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.

On Annotating Your ebooks

For almost a week, the people I follow (and the ones whom the algorithm shows me anyway) on Twitter have been polarised about this tweet:

and the reply to it:

The responses I have seen to this have ranged all the way from people who run book clubs or discussion groups and think that these sort of features would be very welcome; to outraged readers who don’t want yet more Silicon Valley algorithmic social feeds messing up something that has been quite joyous for them right now.

I myself fall more towards the outraged end of the scale than the enthusiastic end. The reasons for this might be boring, but in the process of discussing them, I will end up sharing what I think is the best way to annotate books and share them; and that might be useful to the public at large. So, here we go.

My first reactions to the original tweets were:

  1. Good lord, this already existed eight years ago. It was called a book blog.
  2. Existing apps already do this! What more do you want?

That was then. Now, I am trying to write out a less snarky, more useful, response. The problem is, I don’t know what the original posters want to do with either their or other people’s annotations and marginalia. So I will list out the reasons highlight things in books, and take things from there. I went through the past few months of highlights, and counted the following reasons I might have highlighted a passage:

  1. In sheer appreciation of the language or how well a sentence or paragraph was constructed. For example: “Call me Jimmy. Your mother’s brother’s wife’s sister’s second husband is my father. Blood is thicker than water.”
  2. I read something interesting and decided to set a quiz question around it.
  3. I read something that somebody else (one person, multiple people, a group of people, or multiple groups of people) would enjoy reading, and want to share it with them, with or without context.
  4. I find it intriguing and would like to blog my thoughts about it.
  5. It’s a reference to another book, and I want to make a note to get that book as well.
  6. As a slight variant to #5, it references say a movie or a piece of music, or even a product or something to eat, and I want to make a note to watch, listen to, or buy it later on.

Other people will have their own reasons, of course. There’s an important point to make here though. Except for #1, all these reasons require me to perform some mindful action beyond simply highlighting the passage.

  • Setting the quiz question will need me to actually rewrite the factoid in the highlight (along with perhaps two or three others), or download related photos or media; and then save the final question somewhere
  • Blogging my thoughts about what I’ve highlighted means I have to clear my head, put my thoughts together, and write the blogpost out
  • Getting the book means searching my libraries and reserving it; or adding it to a shopping website wishlist
  • For listening to a referenced piece of music; or watching a referenced movie, or buying something, I would have to search for it and add it to a queue to get to when I have the time to devote

What about the case of sharing it with somebody who might be interested? It sort of dovetails with what the original tweets were talking about, but the thing is, this sort of sharing is best when I am providing some context to what I am sharing. For example, “Remember when we were talking about how terrible and scary the street lighting in Delhi is? This is what Jane Jacobs wrote about safe streets.” Yes, there are going to be times when I share something without context, if the passage is just intrinsically funny, or touches upon an injoke or shared experience so close that it needs no context, but without the ability to provide context – by typing it out, or adding a voice note, or in any other way, sharing is going to be quite useless. In fact, by adding to the stream of notifications which the recipient is already receiving through the day, it might even be a hostile act.

Compared to all the actions I listed above, actually retrieving the highlights is a very quick and painless procedure with existing technology. The difficult part isn’t retrieving highlights, but being disciplined enough to do things with them.

If you have the discipline, the existing Kindle app for Android already lets you do all this with a few taps. If I could build up the discipline, this is how I would do it:

  1. Read the book on a Kindle, so that my device wouldn’t interrupt me with other notifications while I was reading.
  2. Highlight along the way.
  3. Before starting the next book, sync my Kindle, and download the read book to the Kindle app on my phone as well.
  4. The copy on my phone has all my highlights. I can open the highlight view, and then deal with each highlight one at a time, using the relevant Android share method, as follows:
    1. If I had highlighted something for a quiz question, share it to an Evernote notebook or Trello board of quiz questions; and then consult that notebook or board whenever I was sitting down to set questions
    2. If I wanted to share it with somebody, share it to my email, or messaging app, and forward the highlight, with necessary context
    3. If I wanted to write about it, share the highlight to an Evernote notebook or Trello board of writing ideas
    4. If I wanted to buy something, open goodreads, or amazon, or any relevant shopping website on my laptop at the same time, and add it to the relevant wishlist
    5. If I wanted to listen to, or watch, something, add it to a queue on youtube, or a todo list where I was saving things to look for

I’m reasonably sure non-Kindle ebooks let you do this easily enough as well; and for that matter, if you come across something interesting even in a paper book, you can take a photo and let OCR do the initial work before sending it on the relevant app.

For now, I’m still mystified at what the original tweeters wanted to do with their friends’ highlights, marginilia, or even summaries that they couldn’t have done by reading reviews or notes from somewhere else. And though I touched upon it before, I’ll mention again that without knowing just how these highlights are shared, there are real problems of noise and spam in this sort of indiscriminate sharing of what somebody has highlighted.

