Monday, July 06, 2009


It has been a long journey.

This blog started off as the incoherent ramblings of a blogger full of self-importance (and has finished the same way, I hear some of you snicker). I talked of Amitav Ghosh and science fiction, my love for code and my breakup, Greek mythology and the universalist doctrine of Christianity. I talked of my hatred for reservations and why I thought it was the manifest duty of our generation to function as the aggregators and disseminators of wealth.

And, finally, the blog petered to a stop. I had lost my voice. Why? Exhorting others to reach for the impossible, I had compromised on my own goals. Pushing others to achieve their heart's desires, I had neglected mine.

It has been five years since my first post appeared on this blog. Five years of growing up from angsty youth to mature man, five years of yearning to find an independent voice when I had it with me all the while. Five years of seeking desperately to move on from the cliches of modern blogging. Five years might not be an eternity for blogs in general, but it sure feels that way for this one, which is why I have good news and bad news for you folks who are still reading.

The bad news: I've decided to stop updating this blog. Though this will remain in its present form for the foreseeable future, I shall not be posting any fresh articles here.

The good news: There's a brand new blog, at (yep, I'm going commercial), where I'll write about subjects that have managed to hold my fickle interest for a sustained period. I still have lots to talk about, but this is not the appropriate forum any more.

See you at my new blog!

Monday, May 26, 2008

A Hundred Miles To Havana

Note: This is a re-write of a story I had written years ago in college. I've tried to breathe fresh life into the text; I hope and trust you'll enjoy it.

There is fear in us, dark and velvet, enveloping our hearts and minds, whispering insanely in our dreams. Throwing us into the abyss, roaring with laughter as we slip away like tin soldiers from the hands of a dying god.
There is hate in us too, a brooding evil, animating our hands, tapping out the drumbeats to our deepest desires.
And there is love as well, oh yes, a blazing ray of light that sets fire to our souls. Making us believe, against all odds, that redemption is just a heartbeat away.
In equal measures have I felt the dank and musty trappings of fear in the distant reaches of my mind, pinned down the rabid animal that is hate threatening to take over my soul.
And yes, a million moons ago, I was touched by love.
The story starts, as very few do, on a pier.

The sun broke through the clouds as she stepped off the ferry and onto the pier. I watched silently as the gentle waves lapped at the hems of her dress, as the ferryman turned away and rowed off hurriedly.
I stood up and stretched, waved at her to come over.
"You must be the guide," she stated with an air of uncertainty, as she walked across the pier and onto the beach. I nodded shortly. I hadn’t been looking my best, and my clothes had never been something to excitedly write home about.
"What happened to this place?"
I turned around to stare anew at my abode of many, many years. The winding path that led to the village was strewn with sugar-coated candy wrappers, and my eyes caught the glint of jagged metal edges sticking out of the mud.
"I guess people get really hungry around here."
She laughed then, a delightful wave of joy, and the wind fell silent in awe as the sounds of her mirth echoed across the beach.
"I'm Anne," she said and reached out her hand in greeting.
I recoiled in horror and lurched back a few steps.
"Please don't try to touch me again."
And there was a pursing of lips, and there was a steady silence that hinted at a wellspring of anger buried deep. And she withdrew her hand, started walking down the path, staring fixedly at the distant village.

I was quite content to walk alongside her, and we trudged along the path, skillfully dodging the pieces of metal that threatened each time to blow us into bits.
She spoke finally, after a while, hesitation and annoyance uneasily coming to a truce in her voice.
"Did all of this land up here during the Great War?" she asked, as she poked at a metal piece with her foot.
"I'd be careful if I were you," I replied. "It was the First World War actually."
The butterfly of chaos had flapped its wings in a city amidst the clouds, and the thundering echoes of its passage had boomed across this island, as history and legend swept over and greedily embraced all of us. I had fought against my lord and master, commanded my own troops. I had viewed with dread the eerie calm with which was undertaken the merciless slaughter of civilians by the opposing armies. I had proudly given no quarter, nor asked for any, until desertion and attrition took their toll on our meager defences.
And, after the War ended, I had been sent here to seek salvation, if possible, an iota of mercy, if not.
"I knew your father," I said, and smiled as she gasped and stopped in her tracks. "I spoke to him many years ago, when he came to this island. He was an interesting man, a brave man." I paused, unusually unsure of myself, and took a deep breath. "He wanted to bring along his entire family, but you weren’t quite ready for the move yet."
I watched as her tears furiously ripped furrows in the layers of dust on her face, watched as she took out a dirty napkin from the folds of her dress and wiped her eyes and her nose, watched as the heaves and sobs subsided.
And then, finally - "How far are we from Havana?"
I grinned, resumed walking. "A hundred miles, give or take. We’ll stop at the village for refreshments."

The path took us through a sugar plantation tended by a plague of industrious ants, and as Anne chatted away happily about her family and her friends back in Amsterdam, morning slowly made way for late afternoon. The Sun looked a delicious shade of boiled yolk when we reached the ruins and thatched huts that comprised my village. The breeze bent to its thankless task of drying our sweat, carrying to our ears the harsh calls of ravens seemingly perched on every nearby tree.
"We should eat at Ernie's. Everybody comes to Ernie's," I said, savoring already the taste of fried mackerel and a pint of beer.
She gave me a puzzled smile. "It's Rick's, isn't it. Everybody comes to Rick's."
"Different place, honey, different time." I led the way to Ernie's inn, a sorry-looking dilapidated shack that once used to have a real roof, one that rarely leaked during the fierce storms that kept lashing our coast. Ernie's Inn, the sign swinging and creaking outside proudly proclaimed, Estd. 1961. And right below this was a singular coat of arms: a fish leaping out of the open mouth of a bull. Which made me hungrier still.

