Ten Minutes in the Kitchen

October 28, 2014

My blog is at risk of sounding like a paid promotion for Philips. A day after writing about buying Philips LED bulbs, I am now writing about their new ad campaign to promote self-examination for breast cancer. Rest assured, though, that it’s just a coincidence, and do consider that I have been blogging so little that I don’t think Philips would even bother paying me.

Anyway. I saw the campaign being mentioned on social media about a week ago, at which time I quickly scrolled past. Then I saw a print ad on the weekend, and successfully ignored that. However, this evening, I heard a radio spot, got intrigued, and came back to look for the video spot. Here it is. It combines some of my favourite things: communicating without speaking, yuppie couples, and kitchens.

The radio ad I heard this evening isn’t quite as impressive. For starters, the husband in the radio ad seems far less competent. Unlike his counterpart in the TV ad, he can’t just make food by himself. He calls up his wife to ask for the recipe for dal. This left me wondering:

  • Why on earth do you need a recipe for dal of all things?
  • If you have to call up your wife to get instructions for making dal, don’t you end up wasting almost as much time of hers, and possibly more, as you save by making dal?
  • Seriously, why couldn’t he just look up YouTube, any of the multiple food channels on television, a cookbook, or just search the internet for a non-video recipe?
  • Will this incompetent chap who doesn’t even know how to learn how to make dal eventually follow in the noble footsteps of Samar Halarnkar and Max da Vinci and become a married man in the kitchen on a frequent basis, or is he just going to do this whenever his wife needs to self-examine?
  • What about lala couples who have domestic help to do all the chores anyway?
  • What about ladies who are widowed, have husbands who are living away from them, or aren’t married at all?

And, along with all of this, well, good for Philips India, but what made them decide on this good cause in particular?

I suspect that the whole point of the campaign is not to get more women examining themselves for breast cancer (though that would be a nice and positive side effect if it happened), but to get more husbands doing chores (which is valuable for its own sake and would also be excellent if it happened).

Now, telling husbands to do chores only for ten minutes a month may not seem like a lot as far as the wife is concerned. There is of course the possibility that the husbands will discover (to their own surprise) that they like doing things for their wives on a regular basis, or even that they enjoy doing the chores for their own sake. (Don’t knock that last possibility. Ironing is extremely relaxing.) And even if they don’t really enjoy it, maybe husbands will do it out of sheer competitiveness if they see other husbands doing it and bragging about it. Let us wait and watch.

Why, though, does Philips want husbands doing household chores? What’s in it for them?

My conspiracy theory is that they are not doing this out of the goodness of their hearts, a desire for less breast cancer, or a desire for more equitable marriages; but to sell the household appliances they make. What Philips is probably counting on is that husbands who have never done chores before will, once finally exposed to actual housework, realise what their wives have been going through and then rush to automate all these tasks as much as possible. Having realised the difficulties involved in getting ironed clothes, warm daal, or clean floors, they will at long last get better tools to achieve these, and immediately purchase mixies, vacuum cleaners, air fryers, or steam irons; to name but a few products in the Philips India range. Meanwhile, their wives, who had been wanting better equipment all this while but couldn’t convince them, will probably roll their eyes, grumble a bit about how long it took for the husbands to wake up to reality, and afterwards, hopefully, enjoy the benefits of increased automation, even if not the benefits of their husbands doing the work regularly.

If my conspiracy theory is correct, clearly somebody at Philips India is extremely subtle and patient in expanding their market size. Respect, I say. Respect.

The Return of Suppurating Pustules

February 8, 2014

Around the end of last year, Unilever came up with a ridiculously long, fuzzy and sentimental ad film, which did not pitch soap, or detergent, or ice cream, but the idea that you should have children.

Let us for the moment put aside the conspiracy theory that Unilever is encouraging people to go out and breed because, not satisfied with selling household and body cleaning things to its existing customers, it wants even more customers in the future. After all, it’s not demanding that all people have kids, just trying to reassure the people who’ve already decided to do it that their choice isn’t that bad after all, considering that scientific progress is reducing the risk of famine and drought.

Now read this:

With antibiotics losing usefulness so quickly — and thus not making back the estimated $1 billion per drug it costs to create them — the pharmaceutical industry lost enthusiasm for making more. In 2004, there were only five new antibiotics in development, compared to more than 500 chronic-disease drugs for which resistance is not an issue — and which, unlike antibiotics, are taken for years, not days. Since then, resistant bugs have grown more numerous and by sharing DNA with each other, have become even tougher to treat with the few drugs that remain. In 2009, and again this year, researchers in Europe and the United States sounded the alarm over an ominous form of resistance known as CRE, for which only one antibiotic still works.

Health authorities have struggled to convince the public that this is a crisis. In September, Dr. Thomas Frieden, the director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, issued a blunt warning: “If we’re not careful, we will soon be in a post-antibiotic era. For some patients and some microbes, we are already there.”


The burst in food production that Unilever is counting on to make the world a better place for the next generation could be totally overshadowed by the bacterial disease’s big comeback, as antibiotic resistance becomes widespread. Actually, not just bacterial disease:

Many treatments require suppressing the immune system, to help destroy cancer or to keep a transplanted organ viable. That suppression makes people unusually vulnerable to infection. Antibiotics reduce the threat; without them, chemotherapy or radiation treatment would be as dangerous as the cancers they seek to cure. Dr. Michael Bell, who leads an infection-prevention division at the CDC, told me: “We deal with that risk now by loading people up with broad-spectrum antibiotics, sometimes for weeks at a stretch. But if you can’t do that, the decision to treat somebody takes on a different ethical tone. Similarly with transplantation. And severe burns are hugely susceptible to infection. Burn units would have a very, very difficult task keeping people alive.”