  1. What are the privacy settings on what I’ve highlighted? I don’t want the public to know if I’ve highlighted something to set a quiz question on it. But I might also want exactly one other person to see the highlight if we’re setting the quiz together.
  2. In this hypothetical service where my highlights are open to the public, just how does the public see what I’ve highlighted? Are they going to see everything? Or is a Facebook News Feed type algorithm going to decide what is worth seeing?
  3. In this hypothetical service where I get to see everybody’s highlights, am I able to receive a highlight that has been picked out by my friend for me? Or am I only getting a firehose of notes and marginilia, with no way to decide what is relevant?
  4. And is this feed of my “social reading” going to be filled with ads?

In conclusion, I personally would not pay extra for books if I could see what my friends had highlighted. But if I really trusted my friends’ books recommendations and ability to pick out amazing passages, I would encourage them to do this with thought, word, deed, and cake; and if I really trusted strangers’ book recommendations, I might well encourage them to blog a lot more by contributing to their Patreon. I just hope that more people do the same before reading recommendations go the way of Facebook.

My Year of Reading Women

My reading had sort of collapsed in the recent past, especially from 2014 to 2016. The reason behind this was mostly extreme frugality, brought on by trying to pay for a house. So I was not buying books. What I was doing a lot of instead was:

  • reading longform articles by sending them to my Kindle (which means not reading a lot of fiction)
  • reading out of copyright books (which has the side effect of reading a lot of dead white people1
  • rereading what I already had

and starting in late 2015 and throughout 2016:

  • reading my wife’s collection of books

2017 saw a massive turnaround for three reasons:

  1. The benevolent Masabi gave me the username and password to his account at the Brooklyn Public Library, which let me borrow ebooks from there to my American registered Kindle2
  2. I joined Goodreads at the beginning of the year with a measure of skepticism about how useful it could be, but found that simply enrolling for a reading challenge made me competitive and determined to complete it – and so I ended up reading a lot instead of, say, listening to podcasts or wasting my time on Twitter
  3. I finally paid off what I had to for house reconstruction, and the liberated cashflow meant that I could buy books to my heart’s content.

All this together has meant that I have read ninety one new books in 2017, apart from a lot of rereading. At the beginning of the year, when I enrolled in Goodreads, I set myself a target of fifty-two books, or was it fifty? I finished the fiftieth, fifty first, and fifty second books just before the end of June; and promptly revised my target to a hundred books for the year. In November, though, encountering a rough patch of great Russian novelists, I decided to slow down, enjoy rereads instead (more on that later), and not worry overmuch about hitting a hundred. And so, yesterday, I wrapped up at ninety one for the year. Here’s my Goodreads 2017 challenge page, which lays them out in an attractive grid.

I will save the highlights of the books themselves for later. But first, I will mention something else which using Goodreads prompted me to do – seeing how many books my women, and how many books by men I was reading3.

At the beginning of the year, I had not really set myself a target on reading men and women, and only wanted to monitor myself for implicit bias. By the end of January, I had realised that I was reading almost only men, and in mild embarrasment at the ratio, without having even set myself a target, set out to improve it. This took a long, long, time; because I was also working through my existing to-be-read pile, which at that point was almost all men.

By the end of January, my ratio of books by women to books by men was 1:3. At this point I tried to compensate, which meant going to the Brooklyn Public Library’s ebook catalogue, going through their history and science sections, and checking out as many interesting looking books by women as possible. By the beginning of May, the ratio had moved up to 12:19. It wasn’t until July 6, when I finished Deirdre McCloskey’s The Bourgeois Virtues, that I had finally read one book by a woman for every book by a man.

However, even before hitting the comforting 1.0 ratio, I was begninning to wonder if a simple ratio of books was telling me enough about my sexism, if any. It was so easy to change the ratio by simply picking out books at the Brooklyn library, did the ratio convey any useful information at all? So I decided to take my self-monitoring one step further, and duplicated my Goodreads records in an Excel file. Then, with the power of pivot tables, I set out to see if I was rating books by women lower than I was rating books by men. In the Excel sheet, I recorded:

  • The name of the book
  • The name of the author (s)
  • Whether it was fiction, nonfiction, or mythology
  • Whether the authors were male, female, or the book had a mix of male and female creators
  • The rating I had given the book

I now realise that I should have also recorded the date I finished the book, which would have allowed me to make cool graphs of how my books by women / books my men ratio changed over time. Alas, I didn’t, and can only promise to do it for 2018 records onwards. For what it’s worth, my Excel sheet is uploaded over here, so if you want to do your own pivot table analyses, please go ahead. But this is what my playing around has led me to conclude:

  1. On the simplest measure – ratio of books – I finished at 48 books by women to 42 books by men.
  2. However, because I was acutely aware of this ratio, I kept trying to improve it by reading more books by any woman author whose books I liked. So my ratio of authors is 37 women to 35 men.
  3. Separating into nonfiction, fiction, and mythology reveals a massive mismatch: In fiction, I read 28 books by men to 23 by women; and in nonfiction I read 25 books by women compared to 12 by men. This is probably a reflection of how I tried to improve my raw ratio by browsing the nonfiction section of the library to find interesting books by women, but didn’t try that with the fiction section.
  4. Breaking down into even smaller genres might reveal more such mismatches, but I haven’t tried that yet.
  5. The reason I gamed my raw ratio with nonfiction but not fiction is that with nonfiction it seemed easier to judge a book by its cover. I felt that taking a chance on a book I had never heard about or been recommended already was easier with nonfiction books, where the cover and blurbs would tell me if at least the topic was interesting or not. With fiction, I wanted to stay with personal recommendations.
  6. Taking a chance on nonfiction I had never heard of earlier really paid off with:
    1. Steam: The Untold Story of America’s First Invention
    2. The Birth of the Pill
    3. Pandemic
    4. Meathooked
  7. Coming finally to ratings. My average rating of books by female authors was 3.58, and for male authors it was 3.69. So I did rate books by men a little higher, but apparently not even by one standard deviation higher.
  8. What if I break it down by category again? This falls two ways. In fiction, my average rating for books by men was 3.78 and for women it was 3.48; a much wider difference than in the overall average. In nonfiction, I rated books by men at 3.58, and books by women at 3.68. Again, the difference is less than one standard deviation in all categories.
  9. I think the one thing in which I may be guilty of implicit bias is in how likely I am to give five star ratings. I gave the full five stars to 6 books by men (4 fiction and 2 nonfiction), but only 2 books by women (one each). So even though I rate women higher on average, I give exceptional ratings to women much less. Ed Yong’s Atlantic essay on how the science Nobel Prizes awarding rules end up making a few lucky scientists famous and lionised but excluding all their collaborators – especially the women – may be a relevant parallel.

Turning now from the numbers to the books themselves, these are the highlights from my 2017 reading:

  • My wife introduced me to Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians series, which was probably the most fun I had this year with lowbrow but very funny fiction.
  • Some years ago, I had asked for recommendations for climate fiction, and friend Sowmya Rao recommended about fifteen books (some not exactly climate fiction but generalised science fiction). What with the whole not-buying-books thing, I only got around to reading most of these in 2017. This meant that I was reading lots of apocalyptic science fiction for a stretch of almost four months, and may have scared myself into never having children. The apocalyptic note carried over to nonfiction in Jane Jacobs’s Dark Age Ahead. At the same time, though, the past two years of reading about Tesla left me slightly annoyed at some of these apocalypse scenarios, because I kept asking “Bloody, how is it that nobody installed solar panels before the apocalypse hit?” This was a question that arose particularly in Station Eleven and The Bone Clocks. Later in the year, I read All The Birds in the Sky, not on Sowmya’s recommendation, and while enjoying it thoroughly, was slightly exasperated at having stumbled into more apocalyptica; but at least this was apocalyptic science fiction that did not rely on a magical disappearance of photovoltaics.
  • The books which friends had raved about and which I found deeply disappointing compared to the hype were Ghachar Ghochar and Liu Cixin’s The Three Body Problem and its sequels. While both were good, they were definitely not the “best books of the decade!” that friends were proclaiming them to be.
  • Chasing the female-male ratio meant that after a gap of years, I read more books in the Mary Russel series, and more books by Sarah Waters, and I was very glad of this.
  • In a lot of the fiction I read in 2017, I found myself loving the beauty of the writing, while being repelled at the characters or the underlying assumptions about human nature. This includes The MagiciansThe Master and MargaritaThis is How You Lose Her, and Her Smoke Rose Up Forever.
  • Many years ago, I had read the citation for Elinor Ostrom’s Nobel prize, thought ‘Oh this sounds interesting’, and promptly wishlisted two of her books. I finally got around to reading them this year (that budget thing at play again), and realised that this had been a rash decision, as the books in question were intended for at least graduate students of economics or public choice, and not dilettantes such as myself. I persevered with the books, but it took ages, and after many years of peace I was reprimanding myself for not having had the discipline to go through with an Econ PhD. So it goes.
  • In November, my reading queue included The Master and Margarita, another book by Elinor Ostrom, and the vast and expansive Bourgeois Equality. After the first half of The Master and Margarita fully justified Cuthbert Banks‘s gloom about the mantle of the great Russians, I looked at the queue, and decided not only to not bother with hitting my target of a hundred books, but to plunge into comfort rereading – and so I did a binge reread of the entire Discworld series (not including the Tiffany Aching books, though). Reading the series in one go, in such a short period of time, meant that I was able to see connections between the books that I hadn’t earlier; discovered that ten years on, I was still able to smile at new things and say ‘Oh so that’s what Terry Pratchett was going for’; developed new respect for Reaper Man, and formed some interesting thoughts on how to classify monsters, which deserve a blogpost to themselves.
  • I found myself making connections between otherwise unrelated books. danah boyd’s It’s Complicated, Jane Jacobs’s Dark Age Ahead, and Ed Gleaser’s Triumph of the City all ended up cribbing about American suburbia, but each talked about a different bad outcome it was leading to. Pandemic connected both to the apocalyptic science fiction I was reading, and to Maryn McKenna’s fantastic Big Chicken. So did David Benatar’s “having children will only perpetuate the suffering of the human species” book Better Never to Have Been, which I am still thinking over, but finding hard to dismiss.
  • Out of “new women science fiction writers”, I ended up not liking Nnedi Okarafor’s Binti, but eager to try her other books, and liking N K Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy but also finding it a bit of a chore. Surprisingly, the easiest to read in this microgenre was Becky Chamber’s The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet – which is a little short on plot and surprise twists, but which I found a very comforting read and charming in its worldbuilding and lack of pretentiousness. Perhaps if I had read any of these books in a different sequence, my opinion would be different. I think they are all worth rereading to find out.
  • I finally finished the year with Deirdre McCloskey’s Bourgeois Equality. Like the other books in the trilogy, it’s expansive and maximalist, a style which I enjoy, and so it was a great book to close the year with. That maximalism meant that it also linked in interesting ways with lots of other books I’d read in 2017, which also made it a particularly appropriate book to close the year with. Some of those linkages were:
    • I loved Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt, in which KSR goes ‘What if the Black Death had killed all of Europe instead of just a third?’, and then sketches an alternative history in which the Industrial Revolution happens in Central Asia instead of Europe (among other things). Bourgeois Equality though spends a lot of time talking about how the Industrial Revolution was a massive coincidence, and on all the reasons why it wouldn’t have arisen anywhere else, thus pouring cold water on The Years of Rice and Salt. So it goes.
    • The Discworld binge reread made me realise that McCloskey’s Bourgeois trilogy is the nonfiction exploration of all the same themes that Pratchett poured into fiction: the value of rhetoric and Vetinari’s opinions about politics, the awfulness of how aristocracy gathered violence through warmaking being reflected in Lord Rust’s suicidal charges, the disgust with aristocracy in general being reflected in Sam Vimes’s rage; and of course the Bourgeois Revaluation itself being taken up and explored in all the books from say, Feet of Clay onwards. Heck, there is even a bit in Bourgeois Equality which directly mimics the passage about Ankh Morpork tearing down its city walls.
    • Of course McCloskey references Elinor Ostrom’s work on how communication can overcome the Prisoner’s Dilemma (Please be aware that this is a gross oversimplification for the purposes of this blogpost).

What are my plans for next year’s reading? In no particular order:

  • Continue to track my reading of women vs men, and particularly try to find fiction by women.
  • Read all the source material Bourgeois Equality threw up, particularly The Theory of Moral Sentiments and Hirschman’s Exit, Voice, and Loyalty.
  • Track my date of reading, source of book, and money spent or saved through cunning library utilisation along with everything else I’m tracking.
  • Instead of chasing an impressive looking number of books, allow myself to take the time to slowly read in languages other than English. I am planning to read Shrilal Shukla’s Raag Darbari and a German young adult time travel trilogy for sure.

That wraps it up for my review of 2017 reading. I look forward to reading about what you have read this year.

Saints, Transhumanists, and Death Eaters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Wikipedia: Nikolai Fyodorovich Fyodorov)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trying to Define Dignity

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

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

Hmmm.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Propensity for Narrative

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hope, Faith, Love

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

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

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

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

And the three Christian and feminine ones:

  1. Faith
  2. Hope
  3. Love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, I had better get to it then.

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.

Anuja Chauhan and the Missing January

I recently reread Anuja Chauhan’s Those Pricey Thakur Girls. This was an extremely close reread, because I was looking for specific details to figure out when exactly the sequel takes place. And in the process I discovered something surprising. Time in Those Pricey Thakur Girls does not move at a constant rate. At least ninety days have just vanished from the narrative. The rest of this post describes how this happens, in detail. This of course means that I will give away many, many spoilers for the book. It also means that this post will probably be of interest to you only if you have already read the book; which means the relevant readership for the post is tiny, probably even smaller than this blog’s already vanishing readership. However, it’s an interesting discovery, so I might as well set it out anyway. Here we go.

Continue reading “Anuja Chauhan and the Missing January”