Anne took off her straw hat as we walked in through the swinging salon doors, and shook the sweat out of her long black hair. She looked up at me and grimaced.
"Ernie!" I shouted out, "There’s a guest with me!"
There was a noise from behind one of the tables in the corner, and Anne muffled a shriek as a woman dressed in black got up from her seat and stared at us.
"It's only Virginia. She’s not all there. Ignore her," said Ernie, standing behind us, armed with a batter and two mugs, scratching his white beard and leering at Anne, carefully avoiding my gaze. "So, what can I interest you in?"
My regular mackerel and beer was served up in no time at all, while Anne decided to feast herself on a green cake that I quite advised against.
It was with a relaxed sigh that I put my legs up on the table and pushed back my chair. Anne kept smiling at Ernie, who seemed happy enough to be at the receiving end of this show of emotion. Virginia sat at her own table and kept cooing and muttering to herself softly.
"You know, it's funny, the way Virginia turned up here," Ernie started off, addressing Anne as he handed me a cigar. I flicked out a pen knife, clean snapped off the cigar top, and lit it. The delicious aroma of tobacco filled the inn. All was right with the world.
"Funny how?"
I grunted and dusted some of the ash off my shirt. "She walked out of the ocean, all drenched and pale. Most people landing up on this island come via ferry, the way you did."
Anne shuddered faintly as Ernie frowned at me. Evidently, I was not supposed to interrupt. I laughed and pointed my cigar at him. "Now, this guy, when he came here, looked like an Egyptian mummy; his forehead was wrapped in bandages. I nursed him back to health."
I caught Ernie with a pleading look on his face. "That's worth a round you owe me Ernie, and you know it."
Ernie took my mug, turned around without a word and went back to the counter to fill it up.
"He's scared of losing his mind, Ernie is," I chuckled, as he pushed my mug back at me and sat down next to Anne. "So's Virginia, as far as I can tell." Virginia tilted her head and stared at us, upon hearing her name spoken aloud. The time had come to roll the dice.
"What about you, Anne? Anything that you're afraid of?"
She looked into my eyes then, did Anne, and the mists of the mind that had obscured my vision scattered away, and I saw, before she spoke, what she was afraid of.
"It's the dark. I'm afraid of the dark. I've always been."
Simple words, softly spoken. I understood, then, perhaps for the very first time, why humans alone, of all of His creatures, had been blessed with the gift of speech.
Ernie saw the look on my face. "You don’t have to go anywhere tonight. Why don’t you stay here?" he told Anne as his hand crept up to cover hers on the table.
I pushed my chair back as I got up, and smiled at Ernie, a smile cold enough to freeze the Sahara, before turning my gaze to Anne. "We should leave for Havana. Now." Ernie withdrew his hand quickly, and beads of sweat trickled down his forehead.
I walked up to the salon doors, peered at the gathering clouds of late evening. A bulbous moon peeked back at us through the bald bark of a dead tree outside the inn, before resuming its presence behind the clouds.
"The weather's perfect for a stroll in the night," I remarked to nobody in particular.
Ernie got up along with Anne, who seemed clearly reluctant to leave. "Perhaps we should -" he started.
The silence of the ravens was a thunderclap in my head as I walked out of the inn without waiting for a reply, followed shortly by Anne and, a few steps behind her, Ernie.
I thought it best to spare Ernie for now. "Go back to your inn, old man," I said, calmly, as my voice rose above the noise of the birds starting to flap their wings, ready to fly off. "Go back and seek your beloved marlin. It’s not your turn today."
The wind howled and the streetlights flickered in the gathering gloom as we watched each other, Ernie and I, a smile on my face, naked terror on his.
Ernie shrugged and walked back into the inn quietly. The inn was to remain in business for another day at least.
Anne stood by the door of the inn, silent as a tomb, watching me walk away. With a faint sense of satisfaction I heard no signs of her following me.
"Do you want to go to Havana?" I said, softly, as I came to a halt beneath a streetlight across the street, turning around and looking at her. She returned my gaze, then, gathering up her reserves of courage, still standing at the door to the inn, willing herself to make a move.
"Yes I do," she said, and we were plunged into darkness.

