Friday, April 9, 2021

Purity is piffle (and only ethnic cleansers find it pretty)

It appears that scientific scepticism, emphasis on dialogue over hostility, openness to new ideas, assimilation of diverse cultural strands- no matter where they originated- a 'liberal' (don't miss the quotes) mind, is now emblematic of a Nehruvian conspiracy to drown out alternative theses that represented the 'real' India. These alternatives, I am asked to believe, involve much more धर्म and परंपरा, and diverge sharply from the fake consensus that was really in the nature of leftist propaganda. We have been duped and our minds are contaminated. An epic 'cleansing' or 'purification', शुद्धिकरण, of our minds, and nothing less, is imperative. And imminent.

I have two issues with the argument:
  1. India has a liberal tradition that predates Western Colonisation by centuries, perhaps millenia. Remember that Vedanta allows or even encourages multiple interpretations. From Nyaya, Vaisheshik, Mimamsa (of two variants) to Lokayat or Charvak, they coexist and none has claim on immutable truth. We don't need the West. We can show them a thing or two about the liberal temperament. Like Khajuraho and Konark.
  2. An epidemic called globalisation has infected the planet probably from back to the earliest years of the Silk or Spice Routes. People and ideas have been travelling back and forth across continents and oceans. As this mighty churn turns, everyone is touched by its centrifugal and centripetal forces. In recent years, the Human Genome project has been revealing how everyone is now of mixed ethnicity: we are not Asian or Caucasian, not Native American or Nubian or Pacific Islander but a little bit of everything. Ideas have been cohabiting and people have been procreating without inhibition about provenance. We began as a timorous homo sapien tribe in the Rift Valley. A million years on, having branched away to inhabit and adapt to every terrain and climate, we have spent the last few thousand mixing it all up. To speak now of a pure race is an unattainable goal. Then again, we may be closer now than ever before to recreating the original, undifferentiated stock that came out of Africa. Entropy was replaced by enthalpy and we are children of the confluence.
We can work up a froth about a pristine, uncontaminated state but our planet's civilisational history conspires against it. We can no more bring back this ethnic or religious or cultural purity than we can put humpty dumpty together again.
The food we eat is not our own. Chillies, potatoes and tomatoes came from the Americas. Our customs aren't our own. The demure घूंघट is a modified hijab. Our language isn't our own either. My mother tongue, Marathi, is shot through with Arabic and Persian, Portuguese and English. Would you strip away these variegated, many splendoured colours? And what do you think you'd be left with, at the end?
Let me break this to you gently. Your utopia of the unsullied state is only ever going to exist in your febrile dreams. Deal with it.

Saturday, March 27, 2021

 If an year were to be a day, then today marks a week since I lost Baba, my father.

Let me rephrase that. Baba got reabsorbed, scattered, into the elements whence he had been made. Molecules, which once comprised him, are now in the air, water and soil. Baba is in the Arabian Sea and the water which evaporates from it and travels as the monsoon cloud across the continent. Baba is in the rain which brings nourishment and revival to parched land and sweaty brow. Baba is in the air which sustains all things. Baba is in a molecule of iron which will fortify a carrot, a carbon atom in the sweet sugars of an alphonso mango, a mote of nitrogen in a protein strand called DNA which is the stuff of life. Baba is here and there, in you, and in me, in passing into eternity, he has returned to the immortality which we are all guaranteed.

This, in essence, was how Baba understood rebirth and continuity, objective enough to survive the most rigorous scientific scrutiny, subtle enough to invoke wonderment in the most jaded of cynics.

Baba valued one virtue above all others: Scepticism. Everything had to be questioned. Why was it the way it was? Could it have been another way? What caused it to happen? What is likely to happen next? This critical lens was often turned upon himself. However, the questions were always unexceptionably kind. The idea was to understand, not assign blame.

His exploring eye took in every possible field of endeavour. He loved art, representational or abstract, in all its still and plastic forms. With him, I learned the right way of looking at Hussain and Pyne, with him I pondered Rodin's Thinker. He laughed with me as we read long passages from "Meet Mr. Mulliner" or "Jabberwocky" together. He led me to George Gamow's 1, 2, 3, Infinity. And to Douglas Hofstadter's Gödel, Escher, Bach, bringing alive the wonders of Mathematics and Physics and the wonderment he felt as a part of the Universe which turns upon and observes itself. He could compare the Shukla and Krushna Yajurved one moment and Kukubh Bilawal and Bilaskhani Todi in the next. He was a baby when he was with the little ones; they took to him instantly, perhaps because they saw his guilelessness and innocence. But when he spoke to Jayant Naralikar about the Chandrasekhar Limit, the physicist was left wondering how a lay person could speak about it with such authority.

