Different Boons

May 24, 2015

Last November, I started reading the K M Ganguli translation of the Mahabharata (the only English translation of the complete, unabridged Mahabharata before Bibek Debroy completed his translation).  Seven months on, I’ve only managed to finish the Bhishma Parva. On the one hand this means that I’ve finished everything leading up to the war and ten days of the war itself. On the other hand there are twelve out of eighteen parvas to go. In all this while, I’ve read nothing else; and this month I finally decided to take a break from the Mahabharata just so that I could read SevenevesThe House That BJ Built, and Royal Wedding.

And since I’m taking this pause, I might as well use it to write about something I noticed in the first six parvas – that is, that the boons various characters receive from various gods and goddesses play out very differently.

  • Boons granted by Shiva or Brahma: Usually, these boons are won by demons through severe austerity or devotion, after which Brahma or Shiva rewards the petitioner with an excellent boon. After that, the recipient of the boon uses it to terrorise the natural order, and finally Vishnu (on in one case, Durga) has to step in and exploit a loophole in the boon to restore status quo. Examples: Ravana, Mahishasura, Bakasura, and so forth. The only exception I’ve seen to this pattern so far is Shiva’s boon to Amba that she will be transformed into Shikhandin in her next birth in order to slay Bhishma – with this boon, there is no interference by Vishnu.
  • Boons granted by Indra or Agni: Indra or Agni ask Arjuna to go to war with somebody. In Indra’s case, this is the Nivatakavacha asuras. In Agni’s case, Agni asks Arjuna to battle Indra himself, so that he can burn the Khandava forest without worrying about Indra’s rain putting out his fires. Once Arjuna has successfully won his battles, these gods grant him weapons.
  • Boons granted by Surya or Savitri: Somebody will ask for a boon. Savitri will say “No, I will not grant you what you are asking for. But instead I will give you this. Accept it graciously.” What Savitri promises eventually takes place. And then, through a series of coincidences, that will lead to what was originally asked for.
  • Boons granted by Shakti (Mahadevi or Durga): These are straightforward. You ask for something. You get it. But perhaps you bring about the dawn of Kalyug in the process.

I wonder which of these story structures arose out of poetry, which out of allegory and metaphor, and which out of plain old sectarian “My god is better than yours”.

Two Losses

March 15, 2015

In May 2001, I was about to end the first year of a Bachelor of Engineering course in a university that I hated. In retrospect, this may have been my fault – or the fault of external circumstances – as much, or more, as the university’s. Six months earlier, my grandmother had had a massive lung failure, my father had injured his leg and was being extorted for a bribe by the Income Tax department, and my mother had developed tuberculosis or something very like it. I myself was compounding my misery into depression, barely eating, not attending classes, and doing atrociously in them as a consequence.

But there were some routines I clung to that prevented the depression from getting full blown – attending laboratories, going home on the weekend, and reading the newspapers in the hostel common area.

On the twelfth or thirteenth – by which time final exams had probably started, I read in the Indian Express that Douglas Adams had died.

I don’t think I’ve ever felt so wretched about the death of somebody I had never met, either up to that point, or since then. In a very shitty year, this was news that hurt me even more. I had spent 1999 reading and rereading the Hitchhiker’s Guide trilogy, and it was tragic that the person who had created it would never create anything more.

I went for my exams, and ended the semester with five D’s and an F.


In December 2001, things were not so bad.

My father’s leg had healed, my mother’s TB (or whatever it was) had disappeared, my hostel roommates were now friends, and I was doing better in classes. And by a happy alignment of the calendar and the timetable, I got to come home for my birthday between two exams.

When I took the train back to college, it was with my birthday present – a copy of Terry Pratchett’s The Truth. I managed to complete it on the train itself, grinning and laughing all the way from New Delhi Railway Station to Rajpura at the puns, the jokes, and the real world references.

Over the next five years, I began to work my way through the entire Discworld series.

In 2003, I read Hogfather, and its line about humanity being the place where the falling angel met the rising ape, and for at least five years, it stayed with me and kept me from getting into too much existential angst.

Right up to 2013, I read the new Discworld books, Good Omens, and Terry Pratchett’s other books, loving them. I also read his announcement of his Alzheimer’s, and his interviews and letters to the Times where he managed to be far angrier and sharper than he was in his books, and came to appreciate that side of him too.

Earlier this week, I saw on Twitter that he had died.


Although Terry Pratchett’s worlds had captured me just as much as – probably more than – Douglas Adams’, I did not feel the same shock and pain on his death as I had almost fourteen years ago.

Maybe this was because Terry Pratchett had already started planning for his death, so that when it did come, it wasn’t a shock.

Maybe it was because with Death as a character in every book of the Discworld series, it seemed like he was only meeting an old friend.

Maybe it was because in the past fourteen years, I lost my own innocence.

But perhaps it was because this past week, the pain was less noticeable than all the love that his fans have been expressing, all over the internet.


In 2001, the only news I had about the death of Douglas Adams were those two columns in The Indian Express. Later that week, I may have seen a thread on slashdot. Much later, I would see a tribute on the h2g2 website, where I believe he is still User 42. (On a side note, what an irony that Wikipedia achieved Douglas Adams’ vision of being a guide to everything faster and better than his own project could.) And much much later, I would come across other tributes and obituaries and biographies.

This past week, within an hour of first hearing of Terry Pratchett’s death (on Twitter), my Twitter and Facebook feeds began to fill up with messages of sadness, tributes to Pratchett (nonfictional, fictional, artistic), and links to obituaries. Compared to 2001, where I may have been one of ten people in the entire university to know who Douglas Adams was, I was now connected to people I knew and complete strangers who were feeling the same sadness (or more) than me.