Let’s not forget the charming symptoms that arise out of bacterial diseases, like pus filled sores, rotting flesh, and oozing lesions.

I do see the prospect of a world where we have no defence against bacterial disease as providing a small benefit: the world will become a more horrible place, but life will become more worth living. More so for people like me who find it hard to believe in the existence of God, and struggle to create our own meaning in life.

Trying to add some sort of meaning to our current, prosperous, lives is an exercise in dizzying scale. We are aware about the whole interconnected world, and want to make a difference to it. But we can’t. There is a total mismatch between the scale of our experience and the scale of our ability, and being unable to deal with this causes anxiety.

The way to deal with this is to enter a sort of (non-Total) Perspective Vortex that makes us realise that our lives are not that significant and so we should just get on with making them as pleasurable as possible. One way of doing this is to believe in God and one’s own relative insignificance and imminent danger of being cursed. Another is to read or listen to Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot speech (Zen Pencils webcomic, YouTube video) every week or so. But if rampant bacterial infection makes life short, fragile, and in constant danger of going horribly wrong,  that perspective comes much more easily. Every day spent without having your face fall off will be a day lived in gratitude.

In a way, then, Unilever remains right: this is indeed the best time to bring a child into the world, if what you want for that child is not a happy life, but a meaningful one. I just wish their ad were more accurate about it.

Why Hindutva is Like Dog Breeding

January 31, 2014

I have had an insight. Admittedly it was one of those insights which you get at 1 am when you can’t sleep because you had the last cappuccino of the day a little too late in the day; but despite the circumstances in which it arose, I think it is a valuable insight. And it is basically this: the two extreme views of what Hinduism actually is correspond exactly to the two extreme views dog lovers have about how you should go about getting a dog as a pet.

Explaining the analogy means I will have to first provide context.

For many years, I was mystified by the fact that Hindutvawadis could hold these two beliefs simultaneously:

  1. Hinduism is really awesome
  2. Hinduism is under grave, horrible threat and must be preserved at all costs from any combination of:
    1. Sickular Media
    2. CONgis
    3. Love Jihad
    4. Vatican Missionaries
    5. The Nehru-Gandhi dynasty
    6. Ramachandra Guha
    7. Twitter Secret Santa

These simultaneous beliefs would manifest into calls for legal and illegal action against anybody who criticised or denigrated Hinduism in any way, no matter their actual intent.

I, and other likeminded people would be bewildered and say things like “If Hinduism is so great, surely it can withstand these very minor criticisms.” In fact, it was really polite people like Salil Tripathi who would say such things. I used to say much more outrageous things like “Boss if Hinduism is this vulnerable to criticism, why are you even bothering with something so weak? Start practicing a more robust religion like Islam or Thor-worship or some such. Persisting with Hinduism can only lead to tears and misery as you watch it collapse around you.”

It was not until this month that I realised that this argument was totally pointless because it assumes that we were thinking of Hinduism in the same way. We weren’t. I was thinking of Hinduism in the way that Gautam John and Anoopa Anand think of Indian Pi Dogs. They were thinking of Hinduism in the way that pug owners regard their pugs1 (or actually, any purebreed dog, but pugs are fashionable these days, so the analogy becomes clearer – and actually more forceful, as we’ll see later on). In fact, considering how loaded the terms Hindutvawadi and liberal have become these days, using the terms Pug view of Hinduism and Pi View of Hinduism might actually be more enlightening in the general discourse2. More so if you consider that Hindutvawadi could refer to actual behaviour or actions, while Pug View and Pi View very clearly refer to mindsets.

If you are Good Guy Gautam, or somebody similar, then resilience, health, and being robust are necessary conditions of being awesome. You think pi dogs make great pets and companions because they’re healthy, active, and friendly. A wide genetic stock, you feel, allows for a pleasing variety of very resilient specimens. Extending the analogy to religion, what you like most about Hinduism are the practices or beliefs that are easy to live with and carry on, and its ability to absorb influences from other religions if they’re good ideas. 

But if you’re on the other extreme, you’re not bothered about health and resilience at all. What you’re concerned about is pure breeding, even if the result of this breeding creates an animal that is so strangely shaped that more than two out of every three of its kind have diseases that are directly traceable to its weird shape. The strange, disease prone, almost nonviable form of the pug (which, along with the modern bulldog, exemplifies selective breeding run amok) is a feature, not a bug, because it makes the pug look so cute and distinctive.

Extending this to religion, the weirdest parts of Hinduism, that make it so difficult and cumbersome to practice, and which also seem so totally pointless to the disinterested observer, are precisely what the devoted but threatened promoter of Hinduism thinks are the whole point. It is irrelevant that fasting for your husbands’ good health, letting your own or other peoples’ gotra or caste influence your decisions, practicing a sattvik diet, or going through elaborate rituals to qualify as a proper Hindu have not made them happier, more prosperous, or more productive than the rest of the world that has happily gotten along without all these.  It is because it is difficult to maintain, easy to go wrong, and serves little purpose, that this sort of Hinduism is so valuable – it shows that for hundreds of years, you’ve managed to keep something largely unviable going in its pure form.