The darkness lasted for a year, a week, a month, a day, an hour, a minute, a second. The streetlight above my head flickered back into glorious gas-powered wonder, beating back the demons in the darkness chattering wildly at each other.
I stood in a circle of garish yellow light, surrounded by unseen voices that whistled, spoke, laughed, and cried, as the village lay wrapped in a cloak made out of the fabric of Night itself.
I glimpsed Anne’s outline across the road, her back pushed against the wall of Ernie’s inn. She was on her haunches, cowering, hiding her face.
"Can you see me Anne?" I said, and I had no doubts that she could. I raised my voice, "Don’t you want to go to Havana?"
"I'm scared," she called out, after a while.
I stood there quietly, listening to the ravens clawing and pecking away at unseen horrors.
"Do you trust me?"
She whimpered, then, at the sound of a raven choking. "Yes. Yes, I do."
"Come to me," I said, and stretched out my arms. "Come to me, and everything will be fine."
It was with unceasing wonder that I watched Anne as she lifted up her face, watched as she came to a decision, watched as she got up quietly, watched as she closed her eyes and took deep breaths, watched as she moved blindly towards my outstretched arms, ignoring the beating and flapping of leathery wings around her, ignoring the eerily human-like cries of hunger and envy that surrounded her, ignoring the million beady lifeless eyes that noted every step she took, that lusted after the blood in her veins.
She ignored them all, and she walked up to me.
And she collapsed in my arms with a faint shudder.
"Hush," I said, as I held her and stroked her hair. "Hush. It’s all right now."
It was then that she turned up her face towards me, her eyes full of tears of relief, it was then that she stood on her toes and leaned forward, it was then that I felt her soft lips on mine, it was then that I felt the force of her fierce embrace.
We stood there for a second, a minute, an hour, a day, a month, a week, a year.
We stood there for an eternity.
And as we disengaged, gently, she held my hand in hers, and she asked, "So when do we go to Havana?"
And I smiled at her, tears rolling down my cheeks.
And I said, "You're already here Anne. You’ve reached Havana."
And she vanished before my eyes, melting away into the darkness of the night, as my lips struggled to spell out what I needed to say, as I blinked a thousand times in vain to catch a last fleeting glimpse.
And I stood there and I cried, knowing too well that I would never see her again.

There is fear in us, in each of us, a cold fear that binds us to the world and mocks our greatest achievements.
The fear of the dark for Anne, the fear of turning insane for Ernie and Virginia.
The fear of Man for me.
She faced her fears, Anne did, and conquered them, painful step by painful step, the sheer urgency of years fading away as she came closer to her goal.
I have been on this island since the dawn of time. I have stayed here, and have faced my fears too, man by man, woman by woman, child by child. I have faced my fears, as waves of human flotsam and detritus beat down my island on their desperate way to Havana and to eternal life.
I have faced my fears.
The fear of Man’s touch. The fear of his speech. The fear of his laughter and his cries, and his love and his hate. The fear of his freedom.
"What is Man, that thou art so mindful of him?"
It was He who had asked me the question oh so many years ago. Lucifer, He had called me, Lord of the Morning. I was His first, His chosen.
It was He who had cast me out, thrown me down to this very island, to face my fears till the end of time itself.

There is hope in us too, in each of us. And as I walk down the hundred miles to Havana, as I get closer every day by an inch or two, I feel the grace of His gaze, the soft touch of His thoughts.
For is it not said that the meek shall inherit the Earth?
And if He bestows mercy onto all, won’t He bestow mercy onto me?
There is love in us, I know, in each of us. And I know a time will come, when enough souls have been guided on their journeys, when I have faced my fears and conquered them, that I shall be free to enter His loving embrace.
And there will be, nay, there shall be Light.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

In Which A List of Books Is Covered

Here's a list of books that one's supposed to have read; mark those you have read already in bold, those that are on your bookshelf and are piteously crying out for a solid read in italics, and leave the ones you haven't touched with a bargepole (yet) without any markup. I assume, especially for the classics, that only unabridged works are allowed to be marked as read. (Or the list below shall light up in bold like a Christmas tree.)
The list is from Chandni apparently, via Whiny The Moo's blog. Here's some link love: Chandni and Mukta.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell
Anna Karenina (I believe this is Abhra Banerjee's copy. Ho ho ho.)
Crime and Punishment
Catch-22 (why half bold? Because I couldn't complete the book. Too darn repetitive.)
One Hundred Years of Solitude
Wuthering Heights
The Silmarillion

Life of Pi : a novel
The Name of the Rose (Sigh. What a book. I quizzed Amitav Ghosh with points from this book.)
Don Quixote (One of the first books I read on my mobile phone. Geek.)

Moby Dick
Madame Bovary
The Odyssey (I read a translation by T E Lawrence, of Arabian fame. Yes. That dude on the bike.)

Pride and Prejudice (Ebook.)
Jane Eyre
A Tale of Two Cities
The Brothers Karamazov
Guns, Germs, and Steel (I've got an e-copy of Collapse with me, which I shall read some day inshallah.)
War and Peace

Vanity Fair
The Time Traveler’s Wife
The Iliad (I'm counting audio books as well. :D)

The Blind Assassin
The Kite Runner

Mrs. Dalloway (Seriously? I tried reading this once, and then gave up. It's called "opportunity cost"; I have very limited time on my hands.)
Great Expectations (Dickens' best.)

American Gods (Ahh. This book blew my mind away.)
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

Atlas Shrugged (Read this book just before entering college, like everyone else, and felt vaguely rebellious and anti-authority. Jeez.)
Reading Lolita in Tehran : a memoir in books
Memoirs of a Geisha
Wicked : the life and times of the wicked witch of the West
Quicksilver (First book of Stephenson's Baroque Cycle. Salute.)
The Canterbury Tales

The Historian : a novel
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
Love in the Time of Cholera

Brave New World
The Fountainhead
Foucault’s Pendulum (Takes Dan Brown and whips his sorry posterior from Rome to London.)
Frankenstein (Read this one in 6th grade. What can I say - in Munger's words, I was a book with two legs sticking out.)
The Count of Monte Cristo
Dracula (Courtesy my elder brother. Also, The Omen, which was a hoot.)
A Clockwork Orange
Anansi Boys (Sequel to American Gods, not nearly as nice, but you can still find traces of genius here.)
The Once and Future King (.genre this with possible is what to eyes my opened which book fantasy first The. If you've read the book, you'll know what I'm talking about.)