We have been so inundated with social media and breaking news in the past few years that it’s very easy to be cynical about them and give up in disgust. I personally have deleted my Facebook profile once (though I came back), done mass Twitter unfollowing, and tried to strictly avoid daily news. It’s easy to extend that cynicism and disgust to the Internet itself.

And yet, in the past few days, I saw and realised that the Internet still holds the promise that it had back in 2001, and that Douglas Adams himself had marveled over: that it could bring together strangers who were otherwise alone in their usual milieus. Maybe that is Terry Pratchett’s last gift to me.

Bollywood’s Queen of Trolling

February 26, 2015

Last week, almost a year after actually watching Queen, I realised that the lyrics of its opening song, London Thumakda, are blowing big, big, raspberries at Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayengein.

Before I start explaining how it does this, let’s check out the song itself. In fact, I might get carried away explaining, so anytime you get tired or need a break, come back and check out the song which is a hugely fun song.

Right. So. London Thumukda. Long before I had this sudden realisation, I had thoroughly liked the song. Admittedly, a lot of this liking came out of familiarity, because it is such a Delhi Punjabi song, and I am myself a Delhi Punjabi. And Queen‘s use and depiction of the Delhi Punjabi culture is quite genuine. I wouldn’t call it accurate, because I thought it exaggerated Punjabi culture instead of playing it straight – but at least it started with something genuine and exaggerated it. This is much preferable to abominations like Singh is Kingg and Jab We Met, which both featured Hindi speaking sardars with token “tussis” and “mainus”. Jab We Met even had an entire ‘Punjabi’ family incapable of pronouncing Bhatinda the correct way. So Queen is a fairly genuine depiction of the Delhi Punjabi culture. And London Thumukda is itself very much in the tradition of wedding sangeet songs, though not actually a traditional wedding sangeet song.

A note about the tradition of wedding sangeet songs. In the nineties, the malign influence of Hindi movies that were effectively three hour long wedding videos turned weddings themselves into movie style extravaganzas. (Though I note from reading Miss Manners advice columns that this problem isn’t unique to the Hindi movie watching world.) Since the nineties, wedding sangeets have been vulgar events where people wear expensive outfits and dance to movie songs. However, back in the day, sangeets themselves were simple, low-key events – but events which involved extremely vulgar songs.

How vulgar? Well, they fell into two categories: songs that had suggestive lyrics about sex, and songs which were either daughters in law singing about how useless the mothers in law were, or the other way around. The songs in a traditional sangeet have the potential keep the moral police so outraged that they would be filing FIRs for a year.

That the moral police has not yet done this is perhaps because traditions usually get a free pass that newfangled comedy collectives don’t, but also perhaps because Punjabi ladies sing so terribly that it is impossible to actually make out the lyrics. When my brother got married about a year ago,  we had one such traditional ladies sangeet at home, and it was a traumatic experience on many levels. Apart from the sheer concentration of family members, there were also around twenty ladies singing tunelessly and out of harmony in a confined space.

My feelings towards my female relatives are very much like those of Fulliautomatix towards Cacofonix. I am fond of them and will go berserk if somebody else tries to do anything to them but I refuse to let them sing.

Anyway. Back to London Thumukda. It falls into the first category – that is, songs going nudge nudge wink wink about sex, what with that entire verse about transparent muslin kurtas and inadequately sized bed linen. But it’s composed and sung professionally, which means that it has far more going for it than traditional sangeet songs. So much going for it, in fact, that for over a year I utilised it as the perfect background music for such tasks as waking up and showering, pricing conveyor belts, and checking spare stocks of raw material against unexpected orders. And last week, while pricing one such conveyor belt – about six hours after I had watched the Pretentious Movie Review of Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayengein – I realised that the song didn’t just have a catchy beat and innuendo filled lyrics, it was mocking Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayengein mercilessly.

To a small extent, the movie Queen itself is a sort of antithesis to Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayengein considering its lead character moves from being a romantic who wants a big wedding and a European vacation to someone who gets that vacation and then realises that she’s an independent woman who don’t need no wedding. But that is mostly at a philosophical level. London Thumakda gets blatant about it. How, you ask? Well, I’m sorry to make you do this, but cast your mind back to the beginning of DDLJ.

We see Amrish Puri telling us in voiceover that he lives and works in Southall but that actually London is rubbish, and what his heart thirsts for is India because fuck yeah India! India is the greatest! This raises two questions:

  1. If Amrish Puri hates London and loves India so much, why doesn’t he just go back to India? Even if his finances are straitened, he surely owns either his shop or his house, if not both. And even in 1995, London property had to be massively expensive. And although the rupee hadn’t sunk in value to a single British penny by then, he could still have cashed out, bought property in India, and retired to a life of ease and having Farida Jalal and impoverished Biharis at his beck and call. As it is, he liked rural Punjab, where land is far cheaper than Gurgaon, where most other NRIs were buying property.
  2. If he was walking home from Southall to Southall, just how did his route take him past so many landmarks of Central London? (This question came courtesy RoKo.)

Now, in swaggers London Thumakda with these lyrics:

Saanu te lagta, Southall toh changi
Jaga koi nahi hai badiya

Translating for make benefit non-Punjabi speakers: “To us it looks like, out of all the good places, there’s none more amazing than Southall.”

What a slap in the face for Amrish Puri! After his extended monologue about the wretchedness of Southall and the awesomeness of India, a bunch of Punjabis in Rajouri Garden, who actually live in India and so have a better idea about India snap back that actually, no, Amrish Puri is wrong, and Southall is just amazing. Not just amazing, it’s the greatest place in the world.

Even that might just be coincidence, you say. But look at how that verse starts:

Trafalgar de
Kabootar vargi, O meman phir di
Gootar goo kardi

That’s a DDLJ opening reference right there! The song isn’t just doing nudge nudge wink wink about wedding night bonking, it’s doing even more nudge nudge wink wink in the direction of Amrish Puri!