Actually, an obsession with purity is the kinder interpretation of why the Pug View of Hinduism likes the bizarre bits of Hinduism so much. I could be more conspiracy minded (like the Pughindus themselves) and suggest that they want Hinduism to be this unsustainable so that, like a pug, it is completely dependent on the owner and in its power. But this would be mean. Besides, there’s some other support for the hypothesis that it’s driven by an obsession with purity: their insistence that Hinduism is a way of life and not a religion and so you can only be born a Hindu and can’t become one through practice.

It also is supported by how horrified Pughindus are at the thought of other Hindus doing anything that is not found within Pughinduism, no matter whether this activity is good or bad. A Pughindu is appalled at people playing Twitter Secret Santa because it might be a covert attempt to spread Christianity. It doesn’t matter that by playing secret Santa you have successfully detached the gift giving part of Christmas from the accepting Jesus Christ as your saviour part of Christianity. It also doesn’t matter that the more people who aren’t practicing Christians go around wishing others a merry Christmas in a spirit of goodwill and warmth, the more it actually changes Christianity from the violent and genocidal religion that Hindutvawadis say they hate, to an actual religion of brotherhood and love that can’t threaten Hinduism with genocide. It doesn’t even matter that prosocial behaviour like gifting is correlated with an increase in happiness for the gifter and not just the giftee. The suggestion of cross breeding and tainting the bloodline is enough to horrify them.

Tragically, this obsession with purity puts Pughindus makes the suffer from dreadful envy and a Catch 22 situation. By keeping their vision of Hinduism pure, they have made it either impossible, unappealing, or too time-consuming to practice; and thus people keep deserting it in favour of Islam, Sikhism, Christianity, Buddhism, or secular humanism. Worse is when these people keep mocking Pughinduism for being so odd; which then leads to them crying up and down3 about how Hinduism is threatened; much as pug owners keep crying up and down about veterinary bills.

Which means that Pughindus see Islam in particular the way pug-owners see Indian street dogs. Pug owners look at pi dogs, and envy their robust good health, and wish that their pug were as healthy and capable, but are horrified at the thought of breeding their pug with it, or even letting it into their houses. The Pughindus are miserable when they see the united front that Muslims appear to present, and wish that Hinduism itself had it4, without realising that it is the type of Hinduism they practice that makes it impossible to present that united front.

Also, if you agree that the Pug View of Hinduism looks at Islam the way posh people think of street dogs –  healthier, gregarious, but also dirty and not something they want around – you will suddenly understand why a certain analogy that compared massacre victims to a puppy under the wheels of a car makes perfect sense.

Meanwhile, Pihindus, who are quite happy to practice a mongrel Hinduism with lots of cross breeding in its pedigree are not concerned about the health of their Hinduism at all, and don’t suffer this agonising envy. About religion, anyway. They might feel envious about other things like smartphones or whatnot.

But the upshot is that while they share a religion, Pughindus and Pihindus see it in completely different ways. And until this fundamental disagreement over what it is they are actually talking about is resolved, nothing useful can ever  come out when they talk about their own religion. There will be only noise and no light, until we have a reformer who can talk to the two sides, explain the difference they have that must be reconciled, and perhaps, bring about the end of the religious equivalent of puppy mills. Until then, we will keep struggling on, talking but not understanding. It is very sad, but there it is.



1: Full Disclosure: Some months ago, I had a highly unpleasant meeting with somebody who, over the course of the meeting, whined about not enjoying their holiday in the Philippines because it was so third world, about how they didn’t want to take up their only job offer because it was in Mumbai which was unsafe compared to living in the Delhi family home, and how their undergraduate class in Delhi was full of uncool students from small town India and Delhi University should reserve seats for people from Delhi who otherwise wouldn’t even be able to get in with high marks (which I found a particularly staggering demand considering that this person had gone to America for their MBA). The person in question also had a pug, which was paralysed, and in a heart rending display of the problems only the very rich face, kept slipping while attempting to walk, because the floors in the house were of marble. It is possible that I am now contemptuous towards pug owners as a class, based only on my animosity towards this one spilling over.

2: This may seem like a really arrogant expectation, but ‘Sainath Fallacy‘ has now slowly started being used by a wide variety of people on Twitter, two years after I coined it. So it may soon make the jump to mainstream media; and Pi View and Pug View may follow a similar trajectory. I can dream.

3: The phrase ‘crying up and down’ is of course one that was much beloved by HIM. It is used in a spirit of focusing the mind on the divine, but should not be allowed to degenerate into mere idol worship. Even after HIS departure, we have found HIM in other manifestations.

4: When Pughindus wish that Hindus were united, the subtext is that other Hindus should become more Pughindu and do the hard work of changing their lifestyle by, for instance, going vegetarian or spending money and time on elaborate rituals or pilgrimages. Pughindus never consider working for Hindu unity by becoming like other Hindus who, when they hear Radha, dance instead of entering an outraged frenzy. This insistence on other people doing all the hard work has a parallel in the way it’s usually Indian pug owners’ domestic servants who have to clean up the pug’s poop.