The Grapes of Wrath
The Poisonwood Bible
1984 (My dad's gift to me in 7th grade, when I was leaning towards Communism. He saved my soul.)
Angels and Demons
Inferno (Audio book, narrated by John Cleese! Yay!)

The Satanic Verses
Sense and Sensibility
The Picture of Dorian Gray
Mansfield Park
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

To the Lighthouse
Tess of the D’Urbervilles
Oliver Twist
Gulliver’s Travels
Les Misérables
The Correction
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (My bro printed out and read the entire book in size 10 fonts. Yes, we are cheap people.)
The Prince

The Sound and the Fury
Angela’s Ashes : a memoir
The God of Small Things
A People’s History of the United States : 1492-present
A Confederacy of Dunces
A Short History of Nearly Everything
The Unbearable Lightness of Being
Slaughterhouse Five
The Scarlet Letter
Eats, Shoots and Leaves
The Mists of Avalon
Oryx and Crake
Collapse : how societies choose to fail or succeed
Cloud Atlas (Again, I'm halfway through.)

The Confusion
Lolita (It's pretty funny actually. You should try reading it. Funny as in that weird guy who keeps staring at me at the bus stand, not funny as in ha-ha.)

Northanger Abbey
The Catcher in the Rye
On the Road
The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Freakonomics : a rogue economist explores the hidden side of everything
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance : an inquiry into values
The Aeneid
Watership Down
Gravity’s Rainbow (What can I say? I'm still trying to understand this. Before you ask, no annotations, thank you.)

The Hobbit
In Cold Blood : a true account of a multiple murder and its consequences
White Teeth
Treasure Island
David Copperfield
The Three Musketeers

Now for the list of books I suggest you should read, off the top of my head:

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (If you haven't read this yet, go kill yourself. Seriously. I might be able to help.)
The Agony And The Ecstasy (The closest historical parallel to Howard Roark.)
Pilgrim's Progess
The Decameron (The mother-lode of all framed stories in Western lit.)
The Rubaiyyat (Thank you Mondy.)
The Ramayana (A translation by Rajagopalachari ji.)
The Mahabharata (Again, the Gov-General's translation.)
Theogony (Those savages did have a vivid imagination.)
Fooled By Randomness (It dusts away all the cobwebs in your brain.)
Bill Bryson's Made In America (You learn so much more about your beloved language.)
Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion (Simmons, not Keats. If you need to read one series in the science fiction genre, let this be it. You won't need anything else.)
Endymion and The Rise of Endymion (Simmons, not Keats.)
Contact (Read this from cover to cover, and understand what the word God actually means.)
Small Gods (Pratchett never fails to cheer me up, and this is, in my opinion, his best work [a hotly contested spot].)
Good Omens (Pratchett & Gaiman. What more can I say?)
Midnight's Children (Forget anything else he wrote. This is the best. Ever.)
The Lord of The Rings (Surprisingly missing from the previous list, probably because of the movies. After devouring this from cover to cover, I bought and read each of his books. Yes. That's all the ten or eleven books in the History of Middle Earth series as well. Ask me for personal recommendations from this body of work.)
To Kill A Mockingbird
The Moon and Sixpence
The "Song of Ice and Fire" series
Nightfall: A Collection of Short Stories (Not Asimov's collaboration with Silverberg, which is a piece of crap.)
Any collection of short stories by Philip Dick (Don't go for the novels. The stories are totally worth it though.)
Borges' Ficciones (Especially The Library of Babel.)
The Sandman Series (The best graphic novel series ever. You'll learn more about history and myth than from a million other books.)
Maus (Chilling rendition of WWII. Why is this special? Google's your friend.)
The Hero With A Thousand Faces
HG Wells' A Short History of the World (Covers everything from dinosaurs to WWI. Surprisingly interesting and readable. Try it out.)

Can't think of any more right now. I'll keep adding to this list. Or perhaps make it a permanent feature.
As for you, reader, consider yourself tagged.

Thursday, April 10, 2008


To be honest, let's just say that I was not very surprised with the Supreme Court's judgement regarding OBC reservations. Disappointed, but not surprised. No, not that.
What surprised me though, was the vehemence displayed by people on both sides of the debate post-judgement. Our Esteemed (and Ambassadored) Political Leaders were quick to claim victory, each party generating soundbites stating that they are the sole protectors of the new urban votebank that has been magically brought into existence by court diktat and the sound of a gavel hammering down on a million dreams.
People on my side of the debate (hint: I was against reservations) were quick to state that India will never become a developed country this way, and that they should leave India as soon as possible.
What brought matters to a virtual boil was a debate I witnessed on CNN-IBN, between a young man representing Youth For Equality, and a bunch of politicians such as the formidable D Raja of the CPI. It was fascinating to watch the YFE chap toting out statistics that projected gloom and doom for the nation, all the while displaying a keen grasp of logic, against people whose flea-sized brains kept spewing out a single point over and over again: some person from Andhra Pradesh belonging to a fishing community has ranked 1st in the Civil Service examinations. Good for him.
It was towards the end of the debate that the true nature of our disagreement struck me, when I saw D Raja vigorously defend his standpoint, stating that everybody's playing politics.