It’s so obvious when you look at it that at first I was ashamed of myself for not realising this earlier. And then I googled to see if anybody else had written about it and found nothing. So now I’m amazed that I seem to have come up with an original insight. Whatay.

Having googled to see if anybody else had made this connection, I then googled to see who was responsible for this masterful trolling, and found that the lyricist of London Thumakda is Anvita Dutt Guptan. That name sounded familiar, so I googled her, and realised that, holy shit, she was also the lyricist for the last song I was moved to write a long, rambling, blogpost about: Radha. Which makes perfect sense: once you’ve undermined the Bhagvad Gita by means of a catchy dance number, undermining Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenegein (also extremely popular and also about a powerful authority figure) the same way is probably all in a day’s work. Maybe even an hour’s work.

What is most charming about the whole affair is that hardly anybody notices the trolling that Anvita Dutt Guptan carries out. As I wrote in the earlier blogpost, people were outraged not that the song was refuting the Bhagvad Gita, but that it was calling Radha sexy. And with London Thumakda, nobody except me seems to have noticed, or at least been moved enough to write about it online. So Anvita Dutt Guptan is not just irreverent, she’s also extremely subtle about it. What a woman.

A Drop of Honey

February 10, 2015

There is a story in the Mahabharata which I am retelling below. I may have added some details, forgotten others, or even grievously changed yet others; but I trust that I will have reproduced the essence of the story.

Once, a man is being chased through the forest by hungry wild beasts who want to eat him. Fleeing in terror, he finds himself at the edge of a high cliff. He slides down, and finds a young tree growing out of the side of the cliff. He grabs at it desperately and arrests his fall.

Unluckily for the man, the tigers, lions, bears and/ or other carnivores who have been pursuing him are also at the edge of the cliff, and waiting for him to climb back up. If he goes up, he will be messily devoured. If he lets go of the young tree, he will plunge to his death.

In fact, letting go is not even a choice, because just his own weight is beginning to pull the tree out by its roots, and so he will have to fall soon.

Looking around desperately for some means to escape his predicament, the man realises that above him, on a higher branch of the tree, there is also a beehive.

At that instant, the man accepts his fate; and stops worrying about whether he will die by tiger or by impact. Instead, he stretches himself, and catches a drop of honey as it falls from the beehive onto his tongue.

The story ends there.

Today, Delhi finds itself in a situation similar to the man hanging from the tree.

The wild animals here are the venality, divisiveness, and the sheer contempt for the electorate prevalent in the Congress and the BJP.

The horrifying fall that awaits him is the inexperience, lack of fiscal rectitude, and Somnath Bharti’s racism and thuggish disrespect for due process that the AAP brings to Delhi.

But in all this, there is a drop of honey and the drop of honey is that Amit Shah is now looking like a complete idiot.

It will not last very long, and at some point we must undergo the fall.

But it is important to enjoy the drop of honey while it is there.

Yes, Messenger

January 17, 2015

The controversy about MSG: Messenger of God is now more delicious than ajinomoto.

In the last four days, unelected bureaucrats have resigned in fury because elected politicians, seeking a marginal political advantage (over politicians from allied political parties!), have interfered in their functioning, and in the process, shattered a major bureaucratic obstacle to freedom of speech.

After six months of political news that seemed like it was out of 1980s Alan Moore comics, we now finally have news that seems like it’s out of Yes, Minister. Of course, the new vacancies in the censor board mean that it’s incredibly likely the next one will be full of RSS-ish fellows, but lets enjoy this turn of events until then.

The Three Musketeers

May 23, 2013

I finished reading The Three Musketeers yesterday. (These days, as a result of being broke and unable to afford books, all my reading is either review copies that newspapers send me, or out-of-copyright classics.)

The book approves of, among other things:

  • extra-marital affairs
  • monarchical government
  • summary executions
  • persecuting religious minorities

and throws in a bonus girlfriend-in-refrigerator.

It’s impossible for this book to be anything but a guilty pleasure. But pleasure it is.

Incidentally, one of the chapters begins this:

It was a stormy and dark night; vast clouds covered the heavens, concealing the stars; the moon would not rise till midnight.

Hmmm. The Three Musketeers was published in 1844 in French, and I think the translation I read dates to 1846.

The more widely known “It was a dark and stormy night” dates back to Lord Bulwer-Lytton’s 1830 Paul Clifford, so now I wonder just what is going on here. Does the original French version also contain “It was a stormy and dark night,” and did the translator reproduce it faithfully, or was the translator trying to sneak in a pop culture reference on his own accord? (Actually, back in the 1840s, was “It was a dark and stormy night” a meme at all, or did it explode into consciousness thanks to Snoopy?)  And if Dumas had written this in the original French, was he making fun of Bulwer-Lytton, or was he just doing it unselfconsciously, and being as melodramatic a writer? This is a mystery, on the order of, dare I say it, the identity of the man in the iron mask.

That Radha Song

February 11, 2013

Last year, I managed to get three Hindi songs stuck in my head, or on my playlist, for extended periods of time. (In 2013, the only one so far has been Khamakha from Matru ki Bijlee ka Mandola.) The first one was Subha Hone Na De from Desi Boyz, and that happened because it was what me and friends flashmobbed the Kodhi-VaiBa wedding reception with. The suggestion to use Subha Hone Na De had come from Pushy – thanks to him, the image of Deepika Padukone looking shattered at having her trust violated is now indelibly marked on my brain. The second song is Abhee Naa Jaao Chhorrh Ke (अभी न जाओ छोड़ कर). That kicked in just after the wedding, largely because the song’s wistful desire for a tryst to be just a little bit longer seemed to capture my feelings about having to leave Chennai and my flat there. Then, for about four months, no Hindi song particularly stuck, until the morning of Bhai Dooj, when I heard Radha from the Student of the Year soundtrack for the first time, courtesy my brother, who likes to have a Bollywood radio station on when he’s driving.