In Defence of Handwriting

March 6, 2013

Sometime last year, Beatzo had a blogpost up where he griped madly about the traditional (and according to him, outdated) obsession with “good” handwriting, and then demolished all the claimed benefits of good handwriting one by one. Towards the end of his post he did grudgingly acknowledge the one benefit of beautiful handwriting, but it got lost in the debris of his earlier demolition job. This post, then, is my attempt to balance things out and focus on the actual benefits of good handwriting, not the claimed but irrelevant ones.

(Disclosure: a couple of years ago, when I was diagnosed with anxiety, the shrink told me to play sudoku to keep my mind active. I decided that it would be more productive and challenging to teach myself cursive writing instead. I never actually got started back then, eventually using my free time for German classes instead, but last year, when I moved back to Delhi and couldn’t get admission to the next level of German, I had spare time again, and finally took up cursive writing. By the time Beatzo wrote his post, I was finally able to write in cursive again, after about twenty years, and that too without the benefit of guide lines. So I took Beatzo’s hatchet job on handwriting somewhat personally. There, now you know I have a dog in the fight.)

So, what are the actual benefits of good handwriting? I’ve discovered that writing stuff out by hand instead of on the PC means I get less easily distracted by the internet, but this is not a benefit of handwriting, it’s an indictment of my self-control. So that doesn’t count. I’ve also discovered that writing in longhand is an easier way to deal with writer’s block than trying to fill in a Word document – the sight of the entire blank page in Word is far more psychologically debilitating. But again, that’s something personal to me, and I can’t reasonably claim it as a universal benefit of handwriting. I also can’t claim that people write at the same speed as they think which makes for better finished pieces – depending on the person, that could be as true or false for typing or dictating.

When you come down to it, there is only one good argument for good handwriting – that it is a work of craft, and beauty in craft is valuable for its own sake. There is also the baser, but still valid argument, that good handwriting impresses people. The utilitarian arguments for good handwriting – clarity, legibility, and so forth – crumble in the face of technology that does this so much better. All that is left is the aesthetic argument – that good handwriting can look beautiful by itself. Beatzo does grudgingly, almost afterthinkingly, concede the aesthetic argument, but in a fit of curmudgeonliness restricts it to calligraphy.

Now, I thoroughly appreciate calligraphy and its beauty. I’d quite like to take it up myself (once I make time for it from all the other out-of-work activities I have planned). But calligraphy hasn’t captured or laid claim to all the beauty there is in the craft of forming glyphs by hand. Non calligraphic handwriting can also be ridiculously beautiful.

As far as the baser argument of impressing people with your handwriting is concerned, Beatzo claims that a person will be impressed with any handwriting that is prettier than their own, and also that the mere act of writing a message by hand signals that you took extra time and effort on it – and it’s this signaling that matters, not the quality of the handwriting itself.

I actually agree with Beatzo on the important thing being the signal, but while I can’t speak for the world at large, for me personally, there are boundary conditions to the impressiveness of the signal. If I get a handwritten message where the writing is so awful that I have to spend time deciphering what has been written, any goodwill that could have been earned by the additional effort will evaporate. (This is also true for when the grammar is so atrocious that I have to devote time and cognitive effort to deciphering the message). If other people have the same reaction, that’s a reasonable argument for making your handwriting ‘good enough’, if not actually ‘good’.

At the other end of the spectrum, when handwriting crosses a certain threshold of prettiness, it blows me away independent of the content. I then get impressed with the person with the fabulous writing because s/he’s a fabulous graphist, over and above the content of the message and the signaling. That, then, becomes the argument to take your handwriting from ‘good enough’ to ‘great’. But, yes, that does mean that for a long time, there’s no marginal benefit to improving your handwriting until it crosses into greatness.

All that said, I do agree with Beatzo that the insistence on making every kid in school practice ‘good’ handwriting is stupid. After all, if the only value of handwriting is that it’s beautiful, you should be encouraging people to create beauty in whichever area they’re most talented in, not insisting that they hit a standard of beauty in handwriting, which they may have absolutely no aptitude for. Then again, a kid in school may not know where her aptitude lies until she tries everything (and this is not just true for kids in school but also for thirty year old men. Ahem.)

This reminds me of a conversation I had long ago with Manasi, who, rather daringly for a children’s books publisher, had gone to an education conference and said that there was probably nothing special about reading books, and that if a kid decided to send his or her free time playing video games or football or making craft projects, that was as potentially good or useful as reading story books is.

Similarly, singing or playing a sport can create as much beauty as writing well can, so why do our schools and parents have an obsession with handwriting? As Beatzo says, it’s probably just a lucky meme that has managed to capture Indian society’s mindspace.

While I’m happy to place singing, sports, painting, and handwriting at the same level as valid forms of art creation; when it comes to handwriting as a way to impress people, I’m a little more conservative about holding other ways of impressing people at the same level. Dressing well is also a way to impress people, but in this domain, I do get far more impressed by somebody who sends me a handwritten letter in clean and beautiful writing than by somebody who shows up to meet me dressed well. The handwriting, after all, is a form of creation, while the clothes are a form of consumption. Now, if somebody had made their own clothes, that would be a different matter. (And for a two hundred page long expansion of this argument, I recommend Geoffrey Miller’s Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior.)

All right, Beatzo, the ball’s back in your court. I hope your response comes as a blog post and not a comment, so that you get restarted blogging.