The Nature of the Game

The reason D Raja was so agitated, the reason why YFE fought with such gusto, the reason why thousands of people leave the shores of this country never to return, is because of the fundamental nature of the clash between two value systems: one where equality is valued, and one where excellence is.
One where faith and belief are valued, and one where reason and intellect are.
One where history is a towering monster breathing down our necks, and one where history is dusted off with the flick of a wrist.
One where diversity stops at the entrance to one's home, and one where people wish they were American citizens so they could vote for Obama.
One where hearts and eyes are blinded by the glowing beacon of Eternal Revolution, and one where hearts skip a beat upon hearing that Noam Chomsky shall be addressing a local conference. (And if you think they are on the same side, I pity you.)

The value system we have grown up with, that insidious poison which taught us to deem Pakistan to be an expletive, streaming into our ears the xenophobic rant of our glorious civilization having been trampled upon for a thousand years by invaders, making sure we remember our duty to resist such occupation forever with our heart and soul, this value system is the root of the social contract that binds us as a self-flagellating, self-cannibalizing, self-hating society.

Over time, we have learned to smooth out the rough edges. Interacting with people from halfway around the world, we have learned to manufacture an Other for each glorious fragment of our fractured identity that we choose to exhibit at any point in time.

We were thrown out of the Garden of Innocence as children, and we have eaten the Apple of Hatred. Having rejected the value system of our predecessors on this part of Earth, we now need to reject the social contract built on top of a fundamental assumption that guilt is the root of political power.

Reflect. Introspect. Understand yourself. Map your values. And reject the guilt that seeks to own you.

Will reservations hinder excellence? Yes they will. Does it matter? No, it doesn't. The law of the land has spoken out loud, and equality has been deemed to be of a more vital import than excellence. To paraphrase Gandhi, "Leave India to God's children, or leave India to anarchy, but leave."

Isn't this a democracy?

The thing that pains me the most is how fragile our understanding is of what democracy entails. We lay utmost faith in the wisdom of crowds, yet fail to understand that to create a crowd is to discover a common factor that unites the greatest number of people.
We are proud to call ourselves one of the few republics where the Head of State is an elected lady, and yet fail to understand that republicanism enshrines the idea of inalienable rights that a democratic "will of the people" cannot take away.
For those of us trusting the voice of the masses, remember that they were the ones who used to burn "witches" at the stake.
Those of us who fervently believe that the "janata" is always right, remember well the Middle Ages where a majority of people knew for certain that the world rests on the back of a giant turtle.

What will happen?

We were fools to believe in a New India, one moulded to perfection by a booming economy, industrious workers, visionary corporate giants creating nation-straddling behemoths, lorded over by a benign government that created social security for the masses. We bought the Kool Aid of a rising superpower, one that would challenge the fire-breathing dragon to the East.
And yet, at the first sign of challenge, our Kool Aid-dispensing Sakis faltered.
They faltered when the Communists challenged them vis a vis the Indo-US nuclear deal.
They faltered when they were asked to take a courageous stand against China's brutal occupation of Tibet.
And, finally, they faltered and failed where it mattered the most: They failed to nurture India's best and brightest.

What of India? India will muddle along, as always, as the world outside laughs at our petty fights and savage mechanisms of handling them, as the dead hand of Malthus animates the countryside with famines that break one's heart. Does it feel bad? Yes. Can we do anything about it? No.

It's time, I guess, to heed Gandhi's words, and leave India to the people that its society values. Time to break out a new stone tablet with a fresh set of commandments, one wherein are enshrined the basic tenets of individual liberty and the pursuit of excellence.
Time to cross the seas, gentlemen and ladies. I hope you're with me.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Getting Rich, Pt. 2

(This is in response to the anonymous blogger who posted his/her comments to the previous article. I realized the potency of his arguments and have decided that adequate justice can only be done by re-posting my response as an article instead of a comment.)

Hi Anonymous.

You have misunderstood the purpose of this article. What I am getting at is the fact that a liberal democracy (as opposed to the social or christian variants), for all its flaws, is arguably much better equipped to ensure its citizens have at least a semblance of equal access to opportunity. And it is this very access that is responsible for innovation, and cultural and technological progress, those very broad movements with attendant massive trickle-down effects touching all sections of society. The end result is the creation of a more educated and equitable society.

I am fully aware of the fact that one could justifiably dismiss most Americans as uneducated. Be that as it may, the drivers of the American economy are, surprisingly enough, substantially more educated than one would expect.

Of course, it is patently unfair to posit education as both the pre-requisite as well as the eventual end-result of being rich. Correlation is not equivalent to causality and all that jazz, i.e. just because most economic drivers are educated does not imply that education is a pre-condition to getting rich.

However, one need not believe in the Hegelian creed of historicism and feel doomed looking at the inexorable march towards communism; as an educated individual, one ought to realise that a capitalist form of society is the sole doctrine which has embedded within itself the precious idea of "wealth creation", plainly expressed as the scope of "making money".
Making money and being rich is not the end-goal of human existence; rather, it is a means of achieving a more richly-textured existence during one's lifespan, along with the rest of society. To be human is to derive joy from the interactions one has with one's society and culture; to be human is to explore and push out the boundaries of the known and to fight back the fearsome puzzles of the not-yet-known.