While this was the first time I’d heard the song, it wasn’t my first exposure. For a couple of weeks before Diwali, my timeline on Twitter would, every so often, break out with people (particularly @CookyDoh and @ShwetaKapur) tweeting the lyrics of the refrain. I’d also heard that a bunch of jobless wastefellows (such as this one) had been outraged at the lyrics saying that Radha had a sexy body because saying such things about goddesses is Not Done. But the controversy and the tweets had left me thinking that the song itself was a piece of disposable dance pop, and not worth actually listening to. Oh, how wrong I was.

Because while my earlier earworm, Subha Hone Na De, is inane lyrics carried on the backs of just as inane tune and musical arrangement, and makes me confess my addiction to it in a guilty, shamefaced manner, Radha is above that. True, the tune is simplistic and the synthetic trill after ‘राधा तेरी नटखट नजरिया (Raadhaa teree naTkhaT najareeyaa)’ is particularly grating. But the lyrics, oh, the lyrics! They’re iconoclastic and cheekily feminist, and turn this piece of dance pop into an unlikely anthem for freethinking, For the next few paragraphs, I am going to share my thoughts (and I admit freely that these are possibly far more thoughts than the song warrants) about the lyrics. So here we go.

Assume first, as many believers do, that the Kanja and the Radha of the song are also the Krishna and Radha of the Krishna-and-the-Gopis myths, and moreover, that that Krishna is also the Krishna of the Bhagvad Gita. (Scholars of language and myth will point out that the Gopi stories and the Bhagvad Gita probably came from different times and places, and later on fused so that two very different characters became a single Krishna-as-Supreme-Being. And now, having assumed all that, consider the repeated punchline: ‘But Radha wants more!’

In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna tells Arjuna that the entire universe, all of creation in fact, is contained within himself. (Pssst. Note how I managed to bring in a Vishwaroopam connect.) There is nothing outside of, beyond, or greater than Krishna. And you don’t have to look only at the Bhagavad Gita for this: there’s also the story where Yashodha angrily opens baby Krishna’s mouth to see if he’s been stealing butter, only to find that he has the whole universe inside his mouth, after which she freaks out.

And with this background, we suddenly find Shreya Ghoshal’s backup vocalists claiming that Radha wants more. More than the universe! More than all of creation! Either she’s insatiable, or she’s rejecting the notion that Krishna encompasses everything there is – and in the process, overturning the Bhagavad Gita. See what I meant about the iconoclasm?

But there’s more than just the refrain. Pay attention to the rest of the lyrics, and you’ll discover a Krishna and Radha dramatically different from the Amar Chitra Katha or Ramanand Sagar versions. In ACK, Krishna is the centre of attention, with hundreds of gopis vying – pining, in fact – for his louw, and Radha just happens to be the one gopi who’s most attractive to Krishna. Other men don’t enter the picture. The song, though, flips things around – now Kanha is the one pining for Radha, and Radha is the one with the pick of lovers, because she has the whole town running after her (पीछे पीछे सारी नगरिया , peechhe peechhe saaree nagareeyaa). Krishna is now just another guy, and not even particularly interesting.

And that particular line about the whole town running after Radha is something that gets me geeking out even more. Krishna has to settle for rustic gopis. But Radha has a pick of urban and presumably urbane city slickers. This is a bigger deal for me than for other people because of my severe antipathy to the countryside and its people, but looking at migration trends and the preferences they reveal, I’m clearly not alone in this.

Even without value judgments about the relative merits of being chased by country bumpkins (bumpkettes?) as opposed to city slickers, Radha looking for (or rather, at) options other than Krishna remains a revolutionary idea. Another of the old Radha stories talks about the parting of Radha and Krishna, and describes Radha being upset, but accepting (or to use the desi phrase, adjusting) and telling him that if he must leave he should at least thereafter be known as Radhakrishna and not just Krishna, so that his name is forever a mark of their love.

This is a remarkable lack of ambition. Of all things in the world, Radha only wants to be remembered as the one who Krishna loved the most (and vice versa). Think about it for a little while, and it’s alarmingly short on self esteem if your greatest desire is to be defined i relation to your (ex-) boyfriend. Also, considering I personally know one Radhakrishnan P, but a Krishan Agarwal, a Krishna Sundaresan, a Krishna Thirungavedam, a Krish Ashok, a Krish Raghav, and several Krishnamoorthis or Krishnamanis, the ambition was never even realised. In the song, though, Radha can’t be bothered. She’s ready to look for other people, who aren’t so boring, or whose approach to romance isn’t harassment (भूलेगा तो सताना and छेड़े है हमका दैया are the lines I mean). This Radha is a player, not a doormat. Meanwhile, Krishna, totally at a loss, is reduced to persuading Radha to be with him because she won’t find anybody else (मिलेगा न कोई सावरिया, milegaa na koee saawareeyaa), and because everyone knows that they’re meant to be together (सारी ही दुनिया यह मानी है, शुरू हमसे तेरी यह कहानी है, saaree hee duneeyaa yah maanee hai, shuroo hamse teree yah kahaanee hai). And not because, you know, he possesses any good boyfriend qualities. The song’s Krishna is utterly useless.

And despite this utter devaluation of Krishna, the only thing religious nutcases found to protest about was Radha’s body being described as sexy – protests which were neatly sidestepped by rereleasing the song with ‘sexy’ replaced by ‘desi’, and nothing more. It reminds me of what Douglas Adams wrote about the Sirius Cybernetic Corporation’s products:

It is very easy to be blinded to the essential uselessness of them by the sense of achievement you get from getting them to work at all.

In other words – and this is the rock solid principle on which the whole of the Corporation’s Galaxy-wide success is founded – their fundamental design flaws are completely hidden by their superficial design flaws.