His prowess with the Times of India crossword (later inherited by Economic Times) was such that he would solve it all in his mind, then, picking up a pencil, fill in all the squares at the intersections of Across and Down, because he hoped, fruitlessly, that some day I too would pick the paper, and find my path to loving the puzzle through cracking clues using the hints and tips the filled squares gave me. His preternatural skills with Mental Mathematics would stun even the keenest Vedic Maths aficionados: he could cube three digit numbers in his head!

His otherworldliness ensured that his gigantic mind was never intimidating and never ever used to humiliate anyone, no matter the provocation.

His name was Ratnakar, the Ocean of Priceless Jewels. I am what I am because some of the lustre and coruscation rubbed off.

It is 16.15 now and I must stop, because it is exactly 7 years since his spirit wafted away.

Thursday, March 25, 2021

Purity is piffle (and racial purity is a nazi's most obvious 'tell')

It appears that scientific scepticism, emphasis on dialogue over hostility, openness to new ideas, assimilation of diverse cultural strands- no matter where they originated- a 'liberal' (don't miss the quotes) mind, is now emblematic of a Nehruvian conspiracy to drown out alternative theses that represented the 'real' India. These alternatives, I believe, involve much more धर्म and परंपरा and diverge sharply from the fake consensus that was really in the nature of leftist propaganda. We have been duped and our minds are contaminated. An epic 'cleansing' or 'purification' of our minds, and nothing less, is imperative. And imminent. 

I have two issues with the argument:

1. India has a liberal tradition that predates Western Colonisation by centuries, perhaps millenia. Remember that Vedanta allows or even encourages multiple interpretations. From Nyaya, Vaisheshik, Mimamsa (of two variants) to Lokayat or Charvak, they coexist and none has claim on immutable truth. We don't need the West. We can show them a thing or two about the liberal temperament. Like Khajuraho and Konark. 

2. An epidemic called globalisation has infected the planet probably from back to the earliest years of the Silk or Spice Routes. People and ideas have been travelling back and forth across continents and oceans. As this mighty churn turns, everyone is touched by its centrifugal and centripetal forces. In recent years, the Human Genome project has been revealing how everyone is now of mixed ethnicity: we are not Asian or Caucasian, not Native American or Nubian or Pacific Islander but a little bit of everything. Ideas have been cohabiting and people have been procreating without inhibition about provenance. We began as a timorous homo sapien tribe in the Rift Valley. A million years on, having branched away to inhabit and adapt to every terrain and climate, we have spent the last few thousand mixing it all up. To speak now of a pure race is an unattainable goal. Then again, we may be closer now than ever before to recreating the original, undifferentiated stock that came out of Africa. Entropy was replaced by enthalpy and we are children of the confluence.

We can work up a froth about a pristine, uncontaminated state but our planet's civilisational history conspires against it. We can no more bring back this ethnic or religious or cultural purity than we can put humpty dumpty together again. 

The food we eat is not our own. Chillies, potatoes and tomatoes came from the Americas. Our customs aren't our own. The demure घूंघट is a modified hijab. Our language isn't our own either. My mother tongue, Marathi, is shot through with Arabic and Persian, Portuguese and English. Would you strip away these variegated, many splendoured colours? And what do you think you'd be left with, at the end? 

Let me break this to you gently. Your utopia of the unsullied state is only ever going to exist in your febrile dreams. Deal with it.

Monday, January 18, 2021

Meritocracy Shmeritocracy

Society, in India or anywhere else, is divided into strata. The gradients across strata may be gentle; apparently true of some Nordic countries, or steep (you don't have to look far to find examples); but they are there. It is as if tiering is genetically encoded into the Social Contract. 

In centuries past, fiefdoms and kingdoms were the power/political structures prevalent in most parts of the world. Rights and privileges were inherited, patrilineally in most cases, as were servitude and bondage. In India, we had pioneered the "Caste" system, which used specious reasoning to explain, and perpetuate, social hierarchies. In many other places, the liege or king was ordained by a pliant priesthood as directly descended from the gods themselves. Pharaoh was seen as Ra, the Sun god, incarnate. Even today, the Japanese royal family claims lineage from Amaterasu Omikami, the Sun goddess. Here in India, many Rajput feudal lines identify themselves as Suryavanshi or Chandravanshi, literally, Sun descendants or Moon descendants. 

