And While We’re Discussing Knee Jerk Reactions…

December 18, 2008

Masabi has a sooper post up about the ill-conceived Small Change petition.


December 17, 2008

After six months in Mumbai, working in an office which is equal parts legacy Maharashtrian staff and fresh new Bong and TamBrahm deputees (it’s a banking subsidiary, there have to be Bongs and TamBrahms around), I have come to an important realisation: Maharashtrian laziness is very different from other races’ laziness.

At one end of the laziness spectrum is the sort of laziness that Terry Pratchett describes in Moving Pictures:

Ordinary laziness was merely the absence of effort. Victor had passed through there a long time ago, had gone straight through commonplace idleness and out on the far side. He put more effort into avoiding work than most people put into hard labor.

People who didn’t apply themselves to the facts in hand might have thought that Victor Tugelbend would be fat and unhealthy. In fact, he was undoubtedly the most athletically inclined student in the University. Having to haul around extra poundage was far too much effort, so he saw to it that he never put it on and he kept himself in trim because doing things with decent muscles was far less effort than trying to achieve things with bags of flab.

Another form of dynamic laziness is structured procrastination:

Structured procrastination is the art of making this bad trait work for you. The key idea is that procrastinating does not mean doing absolutely nothing. Procrastinators seldom do absolutely nothing; they do marginally useful things, like gardening or sharpening pencils or making a diagram of how they will reorganize their files when they get around to it. Why does the procrastinator do these things? Because they are a way of not doing something more important. If all the procrastinator had left to do was to sharpen some pencils, no force on earth could get him do it. However, the procrastinator can be motivated to do difficult, timely and important tasks, as long as these tasks are a way of not doing something more important.

So these are the forms of laziness which actually get things done. It’s this sort of laziness which Larry Wall was talking about when he said that the three virtues of a programmer are laziness, impatience and hubris:

  1. Laziness – The quality that makes you go to great effort to reduce overall energy expenditure. It makes you write labor-saving programs that other people will find useful, and document what you wrote so you don’t have to answer so many questions about it. Hence, the first great virtue of a programmer. Also hence, this book. See also impatience and hubris.
  2. Impatience – The anger you feel when the computer is being lazy. This makes you write programs that don’t just react to your needs, but actually anticipate them. Or at least pretend to. Hence, the second great virtue of a programmer. See also laziness and hubris.
  3. Hubris – Excessive pride, the sort of thing Zeus zaps you for. Also the quality that makes you write (and maintain) programs that other people won’t want to say bad things about. Hence, the third great virtue of a programmer. See also laziness and impatience.

Alas, few people are virtuous enough to use their laziness for good rather than evil. Instead, many people are French or Bong. In that case their laziness expresses itself in refusing to show up for work earlier than very late, and refusing to stay for work later than very early. On the other hand, this is well understood, and people can work around it. And maybe the French and the Bongs are enjoying themselves when they’re off work, in which case the laziness at least is benefitting somebody.

KT laziness, according to Monkee, consists of passing the buck to other people. While this is not as desirable as coming up with shortcuts and hacks yourself, at least it ensures that the buck will eventually land up with someone who believes that the buck stops with him or her. And so things get done.

Maharashtrian laziness is different altogether. Maharashtrians don’t arrive late and leave early the way the French and Bongs do. Nor do they pass the buck. Nor do they come up with easier and faster ways of doing things. They just ignore everything. Asking a lazy Maharashtrian to do something – whether in person, over phone, or over email – is futile. It won’t get done. They won’t claim to be busy with something else. They won’t ask you to get the work done by someone else who is supposedly responsible. They won’t tell you to do something else instead. They won’t even acknowledge that you’ve requested something.  Your request just vanishes. Pooft. Like into a black hole.

This habit can actually be lived with. The other Maharashtrian habit – cellphone ring volumes turned up to maximum, coupled with polyphonic ringtones – can’t.

Also, Ramalinga Raju for FM

December 17, 2008

I have only one question for the people who’re calling for Ratan Tata to be Prime Minister.

Are you fucking idiots?