The Uncanny Valley of Parental Conservatism

December 2, 2012

Parental conservatism (or paranoia) is not an on-off state between liberal and conservative, but a continuum from chilled out to liberal to conservative to batshit fucking insane. Parents can be less or more liberal or conservative in various ways.

Take, for example, curfews and how long the child in question is allowed to stay out.   Some parents will just not give a damn. Some will hand the keys over and make annoyed phone calls starting at eleven. Some will impose a midnight curfew. Some will impose a ten pm curfew. At the truly paranoid end of the scale, you will have parents who will not even let things come to the ‘आज से तुम्हारा college जाना बंद!‘ situation, and pre-emptively force the kid to enroll in a correspondence course while sitting at the family shop instead of being out and about. In such a situation, you can just sigh, shake your head, and reflect gloomily that the best case scenario for the kid in this case is to elope with Rajesh Khanna. Tragic, no? Especially considering that Kakaji is now dead and it will therefore be a zombie romance.

However, the fact of how willing you are to let your kids go out and do1 what they want to do lies on a continuous curve leads to a startling conclusion: there exists an uncanny valley of parental conservatism. To wit: there are parents who are so conservative that they don’t even know the interesting things that there are to do, like teenage sex (after all that happens only after marriage), experimenting with recreational drugs (what is ecstasy?), and racing borrowed motorcycles (Bunty doesn’t even know how to drive!). Such parents will happily agree to their children going off to college or internships in different cities, because after all they are so serious and hard working and will only concentrate on their studies. Likewise if they are headed out for a birthday party, what more could be happening at a party than birthday cake and Pepsi?

1: Yo, let’s not delude ourselves into believing the bullshit that an 8 pm curfew is about ensuring your kids don’t get mugged or raped or conned out of all the money they’re carrying. If you’re paranoid enough to set an 8 pm curfew and your motivation is the safety of your kids, then the appropriate way to channel that paranoia is to dress up as a giant bat and strike fear into the hearts of criminals (a cowardly and superstitious lot). If you’re locking up your kids instead of beating up thugs, your motivation is actually to ensure that your kids aren’t doing something that they might actually enjoy.

Big City Parochialism

July 11, 2012

This column by Isha Singh Sawhney is about how badly we, Indian tourists, treat our hill stations. (On a related note, see Hari the Kid’s rant about Indian travellers.) While the complaints in the column are legitimate, reading it, I couldn’t help but wonder if Ms Sawhney even knew about hill stations outside the Himalayas – the column makes it sound as if hill stations are destinations exclusively reserved to Delhi weekend travellers, and that Ooty, Kodai, Khandala, or Darjeeling don’t exist at all.

This is quite possibly an over-reaction considering the simplest explanation is a combination of limited word count for columns combined with the fact that the Sunday Guardian is a Delhi only paper, and so can happily hire columnists with a limited worldview, ahem, an extreme focus on Delhi, but since the emotional reaction is already there, I might as well run with it and turn it into a post. The whole thing got me thinking that parochialism isn’t only for villages, but lives quite happily in big cities as well.

The fellow from the village who is parochial is so because of lack of opportunity. Kept to his (or her) village (or to an industrial urban slum), he has no time or money to go out exploring, and sticks to what he knows (or can afford). The big city parochialist, on the other hand, is parochial because he lacks for nothing. The city (or perhaps even his neighbourhood) provides so many opportunities that he doesn’t need to know that other cities exist or what happens in them.

To pass now from merely dubious generalisation to active and reckless stereotyping, this exists in most Indian metros, or at any rate places which call themselves metros, regardless of whether such a tag is justified. Thus you have the Bombayite for whom Pali Hill and Pall Mall are in the same city, but who knows nothing of Pune (or perhaps even Goregaon). There is the Delhiite who has no clue about what happens in Bangalore or Chennai, and the Alwarpet resident who doesn’t know that Ashok Nagar exists, leave alone what is to be found in Delhi or Mumbai or Hyderabad.

Of course, there are shades of this big city parochialism. The worst you can get is to live blissfully clueless about where other cities even are. Slightly better than this is to be aware of their existence and location, but to be unconcerned about what happens over there. And slightly better than this – and I confess to being guilty of myself – is to not live so much in a geographical city as a city of the mind made up of a certain very specific set of neighbourhoods from multiple cities. (As an aside, while I was discussing this with Narendra Shenoy, we realised that MachanIf there are tony neighbourhoods, there must be rocky neighbourhoods also. Sorry.)

In my case, I could at one point step out from the airport in Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, or Singapore; and instantly feel at home in – respectively – Green Park, Fort, 100 ft Road Indiranagar, or the stretch between Orchard Road and Bras Basah Road. This – fortunately or unfortunately – is no longer the case, since in the past three years I stopped travelling frequently, and now every time I visit these places I am struck less by what’s familiar and more by what’s changed.

It’s also worth pointing out that Bangalore residents rarely sink to the lowest levels of parochialism and not knowing anything about other cities at all. This is for the simple reason that it would deprive them of their favourite activity of taunting said other cities about their weather.

Calibrating Expectations

June 22, 2012

June has been the last month where I get to live in my own place (well, until I make new arrangements in either Delhi or Chennai. It’s complicated.) As a result, I have been making the most of it by inviting as many people over as possible and socialising like there’s no tomorrow (this will actually be true sometime between Sunday and Tuesday).