Divine origins were an excellent ploy to stop all contentious quibbling in its tracks. As was the ironclad law of Karma. You were condemned to incarnate as a life form repeatedly, until your karmic slate was cleansed of the stains of bad deeds and thoughts. If, in this turn of the universal screw, you were a scavenger or leather tanner, it was only fair price to pay for a previous life of sin. Conversely, the brahmin or kshatriya had earned his exalted station by meritorious deeds in earlier lives.

Previous and subsequent lives may have gone from the vocabulary but the hierarchy is undisturbed. It is imperative, particularly for those who are winning the societal sweepstakes, to find a new framework, which retains the inevitability of divine rights or karma, but frames it in more palatable, contemporary language. 

I give you MERITOCRACY. 

Why am I successful? Because I have been capable, committed, diligent and ever willing to learn. What is more, I have kept this up my entire life. When I was in middle school, my parents got me into a coaching class which prepared me for competitive examinations and/or my high school boards. I worked harder than my peers, aced every test and eventually, got a prized, priceless, admission into a premium institution. I didn't have the benefit of a leg up, unlike other kids who availed of seat reservations to traipse in with much poorer academic records. They wallowed in complacency while I continued to bend my back, put my nose to the grindstone and abjured all pleasures, thus reaching graduation day as a proud recipient of medals, citations, scholarships and endowments. That same spirit of a pursuing excellence makes me the success I am. Now compare that with those indolent louts who envy my success but wouldn't expend a fraction of the effort. They thought they could be my peers just because they entered college on a reserved seat? Heck, no. I got here due solely to my "MERIT".

Sounds convincing? 

Advantages which we were, quite literally, born with, are hard to recognize. As a person with no handicaps or disabilities, you don't really see any reason to be particularly grateful for what is widely true about a large majority of the population. PODs, persons of disability, have to struggle to integrate and keep pace. When you hear "disability", you are probably thinking visual deficiencies, speech or hearing problems, or learning impediments like ASD or Autism, etc. Those disabilities are easily perceived, although not necessarily remedied. The incidence of such PWDs, sadly, is a mere fraction of the endemic disability: accident of birth into the wrong caste, community or religion.

How did the circumstances of my birth shape my life? Born into a Hindu brahmin household, I had well educated parents and grandparents. English was the preferred language of conversation, and books full of wonderful knowledge filled many shelves. Opportunities to experience and discover everything, from foods and cuisines of the world, to archaeological finds, travels to distant places and conversations with interesting, urbane people, were mine at every step of the way. The soil I grew in was fertile and well irrigated. The warm light of inspiration suffused my days. To all intents and purposes, I lived at an elevation which was shrouded in a metaphoric cloud from 99% of the population. 

If this was not enough, I entered the workplace equipped with a network of contacts which would have been the envy of those with undistinguished backgrounds. Doors opened, as if by magic, when I merely looked at them. I spoke the insider's lingua and understood barely perceptible winks and nudges, far outside the ken of those not to the manor born. 

If this still sounds to you like the victory of "merit" over whatever is its opposite, I will leave now, so you can enjoy the views where, it is said, the Sun don't shine. 

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Nothing is free.

Everything has a price. 

For the last decade, people of a certain persuasion believed, that their unquestioning faith and loyalty to their Beloved Leader, only came with benefits and dividends. There was no cost involved. They could wave their fingers, or fists, if they felt so inclined, at anyone who dared disagree, and they would come to no harm. Indeed, the more vehement, and violent, they were in professing their worship of their God Incarnate, the quicker they would ascend to power in the new Reich. 

Periodically, Beloved Leader would demand a more overt demonstration of unquestioning devotion. If he shuttered large parts of the economy with a bizarre demonetization, they would come out in droves to defend him for his audacious decision, never mind their firsthand experiences of small businesses shuttering. If he swung on a jhoola with the northern adversary, or lavished hospitality on selfsame dictator, he was applauded for his personal diplomacy. Even when terrorists attacked a convoy deep inside our borders, somehow he became the knight in shining armour and the valiant who had to get another turn in office. Crooks fled to foreign lands and his predecessors were blamed. The economy was on a trajectory to devastation and the fandom called it a much delayed spring cleaning of the cobwebs. After all, EVERYTHING was BLji's masterstroke. 

The quagmire had begun to swallow whatever was left of incomes, employment and growth before 2019 ended. Then 2020 happened. 