In the past few years, the Tata Group, with Ratan Tata presiding, has:

  1. spent money buying luxury car brands just months before the world headed for a recession
  2. completed an expensive purchase of Corus, and now has to worry about getting money in the middle of a global credit crunch
  3. started, and then abandoned the ridiculous Chai-Unchai concept of tea bars for Tata Tea
  4. further lost market share in mobile telephony, had to write off years of accumulated losses in Tata Teleservices, and is desperately clutching at the Virgin Mobile straw to turn things around
  5. screwed over small shareholders in the TCS IPO (wait, the Tatas have been screwing over the small shareholder for years on end)
  6. spent money putting up a car factory in Bongland of all places, royally screwing up the land acquisition, walking into a PR disaster, and then running to Gujewland, something they could have done to begin with and saved themselves much grief
  7. and, of course, most recently, cut down on security at the Taj Mahal Hotel a week before it was attacked

With this track record of incompetence, you want to make Ratan Tata responsible for the country. If you have to exhibit your desperation, why not just wish for the British to take over once again?

Muntazer al-Zaidi Must Be Celebrated in Song and Ballad

December 17, 2008

Seriously, the man is fabulous. For the past eight years, Bush-hating activities have existed at a level that can best be summed up as “lame-ass”. There have been protest marches with bad slogans. There have been riots in Lucknow where Hindus and Muslims beat each other up (or vice versa), but Bush himself escaped unscathed. He wasn’t even anywhere near Lucknow. There’s been a persistent falase rumour about him serving plastic turkey to the troops. At a time when people were sick of him and the Iraq war, he couldn’t be defeated in an election, for crying out loud. You have to ask what the hell people have been doing.

And now, this man does with forty days of a Bush presidency to go what people couldn’t do in eight years before him: take direct action against the man himself, and hurls a pair of shoes at him. While violence is deplorable, it has to be admitted that his directness is admirable. No shilly-shallying for this man of action.

The incident also shows the declining standards in Presidential manliness. When Theodore Roosevelt was shot on the campaign trail, he just kept on giving his speech. When Hinckley shot Ronald Reagan, he took it in the lung like a man and told Nancy Reagan that he’d forgotten to duck. Bush ducked, when faced with nothing more dangerous than shoes. Deplorable. One can only hope Obama turns out less feeble.

Daastaan and Dostana

December 12, 2008

My current to-be-read pile consists of Musharraf Ali Farooqi’s fabulous transalation of The Adventures of Amir Hamza. You can read Jabberwock’s posts on the books here and here).

Just to bring you up to speed on what the adventures of Amir Hamza actually are. The prophet Muhammad had an uncle called Hamza who was one of the major generals when Muhammad went about waging war to bring all the Arabian tribes under Islam. This is a well established piece of history.

Over the passage of time, history and mythology got mixed up, and Amir Hamza transformed into a mythic hero, and all major heroic adventure stories in the Islamic world from Persia to the Mughal Empire featured Amir Hamza. The way palace jester stories are the same all over India, but get filled in with Birbal in North India, Tenaliraman in South India and Gopal Bhar in Bongland; all adventure stories started to feature Amir Hamza. And so a huge number of stories about Amir Hamza winning over princesses and killing monsters and villains and treading the bejeweled thrones of the world under his feet sprang up. Very probably, when Sultanat and Mughal era grandmothers told their grandchildren stories, they were stories about Amir Hamza, though we don’t know that for sure.

What we do know for sure is that daastaan storytellers from the Mughal era onwards used to tell stories. It became part of the rich Indian oral tradition1. And so there was an explosion of Amir Hamza stories by the time of the late Mughal era, all being told but rarely being written down. Until 1855, when a chap called Ghalib Lakhnavi (claiming to be Tipu Sultan’s grandson in law) published a single-volume compilation of adventures. This was then adapted in 1875 by another chap called Abdullah Bilgrami who added on even more poetry and flowery language. Finally, Musharraf Ali Farooqi has translated Bilgrami’s version into English in the present day, and this is what I’m reading.

What makes the adventures of Amir Hamza so awesome (that is, apart from all the reasons Jabberwock already mentioned) is that everybody rides rhinos instead of horses. To add to the joy, the fact of them riding rhinos is inserted into the text with complete casualness – as if there’s nothing out of the ordinary about riding a rhino, and that mythic heroes and villains riding armor plated beasts instead of horses should be taken for granted. Check out this passage, the first one where rhinos appear:

Thus resolved, Antar departed from the city with five thousand troops. Upon catching sight of him, Hashsham laughed with contempt, and said, “Death flutters above his head seeking a perch, and doom spurs him forward, since he has come to skirmish and dares show me his face!” Then urging his rhinoceros alongside Antar’s mount, Hashsham said, “What is it that you seek? Why do you desire the massacre of your troops, and wish to lay down your life?”

