Friday, 26 June 2015

What Is It About Germans And Feelings?

Something that has always intrigued me is that we often have to use German words to describe certain emotions, such as Schadenfreude (SHA-den-FROI-duh, pleasure at someone else's misfortune), Wanderlust (VAAN-duhr-LOOST, a restless urge to travel), Heimweh (HYME-vey, homesickness), Weltschmerz (VELT-shmeyrts, world-weariness) and Weltanschauung (VELT-an-shaoo-oong, worldview or outlook on life).

Recently, I came across this "Dictionary of obscure sorrows", and was once again struck by how many of them were German words.

Click to expand.

I learned German for a few years, and although I'm not very fluent, I can understand the composition of these words. Let me analyse them for the benefit of non-German readers.

1. Sonder (ZONN-duhr): "Special", hence the recognition that everyone is special, not just you.

2. Mauerbauertraurigkeit (MOW-uhr-BOW-uhr-TROW-riH-kyte):
Mauer means "wall". It's related to the French mur, and the English "mural" for wall painting.
Bauer means "builder".
Traurigkeit means "sorrow", with the "-keit" ending corresponding to the English "-ness".
Hence, "Wall builder sorrow", or the desire to keep out even people we like.

3. Rückkehrunruhe (RÜCK-keyr-OON-roo-uh):
Rück means "rear", where the "ü" is pronounced by placing the lips in the position to say "u" and saying "ee" instead, just like the French "u".
Kehr means "traffic".
Rückkehr means "return".
Ruhe means peace, and Unruhe means disquiet or disturbance.
Hence, "Return disquiet" refers to the dismay at forgetting one's travels after returning home.

4. Altschmerz (ALT-shmeyrts):
Alt means "old".
Schmerz means "pain".
Hence, "Old pain" means weariness of suffering through the same old issues you've always had.

Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Literary RDX - The Explosive Debut of Subcontinental Spy Fiction

The Cold War and the threat of nuclear armageddon inspired most of post-World War II spy fiction. English language readers generally heard the Western side of the story with British and American heroes, and I'm sure there were equally gripping novels available on the other side of the Iron Curtain featuring heroes with names ending in -sky or -vitch, as PG Wodehouse would have said.

Considering that the threat of nuclear war today arises mainly from the Indian subcontinent, it's surprising that we haven't so far seen much spy fiction set in this region.

That long drought may soon be coming to an end. Two recent debut novels by Indian authors, featuring heroes from the Indian spy agency RAW and their escapades in neighbouring Pakistan, provide some welcome analysis, however fictional, of the issues that bedevil the South Asian region.

Shatrujeet Nath's "The Karachi Deception" of 2013 was soon followed by Bilal Siddiqi's "The Bard of Blood" in early 2015

[I reviewed Shatrujeet Nath's second novel on this blog in January. This book is a work of mythological fiction - "The Guardians of the Halahala".]

Without giving away the details of either story, let me just say they deal with topics that should be very familiar to Indian and Pakistani readers.

The name Dawood Ibrahim is notorious throughout India. Ibrahim was a Mumbai-based don who fled the country when the heat on him began to increase. He is believed to have been responsible for the Mumbai blasts of 1993. He has been sighted in the UAE on occasion but is now believed to be hiding out in Pakistan.

In The Karachi Deception, Irshad Dilawar is the thinly-disguised equivalent of Dawood Ibrahim, and the story is of a group of RAW agents who are sent into Pakistan to eliminate him. Of course, nothing is ever straightforward in a good spy novel, and there are twists and turns galore.

The separatist movement in Pakistan's province of Balochistan is likewise well-known in the subcontinent. Pakistan has long accused India of providing support to Baloch separatists, a charge that India denies. However, given Pakistan's own barely secret support for separatism in the Indian state of Kashmir (and its equally stout denial), Indian citizens would not be surprised at (and may in fact welcome) their government's tit-for-tat involvement in Balochistan.

The Bard of Blood is largely woven around the Baloch separatist movement, although it involves characters from the larger AfPak region, such as Mullah Omar of the Afghan Taliban. Again, the story focuses on a group of RAW agents on a mission to Balochistan, and there is betrayal and intrigue here too. There is a scene featuring a meeting between the fictional Indian prime minister Shailendra Patel and Chinese president Zhou Bocheng in Ahmedabad, a sly reference to the actual meeting of Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping in the same city.

Both books weave historical and contemporary facts with fiction to create an engaging story. Needless to say, the villains in both novels are members of Pakistan's spy agency ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence).