We are where we have never been before. The pandemic was ignored as fear mongering by pappu, and no response was put in place. Until, true to form, inaction made way for surrealism. We banged taali-thaali, lit diya and batti and showered flowers on diverse places, because this Mahabharata would be won in 21 days. And yet, the Devout stayed unwavering in their devotion. As violent as ever in their defence of His Infallibility. 

He, however, was not satisfied. He needed more evidence of complete suspension of disbelief and absolute prostration, so he decided to ratchet up the Reality Distortion Field. 

He began tossing birdseed at his faith army even as the world tumbled into helplessness and despair. And they clapped and cheered. Knowing something which they could never tell anyone. That they'd been had. And now there was no turning back from the Abyss.

Everything has a price.

Thursday, April 30, 2020

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan...

This story dates back to 1992. I lived in Hyderabad in those days, and would use the weekends to discover the twin cities and their hinterland. Back then, the Golconda Fort was a bit of trek, but I had heard paeans sung to its grandeur so it was a matter of time before I landed up there. As I climbed up to the main citadel through a succession of concentric battlements, I stopped abruptly when I saw a young lady diligently carving her name or initials into the ancient wall. And snapped. "Utro neeche, ye kya ho raha hai?" Without pausing for breath, she responds, "Tere baap ka hai kya?" "Hai, ab utar nahi to kuchh ulta seedha ho jaega". By now, my voice must have gone up a few decibels, attracting the attention of others nearby. The girl slinked off.

Vandalism is vandalism, whether it is Taliban fundamentalists pointing their artillery howitzers at the magnificent, serene Bamiyan Buddha or a stupid girl carving her name into ancient ramparts. Vandals are sterile, mindless trolls, who believe that violating and destroying what someone else built with love and toil, will immortalise them, and erase the memory of the original builder.

An act of monstrous vandalism is unfolding, at this very moment, in the national capital. A glorious, 3 km long, arrow straight boulevard, formally designated the Central Vista, which connects that great Victorian pile, the Rashtrapati Bhavan to the National Stadium, running right through the India Gate and the Amar Jawan Jyoti, India's Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and around which, Sir Edwin Lutyens laid out the imperial capital of British India, is in the cross-hairs of this grotesque, hideous attack.

Our overlords, for they no longer see themselves as merely temporary, democratically elected, incumbents who would, in time, have to relinquish charge and pass the baton, but fancy themselves as founders of a thousand year reich, have decided to take a giant wrecking ball to the Central Vista.

A huge swathe of land on either side of the Rajpath, which is the modest amount of macadamised road a mere two lanes in width, running the length of the Central Vista, has, for a century, been a public commons. For generations of Dilliwalas, it has been a place for paddle boating in the long, reflecting pools, morning walks and late night ice-cream sorties to the green tubelit Sardarji Di Gaddis. The Central Vista was designed to emphatically denote the power and grandeur of the Raj. It segued, effortlessly, into the living heart of the Republic of India. If its great sandstone buildings denote solidity and endurance, its endless acres of turf, gnarled old trees, pools and fountains create a haven of peace and calm where brows uncrease and stress falls away.

A bureaucratic decision, rushed through when the country's attention is on combating the COVID-19 pandemic, and one which would be of a piece with despots of the Chinese, North Korean or Russian regimes, has changed land use of this entire, beautiful commons and appropriated it for building a brand new Xanadu for our brand new Kubla Khans.

Unsurprisingly, all pretense of democratic, consultative process, has been dispensed with, in arriving at this decision, purportedly in the interest of speed and decisiveness. It doesn't stop there. As the government of the day completely abdicates its responsibility for protecting hundreds of million migrant labourers, petty traders, small business owners, blue-collar workers, and their dependents from imminent economic devastation, and offers nothing except hollow homilies to help them to survive and build back their lives, these new age Neros and Marie Antoinettes have set aside Rs. TWENTY THOUSAND CRORES, for funding their Forbidden City. That's money from the Consolidated Fund of India. Money that you, I and every other Indian voluntarily handed over to the government, in the form of direct and indirect taxes. Money which was meant to be held in trust and spent for pursuing the greatest good of the greatest number.

Catastrophes are the despot's best friend. They provide cover fire for unspeakably grotesque, unapologetically egregious, self-aggrandisement.

One day, in decades to come, we shall look back and wonder how we remained mute spectators as the new empire vivisected and dismembered one of the grandest, most beautiful cityscapes not merely in our country, but in the entire world.