Coming back to the purpose of this essay, I strongly believe it is imperative for our generation to be rich, and to plough back the generated wealth into a bootstrapped next generation which is sufficiently educated, civilized, and cultured, and which makes human existence in the subcontinent much more pleasant and pregnant with possibilities. That is our duty to society, if any; that is our dharma.

Now, coming to the points you have raised:

Your article amply proves the age old saying of "Little Knowledge is Dangerous".
1. Accepted - nation state was a specific European creation created during those turbulent days of 18th and 19th centuries, under the guise of western liberalism - although I doubt to what extent nation states had anything to do with the core liberal ideas of Kant, Adam Smith, etc.

RESPONSE: I shall ignore the ad hominem attack and simply state that classical liberalism is what defined to a great extent, in close conjunction with Westphalia, the modern nation state. It was the liberal doctrine that powered most of the popular revolutions of that age, and which created most of the pillars of modern societies that we take for granted, viz the primacy of parliament, the independence of the judiciary, and the codification of accepted social practice as law. Again, I am not too sure why Kant was included in your list of liberals; Kant was a mystic and a pessimist, one who believed in the eventual fallibility of reason when faced with the unknown. I do not care to share such a dismal view of Man's place in the universe.

2. What do you mean by this fanatical belief in "Liberty"? Have you ever thought about whether you are really "FREE" in any philosophical sense of the word? If I may use John Stuart Mill's words, it is basically the freedom to do whatever one wants without impinging on others' ability to do the same. Do you in anyway fulfill these definitions ? I am not talking about petty day to day activities but more systemic things. This brings us to the title of your essay. Are you willing to enshrine it as the foundation of our society? Are you willing to make the freedom to make money as the only real "freedom" and reduce the populace into dumb consumerist monsters devouring the world's resources - at least that is what one generation of Americans have been able to do quite efficiently. This paramount freedom of the market necessarily undermines all other freedoms - making people like you fanatical adherents to this get rich mantra. I am not suggesting that you cannot think, rather that the whole logic is so compelling that most people fall for it and become willing slaves.

RESPONSE: Liberalism and the utilitarian doctrine share a lot in common; among them is the non-impingement of free acts upon the freedom of others. What I find fascinating, though, is the Left's paranoia about the preservation of capital. (I use capital in its broadest sense.) I have sufficient faith in human ingenuity to realize that issues such as global warming, the depletion of natural resources and the impending collapse of the oil-fuelled economy are best solved in a political framework that encourages entrepreneurial behaviour with its attendant risk-return tradeoffs. A short exercise is in order here: witness the mental association of soot and grime with the cities of the erstwhile Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Capitalism recognizes that pollution leads to sub-optimal productivity; entrepreneurs realize that a business opportunity exists in catering to people who want a cleaner environment more than anything else; a true education makes people realize the numerous benefits of preserving the Earth's fragile ecosystem over the often shoddy benefits of owning a gas-guzzling SUV. All of the above components must exist in order to correct the mistakes of the past and to catalyse human progress. Other doctrines, be they theocratic or left-leaning, fail precisely because they do not take into account the primacy of the free market in regulating the pulse of human life.

3. I don't fault you very much for this essay. Lots of countries have gone through the same phase as India is going through. Look at Latin America - it was once the most radical adherents to neoliberal policies and look what happened to them - a fact that people in that part of the world are quickly realizing. I am sorry to say this, but India seems to be going towards the same direction - 20-30% rich and the rest poor. Only, the misery will be much more with such a large population.

RESPONSE: It takes a lot of meddling with the definition of neo-liberalism to extend it to the form of economy currently extant in Latin America. If you declare yourself a free market solely for the purpose of looting wealth, it is scarcely capitalism at fault. Crony capitalism, for such is what it is, is what exists in most parts of India, and we Indians have much more in common with goons such as Cheney or Chavez than we would care to acknowledge. In fact, it is only in a truly free market that alternatives such as Linux can spring up. As an example of attacking the weak points of the competitor, it is a shining beacon of the open possibilities that capitalism embraces; its proponents barely realize that they are simply pawns in the free market. Having said that, I reiterate - being rich is not an end in itself, but a means to achieving social progress. I have far more respect for Andrew Carnegie, the steel baron who established CMU, than I do for Stalin, who established the famous gulags and concentration camps of Siberia. Capitalism, the resultant drive to be rich and the need to invest in social upliftment is the one thing that can help Indians break through the barriers erected by the Pareto Principle.

4. On a more philosophical note, I would like you to think about this - the tremendous fragmentation that we suffer from, do you think we can be really free with this kind of segmentation? we are constantly torn apart by all kinds of stimuli, essentially becoming slaves of our mind. I somewhat agree with your prescription of an educated person, but I think it lacks a deeper understanding of how our mind works and hence how to "educate" it.

