at that sexy beast. Just look at him. That’s what you become when you cut out rice and switch to ghee and bacon.

So that’s what people have to aspire to when they cut out rice. But how to shame them into considering giving it up in the first place? For that, I think the impetus has to come from another Twitter heartthrob – @majorlyprofound, who has for many years now mounted a campaign of scorn against short, dark, small hearted rice eaters who can’t become fast bowlers.

If Major’s rants are more widely spread across the world (or at any rate in India), people will begin to refrain from eating rice for fear of becoming short and dark. In North India, which is where the devastation caused by rice cultivation is the worst anyway, we could even accelerate this campaign of shame by pointing out that rice is for cowardly monkey-cap wearing Bangaalis and traitorous Madrasis who refuse to speak Hindi. Yes, this is a course of action that plays on lamentable stereotypes, but fuck it, those stereotypes are there anyway, and we might as well put them to good use in cleaning up Delhi and Haryana’s air.

The time has come for a Biryani and Basmati Boycott. Are you with me, comrades?!