Right now, though, cry a quiet tear, for yourself, and for the generations who will follow you. Our Bamiyan Buddha moment is at hand.



Thursday, April 23, 2020

Salary. Payable when able?

By now you have probably heard of multiple instances of people's salaries being partially docked, or postponed in full or part, as an immediate consequence of the COVID-19 lockdown.

Step back and think about what messages are implicit in this situation.

  • Top Managements of organisations, under implicit, or possibly explicit, instructions from their investors, are moving to mitigate impairment of the financial health of the enterprise.
  • One group of creditors, who are currently in no position to insist on their credit being honoured, is employees. The economy was already in deep trouble even before the pandemic hit; when all revenue gets turned off as abruptly as it has, for over a month, and counting, the outcomes worsen by orders of magnitude. They will, in the event, take any punishment which comes their way.
  • Managements have, therefore, chosen to attack this statutory obligation with a sledgehammer. Redundancies are rising rapidly, and even those employees who survive the culling, are worse off than they were, just last month.
  • Needless to say, while employees' incomes are shrinking, or vanishing, their multiple obligations won't. A home mortgage will, at best, permit a temporary moratorium of maintaining monthly installments, but at a punitive cost in terms of increased interest in the near future. Education, healthcare, energy, household provisions, transfers to support the extended family and so on will not pause, merely because the salary does.
It shocks me, that this assault on employees' compensation has drawn as little anger, revulsion and condemnation as it has.

The contemptuous indifference to the economic, and indeed physical and mental, well-being of employees, at a time when it is more fragile than it has been in my memory, (which goes back to the 1970s, I should add), is freighted with many messages, some of which I shall try to unpack and decode.

  • The only voice, which counts at the corporate decision making table, is the investor's voice. His/her ROI must be protected, no matter what else is thrown under the bus to ensure it. This is not surprising. Anyone familiar with the role of incentives in decision making will know that the financial interest of most top management teams is bound, inextricably, with shareholder returns. All the other stuff about caring capitalism is just, well, stuff.
  • The entire idea, that equity investment in a business is in the nature of risk capital, which will burgeon when the business enjoys fair climes and favourable winds, and wither when it faces adversities, is a fiction, an oft-repeated fiction which sounds credible exactly because it is repeated so often. Investors, particularly, all sorts of institutional investors, refuse to even contemplate capital attrition, much less allow it, fully cognizant of what it may imply for other participants in the organisational value-chain. Did you notice my refusal to use the popular word, 'stakeholders', and resorting, instead, to an elliptical phrase? 'Stakeholders' has a heartwarmingly broad sweep. The moment the proverbial hits the fan, the only stake which must be, is, privileged is Big Capital.
  • The State will offer plenty of lip sympathy to struggling employees, and even appear to raise a disapproving eyebrow or two at errant employers who beleaguer employees. This will be accompanied by little or no legislative or executive action, either to proscribe such actions, or to mitigate the suffering of employees at the receiving end. Managements and investors understand this well, given that here too, a system of incentives, called electoral bonds, or other such virtuous-sounding names, is at work behind the veil.
  • Investors in equity become entitled, in perpetuity, to returns on their investment, either in the form of capital appreciation or distributed profits (dividends). Employees must justify their presence on the payroll every day that they spend on it. Employees sign up to a salary which grows in accordance with the company's reward system. Now, it turns out, that there was a force majeur clause, presumably inscribed in invisible ink, which qualified their salary itself. In effect, employers can work, with impunity, on the assumption that salary is not even payable when able but payable IF able.
Thomas Piketty and several other economists and thinkers have been warning us about the ever widening chasm between an ever-shrinking global elite and all the rest of us grunts. COVID-19 has underscored, for hundreds of million employees around the world, how tenuous their lease on their salary really is.

We are just over a week away from International Workers' Day, marked on May 1 every year. Most readers are likely unaware of the history which led to this observance. It commemorates a massive strike in Chicago on this day, back in 1886, which led to the US-wide adoption, over the following decades, of the 8-hour workday. The issues, 134 years ago, pertained to just conditions of employment for the working man. In 2020, the employment contract itself seems to have turned into a flimsy, fragile parchment which might, at any moment, turn to dust.

A few hundred million livelihoods may be devastated over the very near future, but hedge fund partners will not be surrendering multimillion-buck bonuses any time soon.

Purity is piffle (and only ethnic cleansers find it pretty)

It appears that scientific scepticism, emphasis on dialogue over hostility, openness to new ideas, assimilation of diverse cultural strands-...