The incongruity of people riding rhinos is just heightened if you’ve read Guns, Germs and Steel, which has this awesome paragraph:

It’s true, of course, that some large African animals have occasionally been tamed. Hannibal enlisted tamed African elephants in his unsuccessful war against Rome, and ancient Egyptians may have tamed giraffes and other species. But none of those tamed animals was actually domesticated—that is, selectively bred in captivity and genetically modified so as to become more useful to humans. Had Africa’s rhinos and hippos been domesticated and ridden, they would not only have fed armies but also have provided an unstoppable cavalry to cut through the ranks of European horsemen. Rhino-mounted Bantu shock troops could have overthrown the Roman Empire. It never happened.

But the Mughal era storytellers made it happen.

OK. But interesting as rhino mounted heroes are, there was something else about The Hamzanama that I wanted to talk about.

This is a bunch of folktales told and written in Urdu. The compilation is done by a guy called Lakhnavi. The story is filled with uniquely Indian references like rhinos and Indian foods and suchlike. But the hero is an Arab who spends most of his time adventuring in Persia (that is, when he’s on the earthly plain). The only time the hero of Indian folktakes is associated with India is when he marches over to subdue its army, convert its king to Islam, and enlist him in his forces.

Now Hindutva types would doubtless point out that this is because Muslims consider Persia and Arabia more important than the country of their birth. And they may be right. But a better explanation is that Indian storytelling about the fantastic always ends up being located elsewhere. So you have stories about Ram going all the way to Lanka to fight demons, Raja Vikram fighting evil viziers in China, princes going to faraway forests where they find apsaras, until the point where Amir Hamza is going about Persia, Yemen and Qaf, all the while talking in Urdu and eating shirmal and nihari. And so it goes.

Of course, tales told in an Indian language about a fantasy world outside India really exploded in the past fifteen years, thanks to the efforts of Yash Raj Films. They started in 1995 with Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (London, Switzerland, and a sort of faux-Punjab); and since then have moved on from foreign locale to foreign locale – New York, Sydney, Canada, and of course multiple alternate-reality Mumbais where everyone has massive houses with swimming pools). Just to drive the point home, they have a movie coming up titled New York. Dharma Productions has not been far behind either, setting its films in London, New York, and most recently Miami.

And just as daastaan tellers had fantastic characters like djinns, peris, and ghuls, YRF and Dharma have given us equally unreal characters like racing car drivers, summer camp owners, cartoonists, conmen, and well… assorted rich people who’re never seen working or struggling. And the way Amir Hamza goes about converting everyone to the true faith, our present day luminaries immerse everyone in traditional Indian values, or at any rate what they think are traditional Indian values (this is actually a subject for the Pandeys to take up).

So people who crib about Bollywood being at odds with reality and out of touch with the real India should stop. What Bollywood is actually doing is continuing the great traditions of Indian folklore and storytelling. Now if only they did it more comprehensively and brought in more rhinos.

1: As Neha Vish pointed out, it’s incredible how Indians managed to reproduce so much in spite of the oral tradition. But then the foreword and the preface both express concern that the oral tradition is dying out.

Blogging and a Quiz

December 11, 2008

The absence of regular posts has been because I was busy getting a quiz ready. In the time since my last bout of regular posting, armed motherfuckers shot up my city, I quit my job, multiple people I know got married, had babies, or celebrated their birthdays; and I upgraded WordPress to 2.7. So it goes.

As for the quiz – it’s been done by me, Skimpy and Kodhi; and Aishwarya, Beatzo, Gaurav and Kunal have helped with vetting the questions. To make things more joyous, it’s being conducted in both Bombay (by me) and in Bangalore (by Baada). Both quizzes will take place on Sunday afternoon.

For details on where and when in Bangalore, head here. For Bombay details, head here. The short directions for Bombay are – 2.45 pm, Pinstorm Office, next to the Kotak Mahindra Bank branch on Linking Road in Santa Cruz. Do show up, the quiz will be fun.