It is important to note that Bilal Siddiqi, the author of The Bard of Blood, is just twenty years old! This novel is a terrific accomplishment for one so young.

Having said that, Shatrujeet Nath's is by far the more polished work. The sophistication of the plot, the quality of the language and the richness of the atmosphere evoked by The Karachi Deception are first rate. This is not to say that The Bard of Blood is amateurish. It is also a very readable novel, but there are definitely better books in the author's future. Siddiqi is a good twelve years younger than Nath was when he wrote his first book, so he can certainly look forward to producing more sophisticated writing as he matures.

One thing I must say, though. I am a strong believer in quality as evidenced by the little details. Sloppiness in English grammar and composition detracts greatly from the overall impression of a book's quality, and Bilal Siddiqi should definitely get himself a more conscientious editor. There were at least three glaring errors of language in his book (apart from the constant and erroneous reference to the Baloch people as "Balochis").

1. The description of Mullah Baradar on page 76 alternates between the past tense and the present tense. It should have been in the past tense throughout.

2. On page 130 appears the line "Sadiq and him never got along well." That should have read "Sadiq and he never got along well."

3. On page 151, there is a reference to the "draft itinerary" of an important meeting. That should of course have been "draft agenda".

I'm pedantic about English, so these kinds of mistakes can ruin a book for me. I hope Siddiqi fixes these errors in the next edition of the book, and ensures that such mistakes don't mar his future writing. Shatrujeet Nath's novel has a couple of typos in it, but fortunately nothing more egregious.

I did enjoy both books, and would recommend them to other fans of the spy genre as well as to those interested in South Asian politics. Here's looking forward to more subcontinental spy fiction from these and other authors. It would be good to see Sri Lanka, Burma, Nepal and China included in the ambit of future stories, since they no doubt play a role in real-life covert operations in the region.

Friday, 22 May 2015

India Has No Excuse

I was shocked to read recently that China's GDP is 5 times that of India's. Five times! Not 20% more, not 50% more. Five times more!

How? How did a country with roughly equal population, and that was at roughly the same level as recently as the 1980s, end up doing not just slightly better, but so much better?

Why couldn't India achieve something comparable? If India's GDP could have been just three times what it is, can you imagine how many hundreds of millions of people could have been lifted out of poverty and into the middle classes? When you look at it that way, you have to conclude that a crime of incalculable proportions has been perpetrated on the Indian people.

I often hear Indians claim that India is poor because it was looted by its British colonialists for two hundred years. But the example of China shows that up as a mere excuse. The British left India two generations ago. Since then, if we compare India and China as two independent countries in charge of their own destinies, the British are nowhere in the picture. If China could progress so much in the same time, what's India's excuse?

Besides, being looted is hardly an excuse when one looks at countries like Japan and Germany, which were both utterly devastated and left in ruins after the Second World War ended in 1945, with a significant portion of their able-bodied men killed or turned into invalids. Yet in less than twenty years, both countries had not just restored their industrial strength but had also established themselves as manufacturers of quality. Being knocked down is no excuse for staying down.

There are those who will blame Nehru (who died way back in 1963) or the socialist policies of the Congress party. These excuses might be valid in a dictatorship. In a democracy, where people have a right to judge the performance of their government and to regularly reward and punish political parties based on their assessment, where does the buck stop?

I can only conclude that Indians' expectations have been too low for too long, and that they have suddenly woken up and realised that the rest of the world has passed them by. The one comparable country in terms of civilisational past, size of population and parity two generations ago, is now five times their country's size.

The blame lies with the expectations, attitudes and will to action on the part of Indian citizens.

Friday, 24 April 2015

When Worlds Collude - 8 (What Is It About The Germans And Kal Ho Na Ho?)

What do the Germans see in the title song of the Bollywood movie Kal Ho Na Ho? The movie is a love triangle in which one of the vertices is played by Shah Rukh Khan, who, unknown to the other two, is dying of a heart condition. Before he dies, he brings the other two together.

A bit maudlin and overdone in true Bollywood style, but surprisingly, Germans seem to like this movie so much that I have seen not one but two re-picturisations of the title song with German actors. In the second, India's former foreign minister Salman Khurshid, German ambassador to India Michael Steiner, Steiner's wife Eliese and well-known Indian writer Madhu Kishwar play the lead roles.

