Tuesday, 30 June 2020

My Celebrity Crushes Down The Ages

A recent post on this subject by a Facebook friend inspired me to make a list of my celebrity crushes too.

I classify these into two groups.

"Level 1" celebrity crushes are those you fantasise about pleasurably.
"Level 2" crushes are those you cry over, because you realise they're unattainable.

I have only ever had one Level 2 celebrity crush, at the age of 16 - Audrey Hepburn.

I saw both 'Roman Holiday' and 'My Fair Lady' within a span of a few months, and I fell hard. It took me many months to recover.

Audrey Hepburn in 'Roman Holiday' - There will never be another

All the others have been Level 1 crushes, so let me list them by entertainment medium, and then in chronological order.

Film and TV Actresses:

1. Jacqueline Bisset

I saw 'Airport' sometime in 1970 or shortly thereafter. Since I was born in 1963, I wouldn't have been more than 7 or 8 at the time. I don't remember much about this movie except that the stewardess was unbelievably beautiful. Jacqueline Bisset imprinted my still-developing male mind with a model of female beauty that remained with me for a very long time. For years after I saw 'Airport', girls with bob cuts would always get a second look from me.

2. Smita Patil

I probably saw more English movies than Indian language ones when I was growing up, but I did have access to magazines devoted to Bollywood movies, such as Filmfare and Star & Style. One particular issue featured a numbered list of the most beautiful Bollywood heroines of the time, and the caption under the photo of Smita Patil said, "Those smouldering eyes can set the night on fire."

I'll say.

3. Aarathi

Growing up in Bangalore gave me the chance to see a number of Kannada movies, many of which starred the reigning matinee queen of the day, Aarathi. She could be chirpy and mischievous, and also a tragic heroine. The characters she played were the whole package any guy could ask for.

4. Prema Narayan

From the pages of the same Bollywood film magazines, I became acquainted with the face of Prema Narayan. I saw her in a few movies later on, and to this day I cannot understand why she didn't become a major star. I wasn't earning then, but if I had, I would have paid good money to buy tickets to her movies.

5. Cybill Shepherd

Sometime in 1981 (when I was 18), I saw 'Taxi Driver' at a film show organised by my hostel. I found it a weird movie and didn't understand it, but some scenes in it were memorable (Robert Di Niro's "You talkin' to me?"). Cybill Shepherd played an unforgettable character - an older, sophisticated woman who was simultaneously intimidating and desirable.

6. Brooke Shields

Surprisingly, I never saw Brooke Shields in any movie. (No, not even 'The Blue Lagoon'.)

But she was there on posters on the wall of virtually every guy's room in my hostel at IIT Madras. I learnt most forcefully then that thick eyebrows don't hurt a girl's looks one bit.

7. "Fatafat" Jayalakshmi

I saw "Fatafat" Jayalakshmi in the Tamil movie 'Aval Oru Thodarkathai'. Jayalakshmi wasn't even the main heroine in that movie, but she was the one who caught my eye. That was incidentally the movie which gave her that nickname, because she used to keep saying "Fatafat!" throughout.

8. Elizabeth Montgomery

I saw some episodes of 'Bewitched' when I was a student, and remember being struck by the looks of the good witch Samantha. Her mischievous cousin Serena (also played by Montgomery) had a different but equally powerful appeal.

Elizabeth Montgomery as Samantha

Elizabeth Montgomery as Serena

9. Suhasini

I saw a fair number of Tamil movies on TV during my 5 years at IIT Madras, and some of them starred Suhasini. She was not glamorously beautiful like many others, but there was something very wholesome and appealing about her. Also, although I am a Tamilian, I have never thought of Tamil as a particularly nice-sounding language. But Suhasini could make Tamil sound incredibly pleasant to the ear, a superpower she shared with Sridevi.

10. Setsuko Hara

In 1987-88 when I was working in Bombay, I had the chance to see many Japanese movies as part of a Japanese film festival in the city. One of them ('Banshun', or 'Late Spring') was a sweetly innocent story of a girl who doesn't want to get married because she doesn't want to leave her widowed father alone. He has to pretend that he is planning to remarry in order to get her to accept the guy who wants to marry her. Setsuko Hara plays the endearing Noriko in this movie, and I don't believe any guy can watch this movie without her doing something to him.