Similarly, the song’s superficially outrageous lyrics conceal its fundamentally outrageous lyrics. Genius.

Personally, I find the transmogrification of Radha’s sexy body to a desi one to be one of the few instances where a censored version of something is as naughty (and possibly naughtier) than the original. A sexy Radha body isn’t particularly interesting, but a desi Radha body conjures up images of a dark-skinned, long limbed young girl, perhaps with a Bangalore accent. Ahem. Pardon me while I fan myself.

But now, the bad news. Despite the intense badassery of the song, I expect it to have zero impact. Zip. Nada.

This is not because the song’s potential for radicalising the masses is visible only to my fevered mind, though that possibility can’t be ruled out either. No, even if it turns out that everyone else is reading between the lines in the same way that I am, nothing’s going to come out of it.

The reason for that is the way Hinduism, and Vaishnavism in particular, deals with threats: it co-opts them. (If I recall correctly, Sir Humphrey Appleby had independently discovered this technique.)

It works like this: faced with something that challenges the status quo of Hinduism, you start claiming that in fact, due to Hinduism’s inclusive nature, it is actually already part of Hinduism. The catch is that it’s important enough to be acknowledged, but not important enough to be allowed to change mainstream practices or status quo.

Faced with atheism? Point out the existence of the Carvaka school of philosophy, while gliding over the fact that its teachings never became mainstream, and are never discussed today except for the fact of their existence. Buddhism? No worries, declare that the Buddha is actually an avatar of Vishnu – and in the process you make the Vishnu cult even stronger. This is reminiscent of how Shang Tsung gains power by absorbing the souls of the warriors he’s defeated, but I digress. For an intramural example of Vaishnavite co-option, there is the way Iyengars turned Ganapati into Thumbikai Azhwar.

So with this horrendous track record of Vishnu-bhakti assimilating its challengers into a Borglike collective, I expect that the eventual fate of the party loving Radha will be to be upheld as Hinduism’s token independent woman. People will say “But of course Hinduism has a feminist side to it! Look at how Radha turned down Krishna! And with that established, please get back to exalting gods for their creepy woman-attacking ways!”

Tangentially related, there was an old Devdutt Pattanaik column that started doing the rounds again on twitter recently about how Indian Hindu myths are full of examples of both womens’ bodies being treated as somebody else’s property, and of women being people in their own right. Pattanaik asks rhetorically why Hinduism is so often placed on the defensive and made to answer for its misogyny instead of being applauded for its positive female characters. The rhetorical answer to that is to point out that the misogyny is central and the positive women are footnotes.

That may be because Hinduism’s assimilative, acquire-everything nature has no filters on what it assimilates. And when it assimilates every idea it encounters, without any concern about their ethical content, the nastiest ideas end up beating the other ideas out in the quest for mindspace, in a sort of Gresham’s Law of Memes. This is probably why every reform movement that has challenged hierarchy – Sikhism, the Arya Samaj, the Brahmo Samaj, and what have you –  has caught on, expanded the liberal space a little, added adherents, and then sunk into stasis. It makes me pessimistic, and worry that the only way to shatter the Vaishnavite death grip on societal renewal is the Kulothunga Chozha method.

Pessimistic as I am, there’s a small mercy that can’t be denied: in the face of all this co-option, Radha will still have a beat that you can dance to.

What a Fine Day For Science

November 4, 2012

Today, I read Through the Language Glass, about five or six years after Guy Deutscher’s work was first recommended to me by gaspode. Yes, what remarkable timing, I know. Turns out that being a 2010 book, it wasn’t even what gaspode had recommended in the first place. Yes, what remarkable attention to detail, I know. Anyway, it had this rather poignant passage:

In 1887, Weismann embarked on his most notorious–and most often ridiculed–research project, the one that George Bernard Shaw lampooned as the “three blind mice” experiment. “Wismann began to investigate the point by behaving like the butcher’s wife in the old catch,” Shaw explained. “He got a colony of mice, and cut off their tails. Then he waited to see whether their children would be born without tails. They were not. He then cut off the children’s tails, and waited to see whether the grandchildren would be born with at least rather short tails. They were not, as I could have told him beforehand. So with the patience and industry on which men of science pride themselves, he cut off the grandchildren’s tails, too, and waited, full of hope, for the birth of curtailed great-grandchildren. But their tails were quite up to the mark, as any fool could have told him beforehand. Weismann then gravely drew the inference that acquired habits cannot be transmitted.”

As it happens, Shaw greatly underestimated Weismann’s parience and industry. For Weismann went on far beyond the third generation: five years later, in 1892, he reported on the still ongoing experiment, now at the eighteenth of mice, and explained that not a single one of the eight hundred bred so far had been born with an even slightly shorter tail. And yet, pace Shaw, it wasn’t Weismann who was the foot but the world around him. Weismann, perhaps the greatest evolutionary scientist after Darwin, never for a moment believed the mice’s tails would get shorter. The whole point of his perverse experiment was to prove this obvious point to an incredulous scientific community, which persisted in its conviction that acquired characteristics and even injuries are inherited.

It reminded me of this bit from Neal Stephenson’s Anathem:

“I’d like you to punch me in the face,” he said. As if he was asking me to scratch his back.

“Not that I haven’t always dreamt of it,” I said, “but why would you want it?”

“Hand to hand combat has been a common element of military training down through the ages,” he proclaimed, as if I were a fid. “Long ago it was learned that recruits–no matter how much training they had received–tended to forget everything they knew the first time they got punched in the face.”

“The first time in their lives, you mean?”

“Yeah. In peaceful, affluent societies, where brawling is frowned on, this is a common problem.”

“Not being punched in the face a lot is a problem?”

“It is,” Lio said, “if you join the military and find yourself in hand-to-hand combat with someone who is actually trying to kill you.”