RESPONSE: As you have rightly pointed out, in all probability I lack a deeper understanding of the cognitive process, and of how best to work through it. Be that as it may, it does not give us enough of an excuse to sit back and not do anything. We need to create providers of education that can, at the very least, ensure equitable access to opportunity here in the subcontinent; it is the one thing that we Indians lack. I agree with your prescriptive advice that more needs to be done in terms of finding the best means to educate minds, but, in the absence of such panaceas, we are left with no other option but to at least try and inculcate the best practices that human civilization and culture have worked out.

5. Finally, regarding the optimality of free market capitalism, you have got it badly wrong. When you give the example of Henry Ford, remember his continued success was mainly due to his monopoly in the car market. This is precisely what laissez faire economists would despise.

RESPONSE: I beg to differ with your understanding of Henry Ford's place in the pantheon of the free market. When Ford started his company, there were over a hundred such car makers creating automobiles the same way medieval guilds crafted tools. It is to Ford that we owe the creation of the modern assembly line, with consequent order-of-magnitude gains in productivity; it is Ford who exploited the crucial insight that in order to establish a market for his goods, he first needed to ensure a much higher level of work-life balance among his workers. It is Ford who established the five-day week, instead of the then-standard six days of work except Sabbath, so that families get one more day for leisure. Of course, it was purely selfish capitalistic motives that drove Ford, since he knew that two days of leisure every week would encourage families to go out on trips to the countryside, and this push would consequently expand the automobile market. It is not for us, though, to question Ford's motives, because, yet again, we notice how the pressures of a true free market work in "mysterious" ways to establish a greater dignity for life. Having done all that, however, Ford never managed to gain a monopoly on the American car market, as Sloan and others in General Motors ran away with his organizational principles and, in doing so, created modern management science. To summarize, a monopoly is inherently unstable in a true free market, and there are enough rational agents in such an economy who can wobble, if not topple, the status quo-ism of such a state.

And what is this optimal thing? can you be more concrete? does it really lead to happier people? or is it just pareto optimality you are talking about? what about wastage, over-production, exploitation, ecological destruction? what about the marketplace destroying all semblances of diversity?

RESPONSE: I am not competent enough to answer whether ANY form of economy leads to happier people, though I have a fair amount of doubt and suspicion as to whether communism can do anything of the sort. Wastage and over-production exist in ALL economic systems; they are a consequence of incompetent planning, which at a macro-level is the hallmark of a communist economy. At a micro-level, as management systems get stronger in control and planning aspects, and as improvements such as JIT and Kaizen are introduced in a large scale, such inefficiencies tend to disappear. This is a byproduct of human progress and ingenuity, and one hopes the best for the future. As for exploitation and ecological destruction, a liberal free market based economy consisting of educated citizenry would take more than adequate steps to ensure these evils are stamped out. And, finally, a true free market would ensure adequate recognition of diversity, and place due emphasis on catering to its needs. Witness the huge market that has been brought into creation due to the existence of the GLBT community. Diversity can only be destroyed if people believe it's unnecessary and not worthy of preservation. As long as there is sufficient education in the world, cultural artifacts, if deemed important enough by the market, and if even a single person believes in their preservation, will exist. If not, perhaps they deserve a decent burial.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Getting Rich is a Moral and Social Imperative

Yesterday found me in Cafe Coffee Day, Koramangala, sitting with my partners and discussing some changes in our proposed B-plan. Caffeine can work miracles with your thought process.

As is usual with such hangouts, a boisterous group of PYTs walked in and plonked themselves on the sofa. We tried drowning out the background chatter and concentrating on what needed to be done with The Plan, but it was pretty tough sledding.

And then the PYT Chat converged on to the latest movie that they had watched: "Gandhi My Father". My ears pricked up as one of them simpered - "Y'know, I never liked that guy anyway. He looked so funny when he walked and all." Giggles. Followed by - "Seriously. Duuuude. What's with that damn stick anyway?" Laughter.


Here's to a happy 60th Year of Independence, ladies and gentlemen.

This reminds me of a chat I had had with one of my friends the other day, when he had awkwardly suggested that "Gandhi was never a saint". In my admittedly biased vision, though, sainthood has been conferred upon far too many people for far less reasons. If anyone deserves to be called a saint, it's Gandhi.

Don't get me wrong. I strongly believe that the nation-state is, at best, an awkward construct, having painfully taken birth alongside modern liberalism as a political philosophy. In most cases, it plays a somewhat useful role in nurturing a consensus approach to matters that affect those rational beings that exist within its stated borders. I refer, obviously enough, to Western liberal democracies. North Korea barely fits my self-serving definition above.

I am all for freedom of expression. The PYTs mentioned in the blog have every right to laugh at Gandhi, for asserting these rights are the fruits of liberal thought. For all those of you who are horrified at the thought, remember, Gandhi himself would have laughed alongside the PYTs. Similarly, I'm all for those of us who believe that all of human life is infinitely precious, and that India has no business killing people, be it Kashmir or Mizoram. Again, I'm fully supportive of those who want to leave India and go abroad, because "dude, life in India sucks".

Liberty cannot be chained and put behind bars. This is what freedom means, even if it means you want to burn your nation's flag as a mark of protest.

What scares me the most, though, is when emerging nation-states such as India fail in providing support to those very people who comprise its raison d'etre, its very basis of existence.

I refer, gentle reader, to the fact that all Indians are uneducated.

You see, there is no educated soul in the country, you and me included.

Of course, we can each trot out statistics which state that 2 out of 3 Indians are literate.