This means that over the past couple of weeks, many, many ladies have complimented me on how I have such a nice flat for a boy, and how it’s significantly superior to the usual bachelor pad. Success!

This success, I feel, has two contributing factors. The first is my stellar bai, Viji-amma; and the second is how my furniture has calibrated visitors’ expectations.

Right now I have beds with mattresses (and bed linen!), closets (these came with the flat and I didn’t buy them), a basic dining table with basic chairs (and a tablecloth!), and a speaker system propped up on a packing box. This means that my flat is significantly nicer than a bachelor pad where everything is kept on the floor. At the same time, there isn’t enough furniture that people start thinking of it as a family house that is either ill maintained or lacking in soul. That’s quite a sweet spot.

Had I remained in Chennai and continued to furnish the flat one major purchase at a time, this would have meant that at some point I would surely have entered a sour spot where it would be furnished just enough to raise visitors’ expectations to “family home” instead of “bachelor pad” and they would have gone away clucking in disapproval and wishing they had booked a hotel or met up in a restaurant instead. Oh Amma! After that, I would have to struggle for a long, long period; spending more and more time on cleaning and more and more money on furniture, linen, and decor before these new expectations could be exceeded. But then life is stern and life is earnest.

The important question, of course, is – at what point do expectations jump from “bachelor pad” to “family home”? One guest suggested that it is when the first sofa comes in. This seems very likely, but surely there are other things that could cause the expectation jump.

I think a more general solution is provided by the Cushion Rant from Coupling. My (arbit of course) hypothesis is that the minute you have anything that can be covered with cushions – be it a king sized bed, a sofa, or an ottoman; the expectations change.

If this is true, then the solution is to buy furniture in a sequence where the things that can be covered with cushions come last. So you first get single or queen sized beds so you can sleep, then a dining table so you can eat, and then a study/ work desk. Finally you get the sofa, and cushions along with it. I fear, however, that the cushions are necessary but not sufficient. Much more research needs to be conducted in this.

Editorial JAM

April 10, 2012

Earlier today, I was talking to Vikster on twitter about how, the next time we are in Mumbai, I should bring along RED Full Blooded Romances so that he could read them out loud at dinner. This may seem like a surprising thing to the uninitiated – but allow me to assure you that to hear him doing a dramatic reading of terrible South Indian romance novels is one of life’s greatest joys. I’m hoping to persuade Anand to come along to dinner with his mic so that the joy can be shared with the world at large. But I digress.

During the course of this conversation I realised that I could adapt JAM (Just-a-Minute, the thing you play at college cultural festivals) into a game for editors. Here’s what you’d need:

  • someone to read out loud – ideally Vikster, but then he is very busy and important, so anyone else with a clear, bell-like voice
  • a game master to arbitrate – so someone who has mad language and grammar skillz
  • contestants – the best sort would be editors, sub-editors, or people planning to become editors or sub-editors
  • one buzzer per contestant
  • and finally, a RED Full Blooded Romance, a Srishti novel, or a copy of the Times of India or The Hindu (or any Indian newspaper really – just that those are the two worst offenders, though in different ways)

How to Play

The game master comes up with a list of violations of language and style. Depending on what exactly is being read out, these could include:

  • errors of grammar (almost every sentence in Srishti)
  • errors of fact
  • logical fallacies
  • inappropriate use of business or technical jargon (alarmingly common in RED)
  • cliches
  • pompous language (pretty much every other sentence in The Hindu)
  • completely irrelevant puns (pretty much every other headline in The Times of India)

This is only a starting list – I’m sure more can be added.

Then, one contestant is picked to start. After that, the elocutionist starts reading the material out loud. The contestant who starts has to buzz every time she catches a violation on the list. If she manages to do this for a whole minute (or article, or chapter – this bit needs to be worked out), she scores 100 points.

To make things interesting and JAM-like, any of the other contestants can also buzz if they think the contestant in the hot-seat missed something. If their objection is sustained by the game master, the original contestant gets negative points and the interjector gets a shot at going for the 100 points. If the objection is overruled, the interjector gets negative points.

Now you could play this for points, or, to make things interesting, you could turn it into a drinking game. So, instead of getting negative points, you’d have to take a shot every time you either missed an error, falsely identified something as an error, or someone else got the 100 points. With every shot you’d take, your reflexes would slow down further, making it even more difficult for you to identify the language violations in the next round – so the worst editors would be the ones who got tanked first.

That actually makes this drinking game a Darwinian method of selecting good editors: the weak and unfit will be culled from the herd by alcohol poisoning, while the good ones will be the last people standing. That way, this could be an excellent training program for interns at newspapers – or even an entrance test for journalism schools. I mean, it would eliminate the chance that you’d have someone grammar challenged spending two years at J-school, then six months in editorial training, and finally turning out to be completely incompetent as a copy editor.

The only disadvantage I can see with this idea is that rather than selecting people with really good grammar awareness, it may just end up selecting people with really good alcohol tolerance. But then, being able to function despite being absolutely sloshed could also be  major advantage if you’re an editor, and you need to drink  to drive away the pain of  editing freelancers who forget to use the Oxford comma.

Languages and Optionality

April 2, 2012

Last week, I completed the Goethe Institut’s A1 German course. (My new year’s resolution is to complete the B1 course this year. Registration for A2 is in a couple of weeks, and the course itself starts in May.)