“But Lio,” I said, “you have been punched in the face. It happened at Apert. Remember?”

“Yes,” he said, “and I have been trying to learn from that experience.”

“So why do you want me to punch you in the face again?”

“As a way to find out whether I have learned.”

After some further conversation, Erasmas the narrator obliges the insistent Lio, and tries again and again to knock him out.  About a page later, we get this:

I think we did it about ten more times. Since I was suffering a lot more abuse than he was, I sort of lost track. On my best go, I was able to throw him off stride for a moment–but he still took me down.

“How much longer are we going to do this?” I asked, lying in the mud, in the bottom of an Erasmas-shaped crater. If I refused to get up, he couldn’t take me down.

He scooped up a double handful of river water and splashed it on his face, rinsing away blood from nostrils and eyebrows. “That should do,” he said. “I’ve learned what I wanted.”

“Which is?” I asked, daring to sit up.

“That I’ve adjusted, since what happened at Apert.”

“We did all that to obtain a negative result?” I exclaimed, getting to my knees.

“If you want to think of it that way,” he said, and scooped up more water.

Science. It works, bitches, but the scientific method does call for a lot of slogging just for negative results.

Pixar Meets Percy Mistry

August 2, 2012
I saw Brave (the Pixar movie about the red haired Scottish princess) last month along with Anand. (We then ended up also putting wine based lunch and gourmet ice-cream so it turned into a man-date, but that’s another story.) So far, it’s been the best movie I’ve seen this year (admittedly, I’ve only seen five), even better than The Dark Knight Rises. As I tweeted, it managed to mix constitutional law, principle based regulation, feminism, little Gaulish village style punchups, Feegles, and good 3D.
The post that follows is mostly about everything Brave made me think about. Fair warning – there are spoilers ahead for not just Brave, but also a whole bunch of other princess-y movies, books and TV shows – Tangled, Goong, and The Princess Diaries. I’ll start with the feminism (which I’m not an expert in) and the Feegles and the punchups, and move on to the constitutional law and principle based regulation (which I’m also not an expert in, but which I get all obsessive-fanboyish over, so that’ll be far more detailed.)
One of the feminist criticisms of Love Aaj Kal was that the sardarni in the old time love story never spoke at all. (This is in addition to the other feminist criticism of LAK that sardar-Saif is basically a stalker throughout his story, and the more general criticism that LAK was totallly WTF). Things are quite the opposite in Brave: the heroine does all the talking while the princes never say anything (giggling and sign language apart).
And on that note it’s kind of awww to see a Disney princess movie (okay, Pixar, but distributed by Disney) where the happy ending does not involve the princess getting married. To be honest, I had watched Tangled which does end with the princess getting married, and liked it. But as a certain bear told me in the context of The Princess Diaries (princesses again!) “I do like Mia, of course, but still. It’s the principle of the thing.” (Oddly enough, as we’ll see in a bit, Brave the movie is full of bears.)
One of the early scenes reminded me of the all-against-all punch ups from the Little Gaulish Village, except with Scottish people. That particular scene convinced me that I could trust Pixar to do a film adaptation of the Tiffany Aching and Nac Mac Feegle books. Crivens!
And now for the constitutional law and principles based regulation.
These days, I’m unable to read or watch most things with a monarchical setting without rolling my eyes and going “Bitchplz, if you had just adopted a constitution this shit wouldn’t be causing so much drama.” In this, I’ve been spoiled by The Princess Diaries (in which Lilly Moscovitz is anti-monarchical right from the beginning, there is that whole Principles of Government plot track in the early books, and then shit gets *real* in Books Nine and Ten, once Genovia goes from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional parliamentary monarchy. Even more than The Princess Diaries (in which I read the last few books only in April this year), my eyerolling at monarchy stories has been driven by Goong.
Goong, also known as Princess Hours, is a Korean drama stories which I was introduced to by Beatzo (who writes about it here). Quick synposis: it’s set in an alternate timeline where the Korean monarchy was never abolished, and so Korea still has a monarchy (no mention on whether it’s a unified Korea or not), but also a constitution. The Crown Prince has to be married off to preserve succession, and his grandfather’s will specifies that he marries one particular girl – who is a commoner, a klutz, and coincidentally, at the same school as the crown prince. So far this is just Cinderella meets Princess Diaries meets teenage love triangle – except things get further complicated with succession intrigues, and – this is the cool bit – constitutional crises, right from the beginning. It sounds kitschy (and it is! it is! when it comes to the costumes and the soundtrack), but it’s also written very cleverly, with lots of playing with the tropes of the Cinderella story, high school cliques, and so forth. My love for Goong is just as sincere as my love for the Princess Diaries (that is, completely fucking sincere). I really ought to blog about it separately, especially to take issue with Beatzo’s claim that all the characters are sympathetic. I dididentify with all the characters, but sympathising is a completely different issue – except for Min Hyo Rin the aspiring ballerina, they’re all kind of assholes. But yeah, different post. Back on track now, or at least to a digression that’s just one fork deep.
So, the fact that there are books and TV series that have monarchical settings but which manage to actually use constitutional law as important plot points instead of just ignoring it and its conflict with absolutism is a major reason why I get fed up with books with the same setting but where the alternative of rule of law (or at least rule by law) isn’t even on the radar screen. This is one of the reasons why I hated A Game of Thrones (the other reasons were that the damn thing meandered for more than four hundred pages without bringing any of the plot threads to a satisfactory conclusion, and that we got hints of a cool zombie plot in the introduction which was then cruelly set aside for almost the entire book).
I have a conspiracy theory, though, that George R R Martin is actually aware of this shortcoming, and has made this known through that bit in AGoT where one dude tells the other dude that all the characters are obsessed with playing the game of thrones, but none of the common people really cares who is on the throne. The whole point of A Game of Thrones, in this conspiracy theory, was to annoy the readers, or possibly the publishers. When they missed this blatant pointer that they shouldn’t really give a shit about any of the characters, GRRM decided to up the ante and screw with them even more by means of the insane delays between books. Basically, the entire A Song of Ice and Fire series is an elaborate troll.
OK, seriously, back on track now. Constitutional monarchies. Brave. Time to focus.