11. Amala Akkineni

During the same period that I was in Bombay, a group of young guys from my project team at work decided to go see a movie together. It was the latest Tamil hit 'Agninakshatram' and it starred a stunningly cute girl called Amala. She was so different from the heroines one usually saw in South Indian movies. Her looks were more Westernised and modern, and she was anything but demure. She made quite an impression on all of us.

12. Sybil Danning

'Streethawk' was a favourite SF serial of mine in the early nineties, featuring a dashing motorcycle cop (Jesse Mach, played by Rex Smith) who rides a superbike, and a nerdy genius (Norman Tuttle, played by Joe Regalbuto) who manages everything at the back-end with his computer skills. Sybil Danning appeared in the episode 'Vegas Run', and the nerdy Norman Tuttle was besotted by her, yet completely tongue-tied. The scene where she takes off her shirt before him and the poor guy almost goes to pieces is one of my favourites. I can fully empathise.

Watch the scene in animation here

13. Shannen Doherty

I watched quite a number of episodes of 'Charmed', until it started getting really silly. My favourite among the three sisters was Prue Halliwell, played by Shannen Doherty.

14. Sarah Michelle Gellar

'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' was what I graduated to after 'Charmed', but I stopped watching after it got dark. Some vampire-fighting mixed with romance and humour would have been the right mix for me, so I only hung around as long it maintained that light-ish tone.

I loved the way this cute, petite girl kicked ass.

15. Freema Agyeman

I became a fan of 'Doctor Who' when the new series started with Christopher Eccleston and Billie Piper. In Series 3, the Doctor (now played by David Tennant) was joined by a new companion, Martha Jones. This character was played by Freema Agyeman, whose mother was from Iran and father from Ghana. Agyeman's looks were striking, and provided another data point to my theory that people of mixed race inherit the best traits of both.

16. Rani Mukerjee

The new wave of Bollywood movies began, in my opinion, with Karan Johar's "K3G" ('Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham'), which cast Rani Mukerjee in a minor but memorable role. Thereafter, I watched a few movies that starred her in the main role, notably 'Chalte Chalte' and 'Paheli'. She had a peculiar kind of smile that hit you somewhere.

That established her as one of my favourites for quite a few years.

17. Kajol

The one unattractive thing about Rani Mukerjee was her voice. A film blog even referred to it as "strep-infected". Her cousin Kajol didn't have that negative, but Rani Mukerjee overshadowed her in my mind. It was only when I saw Kajol in 'Fanaa' that I realised she was breathtakingly beautiful herself.

Like with Brooke Shields, I realised once again that thick eyebrows (even those that threaten to form a unibrow) don't detract at all from a girl's looks.

18. Teri Hatcher

I had seen Teri Hatcher in episodes of 'Lois and Clark', and also in that famous episode of 'Seinfeld', but that was after she had had multiple rounds of plastic surgery. Years later, I saw her in her earlier avatar as the scatterbrained Penny Parker in many episodes of 'MacGyver', when she was more innocent-looking. Those episodes of 'MacGyver' where she appeared were something to look forward to.

19. Rachael Taylor

Not too many women have knocked me off balance once I developed into a jaded, middle-aged man, but when I started watching Australian movies, I came across the jaw-dropping Rachael Taylor. Those who have watched only Hollywood (not Australian) movies may remember seeing her in the first 'Transformers' movie. (No, not Megan Fox. The other good-looking one.) I've seen her in the Australian movies 'Any Questions for Ben' and 'Red Dog'.


20. Gal Gadot

Next up is Gal Gadot. You could say Gadot got a bit of a free ride because the fictional character she played (Wonder Woman) has been a crush of mine since my childhood, and almost any woman who played the part could have waltzed into my heart. It didn't hurt that Gadot projected the same innocently idealistic persona that had always endeared Wonder Woman to me.

21. Jessica Alba

Like Gal Gadot, Jessica Alba also got a bit of a free ride from her character (Sue Storm, the Invisible Woman) because I have always liked that character from the Fantastic Four comics, so all that Alba had to do was continue to act nice. Which she did.