I had enrolled in the A1 course last year for a number of reasons, including:

  • I enjoy languages
  • Our company has German partners and customers, and it’s useful to know their language
  • I had been diagnosed with anxiety disorder due to extreme social isolation (what else do you expect when you live in Kanchipuram?), and something that would give me social contact every weekend would help
  • and most importantly, everything sounds more badass in German. (Even Disney movies. Exhibit A.)

The A1 course was huge fun. I had stars in my eyes when, towards the end of the course we did the past participle of words. Quick explanation: it’s a shortcut that prevents you from having to learn the past tenses of verbs. Instead of saying “I made”, or “you made”, or “they made”, you say “I have made”, “You have made”, and so on. This doesn’t seem that impressive in English, because the past tense for I, you, he, and they are all “made”, but it’s a significant advantage in German where they’re different but the participle stays the same throughout.

It was also very easy for me. I think this was because of a combination of two things: first, the Goethe Institut has an incredibly structured teaching methodology where you learn both by swotting grammar and vocabulary, and by actual conversation and immersion. Since they’ve been teaching German as a foreign language for years now, they’ve presumably settled on the best schedule to expose a new learner to either grammar or actual conversation or text reading. It worked for me, anyway.

The other thing that made the course easy was that I had spent five years (Class 6 to Class 10) learning Sanskrit in a CBSE school.

Now, back in the 1990s, studying Sanskrit in a CBSE school was anything but an appropriate mix of immersion and grammar. (I don’t know if it’s changed since then.) From Class 6 to Class 8, you did only grammar. It wasn’t until you came to Class 9 that you started reading short stories – up until then, you would read a sentence at a time at best. (This was when you weren’t rote-learning verb conjugations and noun declensions.)

I won’t comment on how useful this was as a method of teaching Sanskrit – I hardly remember any Sanskrit now, but that could easily be because I never stayed in touch with it after the board exams, and not necessarily because it’s a mad pedagogical method. But it was incredibly useful as a way to make me familiar with the rules of language in general.

Remember how I said that in German the verb form changes with person? Let’s stick to the present tense of make for now, and compare English and German.

  • First Person Singular: I make / Ich mache
  • First Person Plural: We make / Wir machen
  • Second Person Singular: You make / Du machst (informal) and Sie machen (formal)
  • Second Person Plural: You make / Ihr macht (informal) and Sie machen (formal)
  • Third Person Singular: He Makes / Er macht
  • Third Person Plural: They make / sie machen
That’s two forms (make and makes) in English, and four forms (mache, machen, machst, macht) in German. If you’re coming from English, it can drive you mad. But if you’ve spent three years mugging up conjugations in Sanskrit (where, just to make things fun, there’s a dual along with the singular and plural – though there’s no difference between formal you and informal you) you already know what a conjugation is, and all you have to do is remember the conjugations. You’ve already climbed the first hurdle of knowing what  a conjugation is.

Incidentally, a month or so ago, a friend who knew I was studying German forwarded me Mark Twain’s epic rant about the language. Twain complains bitterly that German has four cases for declension. He would have gone mad with Sanskrit, which has seven; or with Finnish which apparently has fourteen. Incidentally, he reserves particular ire for the dative case – and he has my sympathies. The dative case is maddening – it seems to be the case where all the special exceptions to the other three cases end up.

But this illustrates my point – that if you’ve been through Sanskrit grammar and managed that, grammar in German is both familiar and trivial. I suspect this may be true for any language in the Indo-European family. So if your learning style is okay with three years of learning grammar by rote, doing Sanskrit the way we did it back in our day (and, for all I know, is the way kids these days are still doing it), you can then learn any other Indo-European language in the future very quickly. Maybe even any other language, though I will have no experience in this until my Tamil lessons kick off later this year. The value of Sanskrit, then, is not in the language itself, but that it opens up options to learn other languages.

Time now for a quick segue.

A week or so ago, this blogpost about how the Millennial generation is obsessed with picking options that open up other options was being tweeted all over my timeline (though I think I saw it via Suze and Ravi first):

…strange anxieties are getting in the way of these ambitions – none more prominently than something called FOMO. It is the “fear of missing out,” and it has been written about by others (including in an article about SXSW last year) as a phenomenon caused by social media.

More and more, particularly among those who have yet to make those big life decisions (whom to marry, what kind of job to commit to, where to live), FOMO and FOBO – the “fear of better options” – are causing these young leaders to stand still rather than act.

Those with the most options in this generation have a tendency to choose the option that keeps the most options open. Wrap your head around that for a second. It’s one of the reasons that management consulting has become so popular among today’s young elites.

(CNN: Global Public Square)

I empathise with that “fear of better options” a little, but I’m also wary about generalising to an entire generation (even if generations are by definition where generalisations apply). Not to mention that the Millennial generation of the USA is not going to match the similar generational cohort in other countries. Though I have to admit, globalisation means that (rich) American Millennials are probably more similar to (rich) people from the same generation in other countries than at any point before. Earlier in history, the similarity would have been in destitution…

But now that Priya Parker has come up with this very interesting concept of optionality, it ties in to the first part of my blogpost: Sanskrit, as I said, is brilliant at opening up other options. But (and of course there’s a but)…

If there is this hankering for optionality, at what point does it actually develop?