There are lots of issues here, but lets start with political legitimacy and the consent of the governed. We take it for granted today that governments derive their legitimacy from the consent of the people they govern – and that this consent is periodically refreshed through democratic elections (or, if you’re being cynical about it, by the people’s failure to revolt – but then, kicking out a government you no longer consent to by voting it out is a form of peaceful revolt.)
As with most stories about monarchs, the question of whether these monarchs have the consent of the governed or not is neatly ignored, but the theme is touched upon in another way: by the fact that the monarchs themselves are governed by tradition, custom, and “what a princess should do”. So, when Merida, the princess of the kingdom and the central character in Brave, is told to marry one of the three princes of the other kingdoms against her wishes, because that’s the tradition that binds the kingdoms together in peace, we see the clash play out. Instead of unjust laws for the commoners, we have unjust traditions for the rulers.
(The situation of absolute monarchs being miserable because of unjust traditions, while likely ruling their subjects with wholly unjust laws, does have a lot of eyerolling and “Cry me a river” potential. But if you’re going to address this issue, this is probably an easier and more dramatic way of telling the story.)
So although Brave doesn’t actually have constitutions and laws anywhere in the plot, it does, through allegory, raise issues of constitutional law. In a constitutional state, where you’re governed by laws, do the laws have the consent of the governed? And in a pre-constitutional state, where you’re governed by traditions (which could be purely religious, cultural, or a difficult-to-separate complex of religious and cultural), are the people carrying out those traditions doing so with full consent as well? This, I feel, is a question applicable to India even today – we’re not so much a single nation as a patchwork or network of nations, some of which are governed by law, some by tradition, some by charisma, and some by a combination.
A specific example is the khap panchayats of Haryana and Western UP (Jatistan, in other words), which are the governmental structure of the (virtual?) state that governs by tradition. And when two same-gotra kids decide to marry, they’re no longer consenting to the traditions that have been governing their communities up until then. Boom. Suddenly the consent of the governed has vanished. The trouble is, the people running the government are going to treat it as a rebellion. Which means that your choice is to secede, and run away to a part of India where the government is by law and not tradition (but I doubt that any place in India is completely like this), or to actually rebel and take the tradition-government down. That needn’t mean attacking a panchayat full of Jat geezers with a hand-pump Sunny Deol style, pleasing as the mental image is – you could also do it like Raja Rammohun Roy or Swami Dayanand.
So at one level, Princess Merida’s challenge to traditions is an allegory for the movement from rule of custom to rule of law. At another level, I saw the movie talking about another one of my pet obsessions, that started ever since I read the Percy Mistry report – the difference between rules based regulation and principles based regulation. (Here’s a link to an excerpt of my Pragati article where I talk about this in detail – to read the whole thing, you’ll have to download the entire issue of Pragati as a PDF.)
To elaborate further, I’ll have to provide a synopsis of Brave and leak spoilers. The movie takes place in a Scottish kingdom in which there are four clans (or sub-kingdoms?) which are all entitled to the throne. To prevent civil war from breaking out between the four clans, the ancient laws (or customs which have all the force of law) demand that when the king’s daughter comes of age, she marry the heir of any of the other clans, and the throne passes to him. (This is what I gathered from the movie – I presume that things change if the sitting king has a male heir.) Unfortunately, the princess in Brave doesn’t want to get married, and rebels furiously. The details of how she rebels are also important, so I’m going to have to spoil those too. Next paragraph.
The rules of succession say that the first born heir of any of the four clans is allowed to compete for the princess’s hand, in a contest of her choosing. Princess Merida chooses archery, and then, once the three princes are done shooting (very badly, at that), announces that she too is a first born heir of the clans, and will shoot for her own hand. She then takes her shots, gets bulls eyes, and pwns all the princes.
But all this does is create further problems – Merida’s mother, the queen, is furious, Merida throws a tantrum, and tears apart a tapestry showing the family, and then rides off into the woods, where she finds a with who gives her a potion that will make the mother change. It does – the mother changes into a bear. Now there are two problems – how to change the queen back into human shape, and how to get Merida out of a marriage she doesn’t want.
The first problem is solved through negotiation – Merida tells the assembled clans that she too wants the kingdom to stay united instead of falling into civil war, but that there’s plenty of time for the princes to actually win her heart instead of just her hand, and so she will marry someone… eventually. And the important point is to focus on maintaining the peace by any useful means, not to get bogged down in one particular way of doing so.
The final resolution of how the queen is restored to human form can also be seen as an exploration of the principles v/s rules or letter v/s spirit dichotomy. The witch has given Merida a loophole: the spell will reverse if she mends the bond that was torn. Merida and the queen assume that this means the torn tapestry and set about to mend that – but that doesn’t work. It’s only when Merida and the Queen repair the emotional, not-quite-material bond between themselves – by apologising to each other and accepting the inevitable – that the spell reverses.
In light of this, Brave is a romance with idealism. (As in, idealism is being romanced by the script, not that the script is a romance that has idealism in it). It wants you to be motivated by larger goals instead of being wedded (heh!) to a particular process of implementing them. In fact, it treats strict rules as both problem and ineffective solution – the strict rules are what get Merida into an unhappy situation in the first place, and her attempt to use a loophole, while cheeky and badass, doesn’t solve her problems.
In real life, the focus on principles and the spirit of the law doesn’t always work that well, particularly in India.  (Ravikiran has a blogpost which speculates on why this is so.) Not only does the person or institution judging or enforcing the principle based regulation have to do so fairly, everyone who has to abide by the principles has to be believe that he’s fair. Even if the regulator is fair, but isn’t seen to be so by the regulated, principle based regulation will flop. Moving towards idealistic and goal-driven ways of doing things rather than stick with specific processes is still something we should aspire to, though – just that it’ll be a longer and harder struggle than idealism itself would lead us to believe.