This is the original.
Shah Rukh Khan, Preity Zinta and Saif Ali Khan in the three main roles

This is the first fan remake that I saw. The guy playing the Shah Rukh Khan character also manages to get his trademark arms-spread-wide gesture down pat.

A fan remake by three regular German folk

And this is the latest from the German Embassy in New Delhi starring ambassadors and former foreign ministers.

The German Embassy remake "Lebe Jetzt" ("Live Now") with a relatively well-known cast


Two Assertions About The Indic Civilisation Face A Genetic Lie Detector

The Neo-Hindu resurgence is in full swing, and one of its accompaniments is a new civilisational narrative that is meant to restore pride among Indians in the glory of their ancient past. It is a narrative that has been taken up with enthusiasm and propagated by some of the most educated Indians. Obviously, a story of "Who we are as a people and how we came to be" is capable of being quite popular, especially if it glorifies the society concerned and blames its negatives on external players and forces. As with all narratives that have a political imperative, a scrupulous adherence to the truth is not an essential concern for those who want to believe it. But to those of us to whom the truth matters, evidence counts for more than feel-good stories.

I want to focus on two particular assertions that are increasingly heard as part of this Neo-Hindu narrative, because we have recent genetic evidence to challenge them.

Assertion 1: The Aryan Invasion Theory (AIT) has been debunked

What this assertion implies is that there was only ever one race that inhabited the land that is India, and all its traditions (especially what are known as its Vedic traditions) originated within this land. There was no external Aryan race that brought Vedic civilisation to its original Dravidian inhabitants. Indians are, and have always been, a single race. The entire theory of two races is a European colonial fantasy to divide, demoralise and enslave Indians, and this fantasy has now been exposed as such, thanks to a wealth of evidence.

Assertion 2: The rigid caste system observed in present-day India is similarly a European colonial creation

This assertion implies that the original Indic civilisation (which was a "Vedic" one, of course) only had four broad categories called "varnas" that represented a sensible division of labour. Within the varna matrix were hundreds of localised subcategories called "jatis", which represented job roles that were not rigid and oppressive, but afforded social mobility. The word "caste" is a European one derived from the Portuguese "casta". The British ethnographer Lord Risley exploited jati labels in the 1901 census of India and classified Indians by their "caste". Over time, the British emphasis on these caste labels created a society that was rigidly stratified in a way that the original system was never meant to be.

Neo-Hindu intellectuals like Rajiv Malhotra have been in the vanguard of the "dharmic" identity resurgence, and have expended much ink in making these assertions. Like the lady that doth protest too much, Malhotra's book "Breaking India" tries very hard to discredit both the Aryan Invasion Theory and the notion of a rigid caste system that evolved independently of mischievous external parties.

As it turns out in the light of recent genetic evidence, both these assertions are at best half-truths. At worst, they are outright lies.

As the T-shirt says...

In 2013, Priya Moorjani et al published a paper called "Genetic Evidence for Recent Population Mixture in India" (the download link is on the top right of that page), which studied a sample of 571 people of the subcontinent belonging to 73 distinct ethno-linguistic groups (71 Indian and 2 Pakistani). It's important to note that classification of individuals into these groups was based on the conventional categories of Indo-European (Aryan) and Dravidian, in addition to their jati (caste) labels. The genetic analysis of these groups is detailed in their paper and requires a sophisticated understanding of statistics to follow. However, the conclusions are clearly explained.

1. Virtually all groups in India, including those considered to be isolated, have experienced an admixture of two distinct racial groups in the past. There are no "pure" groups today.

2. This admixture took place over a period of time, between 4200 years ago and 1900 years ago.

3. The paper calls these two original racial groups ANI and ASI (Ancestral North Indian and Ancestral South Indian). The ANI group has links to Central Asia, the Middle East and Europe, although the paper takes care to explain that it has no immediate links to Eurasians and hence may have separated from the Eurasian group 12,500 years ago. The ASI group does not have links to any group outside of India, with the closest group being in the Andamans. Hence the ASI group is probably indigenous to India.

4. Present-day Indo-European groups in India (i.e., North Indians) have a higher proportion of ANI genes than ASI. Present-day Dravidian groups (i.e., South Indians) have a higher proportion of ASI genes than ANI.

So far, the data seems consistent with the Aryan Invasion Theory in that the ASI group indigenous to India seems to correspond to the Dravidians, and the ANI group with links to Central Asia seems to correspond to the Aryans. However, it isn't that straightforward.