I ask this because when I did Sanskrit, there was no choice – from Class 6 to Class 8, you had to do Sanskrit as the third language at my school. Then I came to Class X or XI, and suddenly our school introduced an option for the middle school kids: they could do French or German instead of Sanskrit. Suddenly there were mass desertions – Sanskrit fell down to one or two sections (if that many.)

Now admittedly most people might not have made the connection between learning Sanskrit now and learning French or German much quicker later on. But even if someone had gone around madly pitching Sanskrit as the best language if you wanted to keep your options open to a bunch of middle school kids: would they really have listened?

The obsession with optionality requires a sense of the future. And perhaps I’m doing them a disservice, and the younger generation has that sense of the future – but honestly, I don’t see an eleven year old giving up French now to study Sanskrit so that he (or she) can study both French and German in the future.  I don’t think that’s about impatience, or inability to think ahead: if you’re eleven years old, thinking of a future three years away (or even further) is a quarter of a lifetime.

(UpdateAishwarya pointed out over chat that not only would they not have listened, but this would only have been true for the kids who learned like me and for whom grammar works in the same way. Yes, this would have only worked if you had some magic way of identifying such kids and pitching to them, and I thought my earlier caveat about German being easier if this method of pedagogy worked for you made that implicit, but I should have made it explicit instead. That was sloppy writing on my part.)

Proportionally, that’s like asking a twenty-something to make plans for when he’s thirty five – but then, twenty-somethings do do that – anyone entering a long-gestation career like law or medicine is doing that, and so is somebody who’s setting up a retirement fund.

So at some point between being kids and late-teenagers, we gain a sense of the future. Sometimes this future orientation is thrust upon us (as it would be for most Indian kids who’re pushed kicking and screaming into a predetermined engineering+MBA career). Sometimes, we’re born with it and start off early. And sometimes, we become obsessed with it and end up like the Millennials that Priya Parker describes.

And now seguing back to the paralysis brought about by the hunt for options…

To be honest – I’ve been there. The thing that’s helped the most is to keep reminding myself that some things are best done now when I have the youthfulness to do them well. Really, this is balancing out options with a bucket list or checklist where ticking off items gives me a warm and fuzzy feeling. It still doesn’t work as well as I’d like it to – but it’s a start.

Carnatic Music Movie

February 12, 2012

Chandru and I had met for coffee today, and we were wondering about what fad a Bollywood movie set overseas would inspire in 2012 (after all the Tomatina nonsense in 2011).

At this point, Chandru said that the Music Academy (the one on TTK Road) should get someone in Bollywood to do a movie about Carnatic music. Barely had he said this than we look’d at each other with a wild surmise, and agreed that actually we should be the ones to make it.

So. This is our movie. We shall faithfully stick to the cliches, er, template, er, tropes of the sports movie genre. It will be like every other sports/ competitive event movie ever – Chak de India, The Karate Kid, Sister Act, Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar – except with Carnatic music instead of sports.

Our underdogs will be three guys and two girls (or two guys and three girls, depending on availability of stars) in their teens. Each of them, in their preteens, rebelled against the oppressive and straitjacketed tutition that their traditional Carnatic music teachers were putting them through. Then, all of them found themselves drawn to the mentor figure.

The mentor figure is loosely modeled on Krish Ashok. He acts with disdain for Carnatic purists who frown on experimentation and fusion. Eventually he gets so frustrated with them that he trolls a kutcheri by going up to the stage while the performance is on, and then breaking into an unsolicited jam with the performers. On the bagpipes. Everyone is so shocked and outraged that only one thatha and one maami actually notice that the bagpipe jam is in the same raagam which the guys on stage were putting. But their observation is drowned out in all the outrage by the so-called rasikas. The bagpiper is than made an outcast from the Carnatic music scene and he becomes embittered.

Fifteen years later, he finds these other rebellious kids and takes them under his wing. He teaches them Carnatic music from the concepts, instead of just making them mug and practice endlessly. Like Mr Miyagi got Daniel-san to internalise blocks by doing wax-on wax-off, this mentor makes the vocalist have an epiphany about vocal range by making her scream and shiver in #chennaisnow. And so on and so forth.

While the Margazhi season is on, the mentor tells them to ignore the season itself and focus on the bigger goal – the International World Music Festival, which is being held in… it’s being held in whichever country or city’s tourism agency is willing to strike a deal with the movie’s producers, dammit! So while the mean Carnatic prodigies who bully our heroes are getting condescended to by The Hindu’s reviewers, the heroes themselves fly off to said International World Music Festival. This is kind of like how in The White Feather, Sheen gets over the disappointment of not being allowed to box for the house by going to Aldershot.

Unfortunately, their luggage is lost by the airline (that is, whichever airline that did not strike a deal with the movie’s producers. How do you like them apples?) and they land up at the festival without instruments. They panic until the mentor inscrutably tells them to make music with whatever they have.

There is then a battle of the groups sequence with European classical, reggae, Asian instrumental, jazz groups performing until finally our Chennai heroes come up and unleash jazz fusion Carnatic world music. The gathered metrosexuals orgasm over it. They win the Festival and return like heroes to Chennai, and the Hindu puts them on the front page of Metro Plus.

At the end, the mentor is reintegrated into the Music Academy, our heroes win the awe and fear of former Carnatic music bullies, and unresolved romantic tension between the mridangamist and the vocalist is finally resolved.

People with money who want to invest in this surefire blockbuster – please do the needful and contact us.