There is, however, a vast gulf between literacy and education. The PYTs in the cafe were literate. You and me are literate (hopefully, or you wouldn't be reading this nor I writing this). The very fact that more than 65% of India is literate is a mind-boggling achievement.

However, none of us are educated.

A solid system of education ought to travel way beyond the traditional cognitive skills of reading, writing, and numeracy, the troika which makes up modern literacy initiatives in this country. To be educated should mean much more than the capability of surviving in a modern society.

To be educated should imply the ability to think and reason, to understand social, historical and cultural contexts. It should inculcate the sturdy habits of self-reliance, especially in the crucial domain of thinking for oneself.

Having outsourced all else, we simply cannot afford to outsource our reasoning and our brains.

To be educated should imply a deeper understanding of humanity's precarious state of existence, and to glory in its achievements, miniscule though they may be when measured with scales grander than those we are used to.

A true education would embrace aesthetics and ethics, the scientific method and history, a knowledge of the world we are living in as well as our place in the greater scheme of things.

We should be able to appreciate the magic of Ghalib as well as the poetry of Blake, and understand why we do so.
We should be able to weep equally when faced with the grandeur of the Notre Dame or the Taj.
We should be able to follow the convoluted logic of Aquinas with the same rigour as we follow that of Godel.
We should not be afraid to analyze organized religion as a human construct, and explore its flaws as well as its fragile beauty.

In the end, a truly educated being would be fully equipped to hold its own in the world, to create wonders of the mind and of the senses, and to mould reality as it deems fit.

We Indians have been badly equipped for this difficult journey, having been shoe-horned into accepting the consensus doctrines of society as to what to do with our lives. That, however, in no way stops any of us from going forth and learning things on our own, and of trying to change our country in whatever way we can.

I am fully aware of the fact that most of you reading this are puzzled as to what any of this has to do with being rich.

To educate a nation of the size of India of course needs wealth on a massive scale, but, more than anything else, it also requires the intellect which has the capacity to create wealth. As the future leaders of this nation, it is not only our duty, but our responsibility to be wealthy, to ensure that we fulfil our primary function as catalysts of wealth concentration and diffusion.

Our generation is uniquely placed to both gather wealth by virtue of our brains, and to utilize the capital thus accumulated in optimal ways to conjure into existence an educated, civilized, cultured and confident mass of people. Whether unconsciously or with due deliberation, this ought to be the single leitmotif of our existence. This is also why I have never been comfortable with the idea of communism - it is a sub-optimal appoach that tends to drag down all of society to a miserable state of forced equality, it tends to rub out important differences which are to be cherished and preserved, and in doing so it ensures that all that is good in humanity is to be stamped upon and reduced to the rubble of empty rhetoric and the bleak nihilism of a beehive. (The pseudo-intellectual theory of dialectical materialism comes to mind.)

A truly capitalist endeavour, on the other hand, with a vigorous free market, would optimally ensure, as Henry Ford and others realized in the early 20th century, the creation of an educated, innovative and entrepreneurial mass of people which can set off an unparalleled chain reaction of technological development and cultural achievement, in the case of the United States having continued unabated for nearly a century now.

It took just one generation of American effort to achieve all of this.

All it takes is a single generation to come together and challenge the status quo, to gather wealth on an unimaginable scale, to use that wealth to seed out providers of education across the nation.

All it takes is a single generation to create a sustainable movement of truly educated people, with a rich cultural, social and scientific context in which they can work their magic.

All it takes is a single generation to realize and internalize the fact that they have the ability as well as the means to do what Archimedes had dreamt of, and move the Earth.

I urge all of you who are reading this, to go forth and create wealth, accumulate riches, and to leave a mark upon history.

Never be ashamed of chasing wealth. Remember this, and remember it well. Being rich is your duty to society, and the one morally upright thing to do.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Carpe Diem, Baby!

This is a short piece I had written a while ago to motivate myself. You shall get to know the results at the end of this piece.

Human life has always been, in my opinion, a struggle to extract bittersweet juices of meaning from the unyielding complexity of existence. We need Heroes of the grand scale of Michelangelo - and we measure our worth by their admittedly lofty standards of being, trying desperately to highlight the ''repeated" patterns that Randomness, the mysterious sprite inhabiting the deepest recesses of our world, throws at us.

0ur lives have become a tapestry of inspired art, a gigantic totem pole carved in the likenesses (such a cruelly awkward term ) of those we deem worthy of emulation; and so, satisfied by our lifetime's work, we barely notice the millions of other rotten poles and tattered native American tapestries gently swaying and fluttering in the breeze.

Let us not embrace the cosy comforts of well-deserved mediocrity; let us not try to lead our lives by the consensus opinions of society. Let us eschew the well-trodden path, and, for once, choose the road not taken. Let us become, instead, those raging thunderstorms and cloudbursts of unconventionality that have forever threatened to strike down and burn to the ground those sad little poles and sorry-looking rags.

For, as a formerly famous Hero had once bitingly observed - "It's better to burn out than to fade away."

Those of you who are still reading this congealed pile of pigswill shall be glad to know that, as of now, the Crawlin' Croc has taken matters into his own hands, and has parted ways with the Priestesses of Apollo, timing his movements with the second one in Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No.1. If you are direly in need of a pattern to set your life by, even Wagner (Valkyries of course) and Beethoven wouldn't hurt.