5. The dates of admixture are more recent among Indo-European groups than among Dravidian groups. A plausible theory is that Indo-European groups received a second infusion of ANI, making the effective date of the admixture appear more recent. This is backed up by the fact that many North Indian genomes have long stretches of ANI interspersed with stretches that are a mosaic of ANI and ASI, pointing to a more recent admixture on top of an earlier one.

6. "Upper" and "middle" caste people's genomes show multiple waves of admixture compared to "lower" caste genomes. The paper does not offer an explanation for this, but my theory is that lower caste people were less mobile and had fewer opportunities to interact with outside groups, perhaps as a result of social restrictions.

On a matter that can be seen to have a major bearing on our understanding of caste, the paper makes a further surprising claim based on the genetic evidence.

7. An abrupt shift to endogamy (the opposite of cross-breeding) occurred around 1900 years ago. Some groups stopped receiving gene flows from neighbouring groups 3,000 years ago.

Why do I say the two assertions of the Neo-Hindu narrative are at best half-truths?

Consider the evidence from the Moorjani paper.

The Aryan Invasion Theory

The genetic evidence neither supports nor debunks the theory of a violent invasion. However, it very clearly points to an admixture of two distinct racial groups. To the extent that "Aryan" refers to a link to Central Asia and "Dravidian" refers to being indigenous to India, the theory that two races (whether or not we choose to call them Aryans and Dravidians) intermixed to produce today's Indians remains valid. Also, while present-day North Indians and South Indians are not themselves purely Aryan or purely Dravidian, they contain both genes in different proportions. North Indians are more Aryan than Dravidian, and South Indians are more Dravidian than Aryan. It's not a clear racial divide, but a difference in degree. Hence this fact can be used to argue both for sameness and for difference, depending on one's starting position.

Genetic evidence is of course useless in determining whether a violent invasion occurred, or which group was first associated with "Vedic" civilisation. Hence these questions remain unanswered. However, it is wrong to make the blanket claim that the Aryan Invasion Theory has been debunked, with the implication that Indians were always a single race with a completely indigenous civilisation and culture.

The Rigidity of Hinduism's Caste System

The genetic evidence is emphatic that all intermixing between caste groups (indeed, the samples were classified by jati) stopped abruptly 1900 years ago. In other words, the caste system became rigid, affording no mobility, long before Europeans (or even Muslim invaders, for that matter) set foot in India! The Portuguese word "casta" therefore only described an existing system, and Lord Risley only documented its rigid segregation. Neither he nor the British Raj was responsible for that rigidity. Whatever else may or may not be purely indigenous, the evil of caste-based segregation originated entirely within this land.


Personally, I identify with the Indic civilisation and recognise it to be a great and unique one, neither superior nor inferior to other civilisations, just different. I also believe the Indic civilisation has had a distinguished past and has great potential to make continuing contributions to the world. However, I am open to the possibility that not everything that is considered Indian may have originated within this country, and that some unique social evils could have originated here. We should be willing to give credit where credit is due, to accept negatives in our society, and seek to progress by accepting good ideas from any source and rejecting bad ones, however deeply steeped in tradition.

I particularly reject dishonest and non-evidence-based narratives. They bring no glory at all, and I expect educated and intellectually honest Indians to forge their civilisational identity based on verifiable truths instead.

Monday, 13 April 2015

When Worlds Collude - 7 (The Surprisingly Universal Appeal Of Swati Tirunal's Tillana in Dhanashree)

Once a long time ago, I heard a very catchy Carnatic music number, and the tune has stayed with me ever since. As I began to understand and recognise ragas, I identified that number as being in Bhimpalasi (Hindustani), known as Abheri in Carnatic.

Very recently, I learnt from my prodigiously knowledgeable friend, Seshadri Kumar, that it was not in Abheri at all, but in a closely related raga called Dhanashree. Kumar also mentioned, tongue in cheek, that it was from "the composers known collectively as Swati Tirunal". Swati Tirunal was the Maharaja of Travancore who has several compositions to his name. It is rumoured that many of the compositions attributed to him were in fact composed by musicians under his patronage.

In any case, the song is known as the "Dhanashree Tillana". A tillana is a rhythmic piece that has for its lyrics special syllables that resemble the sound of percussion instruments. Tillanas are popular accompaniments to dance performances for both these reasons.

What amazed me when I searched for this song on YouTube was its worldwide popularity. It has been performed as pure music and as dance accompaniment, using a variety of instruments, in both traditional and fusion forms. A sample of that variety is what I want to cover in this post.