Damn Hoverboards, I Have Bluetooth!

June 16, 2012

I’ve been thinking about the future recently.

What got me started was the news that Total Recall is getting a reboot. I mused that at least it was a reboot that was coming much longer after the original than the Spider-man reboot, and that in fact it might even be getting rebooted well after the time period setting of the original movie.

Thanks to my twitter-addled life and short attention span, before I even bothered to check this out, I then wondered if we were already past the date in which Back to the Future Part II was set. (I did check it out now, while writing this post, and I couldn’t find a fixed date for the first movie, and the original Philip K Dick story definitely doesn’t mention a date.)

And yikes! We’re only three years away from 2015, which is when the (future bit of) Back to the Future II was set. This got me wondering what would be different if Back to the Future  were to be remade today, with the past sequences thirty years ago and the future sequences in 2042. This is an exercise that would be lots of fun if it was a bunch of fans sitting around and talking about it, but I dread how awful it would be if a reboot actually happened.

We’ll get back to Back to the Future in a bit. Right now, time for the other thing that got me thinking about the future.

Yesterday, this was delivered to my apartment: the Creative D200 speaker bar. The sound quality probably isn’t exceptional, but I’m not an audiophile so I don’t think I’d notice even if it was . The important thing about this speaker bar is that it’s wireless. Not as wireless as I hoped, though. It runs on a power cord and has no batteries, so my hopes of pulling a Lloyd Dobler in Chennai have been cruelly shattered. (I’d even found a cutie with her own balcony! We can ignore the likely outcome of what she’d have done after my boombox manouevering.) But it’s still wireless enough to be absolutely awesome, for it takes the audio input not only through an aux cable port, but also through (this is the part where I rub my hands with glee) Bluetooth.

Here is what this means.

There are mp3 files on my phone. My phone is in my pocket. I am in the bedroom. The speaker, on the other hand, is in the drawing room, and at the far end of the drawing room at that. I can set the songs I am listening to from a device in my pocket, while they’re actually played at the other end of the house, and loud enough for me to hear them anyway.

I asked Beatzo on GTalk if it was wrong of me to be so thrilled about this, and he said “Of course not! Welcome to the future!”

Minor aside. If I had asked Neal Stephenson, he would probably have said it was wrong, considering he is slightly grumpy about how in the past few years, so many people in technology would rather be passionate about making smartphone apps than about making rockets:

When he was asked, toward the end of lunch, where he thought computing might be headed, he paused to rephrase the question. “I’ll tell you what I’d like to see happen,” he said, and began discussing what the future was supposed to have looked like, back in his 1960s childhood. He ticked off the tropes of what he called “techno-optimistic science fiction,” including flying cars and jetpacks. And then computers went from being things that filled a room to things that could fit on a desk, and the economy and industries changed. “The kinds of super-bright, hardworking geeky people who, 50 years ago, would have been building moon rockets or hydrogen bombs or what have you have ended up working in the computer industry, doing jobs that in many cases seem kind of ignominious by comparison.”

Again, a beat. A consideration, perhaps, that he is talking about the core readership for his best sellers. No matter. He’s rolling. He presses on.

“What I’m kind of hoping is that this is just kind of a pause, while we assimilate this gigantic new thing, ubiquitous computing and the Internet. And that at some point we’ll turn around and say, ‘Well, that was interesting — we have a whole set of new tools and capabilities that we didn’t have before the whole computer/Internet thing came along.’ ”

He said people should say, “Now let’s get back to work doing interesting and useful things.”

Digression over. Now, back to Back to the Future.

We have three years left and portable fusion reactors, flying cars, and hoverboards are nowhere in sight. On the other hand, lots of other things that Back to the Future II showed as commonplace are in fact commonplace: flat screen TVs, ubiquitious videoconferencing, and electronics embedded in all sorts of machinery (though not quite accurate on how exactly this panned out). There’s a wiki on Back to the Future, so you can check out the page on the technology of the fictional 2015, and see for yourself how much it got right and how much it missed. There’s quite a decent hit rate, actually, when you consider how tricky this prediction business is.

So tricky, in fact, that a 1996 movie got one detail about 2063 even more badly wrong than 1985’s Back to the Future II got 2015 wrong. The 1996 movie was Star Trek: First Contact, and the detail in question (and this is where things all come together) is wireless music streaming.

As you see in this clip from the movie, Zefram Cochrane, while launching Earth’s first faster-than-light spacecraft, decides that he wants his tunes, and so slips a tiny octogonal, transparent disc into a music player.  Optical media! Teehee! How quaint!

Okay, more seriously. Bluetooth was created in 1994. Flash storage was also invented at about the same time, but I remember that the first time I ever came across a commercial USB flash drive was in 2004. They both took so long to go mainstream, that back in 2006, the most futuristic thing the writers of Star Trek could conceive about playing music was a tinier, differently shaped CD. We now take the ability to whip out a palm sized device and have it send any music we like to any nearby speakers for granted – but Zefram  Cochrane had to hunt for a particular disk and physically shove it in. Wow.

To be fair, Star Trek’s 2063 is a post-World War dystopia where most of humanity and civilisation has been wiped out, so it’s conceivable that there was a flash memory shortage, or a bluetooth shortage, and the war’s survivors had to resort to optical media all over again. Which makes the story even more remarkable  – this is a world with no Bluetooth, but they were still able to build a faster-than-light propulsion drive. Whatay!