As a baseline, let's start with a fairly standard, yet high-quality traditional rendition.

 This is by that doyen of Carnatic music, the late MS Subbulakshmi

The lyrics go as follows:

PallavigItta dhumiku takadhIm krtatatOm nAc rahe gOri tAdhittai tai tattai tirataka 
Anu Pallavi: bAja pAyala kahum jhanana jhanana bAja pAyala kahun jhaNana jhanana jhanana nanana tOm jhaNana jhanana jhanana nanana tOm jhaNana jhanana jhanana nanana
Charanam 1tAna gAvE takata tai ta tai taitta taitta tana tadhAm dhImna kiTa taka dhI  dhImna kiTa taka dhIm dhImna kiTa takadhIm hata tOm hata tOm hata
Charanam 2: padumanAbha tumhAri lIlA-kyA kahUm mai sAvarO  tApa sankaTa caaraNaya yAyO sOha mArO tumaharO
ChiTTasvaram:  tadhim tadhIm dhirana udanita tAni tAni tadhIm tadhim dhiranA nA dhittOm tata kata tari tattAra tara tAni dhIm alari kalari takata dhatAra tataka mAm tAni tanika tAm tAmta dhIm dhIm dhIm tanana alari tAm tAmta takatari alari tOm tOm tOm takanaka tani udari

Only the underlined text represents real words - a very South Indian rendition of Hindi! The rest are percussion sounds.

This tillana seems to be quite popular with Indian fusion groups.

This one has great instrumentals

The vocalist predominates here

Surprisingly, it seems to be popular with Western fusion groups too.

Students at a string camp in Florida fuse Dhanashree Tillana with "Wood vs Fire"

It gets better. Here's a church chorus performing the tillana as background music for an Indian dancer.

Even more incongruous than the sight of a Presbyterian church chorus playing a song in a Hindu-traditional style is the fact that Amasong is a lesbian/feminist chorus

It isn't just the Americans. Here's an all-Russian performance in St Petersburg.

The dancer, violinist and tabla player are all Russian

A Latvian couple's interpretation:

Larisa Podskochayaand and Alexey Furdak (who calls himself Gaura Nataraj)

More Russians:

Eleonora & Angelina Ukhanova

Among the few real words among the percussive lyrics is the phrase "nAc rahe gOri", which means "the fair-skinned woman be dancing". How apt for this piece to be performed by Caucasians!

And here is a jugalbandi (a term that Wikipedia defines as "entwined twins', but which I prefer to think of as a "joining of voices") of the Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi styles of dance.

The dancer on the left in red performs in the more energetic Bharatanatyam style. The one on the right presents the more relaxed and graceful Kuchipudi.

I don't know if it was Swati Tirunal or one of his court musicians who was responsible for the Dhanashree Tillana, but whoever it was certainly hit upon a composition of universal appeal.

The Elegance Of An Indian Dance, In Motion And Stillness

I have generally favoured India's classical music over its dance, and within the realm of music, favoured Hindustani (North Indian) music over Carnatic (South Indian). But over the years, I have had occasion to watch snippets of classical dance as well, and I have gradually begun to appreciate one particular dance form.

The style I am talking about is Kuchipudi (pronounced koochi-pooDi), native to the Telugu-speaking state of Andhra Pradesh in South India. It's entirely subjective of course, but I find that Kuchipudi dances are more graceful and pleasing to the eye than any other classical Indian dance form, Bharatanatyam and Kathak included. Interestingly, the accompanying music for Kuchipudi is based on the Carnatic style, and I find I can appreciate this more when it accompanies the dance than when it is played by itself.

A recent piece I had the pleasure of watching was a short invocation to Ganesha performed by Sandhya Raju. The raaga of the accompanying song is 'naaTa' or 'naaTTai', a uniquely South Indian one. (I am not aware of any Hindustani equivalent to 'naaTTai'.)

At just under three and a half minutes, this scintillating piece leaves the viewer wanting more

Around 55 seconds into the piece, the dancer momentarily holds a pose, and this struck a sudden chord with me. I have had a passion for maps since my childhood, and can recognise most countries' maps with a fleeting glance. The pose she held reminded me strongly of the southern coast of India. Sure enough, when I took a snapshot of the screen and compared it to the Indian map, the contours lined up perfectly.

A little work with The GIMP, and I had created a minor, but pleasing work of art.

Now that's a dance form that captures an element of Indianness