22. Rachael Harris

The serial 'Lucifer' was an off-beat one, and the most impressive woman for me was Dr. Linda the psychiatrist, played by Rachael Harris. She was smart and sensible, and her glasses lent her an extra air of intelligence and gravitas. As far as I was concerned, Rachael Harris edged out all the other (very attractive) women on that show.


This is my list of celebrity crushes who were not actresses but models. I saw them in print and TV ads.

23. Karen Lunel

Most Indian guys who grew up in the 70s and 80s would remember the ads for Liril soap featuring a girl under a waterfall. That was Karen Lunel, who must have launched a billion male fantasies.

24. Kitu Gidwani

Another popular model of the 80s was Kaushalya (Kitu) Gidwani. She had a bit of the Jacqueline Bisset look, I think, and that must have been part of the reason she appealed to me.

25. Sophie Falkiner

Soon after I arrived in Australia, I began to see ads on TV for "Neutrogena Pore Refining Cream". I thought the product was silly (who wants to refine their pores?), but the model promoting it was a knockout. I was almost tempted to buy a couple of tubes of that silly product.

26. Megan Gale

Another mixed-race person (English father and Maori mother) with striking looks who appeared in Australian ads around the year 2000 was Megan Gale. There is definitely something to be said for mixed-race unions.


27. Kylie Minogue

I saw one of Kylie Minogue's songs ('She Did It Again') on TV in the UAE a few months before I migrated to Australia, and then discovered she was Australian! That was a nice welcome to the new country.

Voice crushes:

And then there were some singers who captivated me with their voices alone. Try not to be distracted by the visuals in the links below. Just listen to the audio.

28. BK Sumitra

'Veena Ninageko Ee Kampana' - This was one of the first Kannada songs I heard on the radio in Bangalore, and it was sung by BK Sumitra. I wasn't even 10, and I found myself having romantic fantasies about this unseen woman.

29. Mayte Mateos and María Mendiola (Baccara)

In my teens, I got hooked onto Western pop, and often turned on the radio to listen to the hits of the day. When I heard 'Ay Ay Sailor', I literally had goose pimples. Those voices were haunting and sweet as syrup. As the lyrics of the song would say, they "sure done something to me".

30. Karen Carpenter (The Carpenters)

I've always loved Karen Carpenter's voice, and a couple of her songs gave me goose pimples when I heard them on the radio. One was 'Yesterday Once More', and the other was 'Sweet Sweet Smile'. There was something extra special that she put into those songs.

31. Prabha Atre

Ever since I discovered Hindustani Classical Music at the age of 22, it has been my favourite genre of music. Of all the songs I heard on the many audiocassettes I collected, 'Tan Man Dhan Tope Varun' in Raag Kalavati has been special. There's something about Prabha Atre's voice in this song that hits me more than any other song in the entire genre.


I don't watch a lot of sports, so I haven't had as many crushes in this area as in movies and music. But there have been a couple.

32. Wu Jiani

In 1982, the Asian Games were held in New Delhi, and we managed to see the games in all their glory, since colour TV became available in India just in time for that event.

I remember watching graceful gymnasts from all over Asia, and the one who got the most medals and applause was Wu Jiani from China. She was spectacular, and I wasn't even 20. It wasn't because of her medal count that hers is the only name I remember from those games.

33. Marion Jones

At the Sydney Olympics in 2000, the US track and field athlete Marion Jones won a number of medals as well as hearts. Unfortunately, she was later found to be a drug cheat and stripped of her medals. But I won't forget her grin.

That's quite a number of celebrity crushes for one lifetime. I wonder if there will be more.

[Related post: The Most Attractive Women of Star Trek TNG]

Wednesday, 17 June 2020

How Indians Should Learn To Think About China


As I write, tensions between India and China have increased along their common border. For the first time in decades, soldiers have been killed (even though firearms were not used - the deliberate tradition of avoiding the use of firearms by both sides has doubtless prevented many a flare-up in the past in spite of sporadic scuffles over the years). Accusations and counter-accusations of violations have been traded.

Admittedly, I get most of my news and information from the Indian side, with a smattering of reports from international media that sometimes quotes Chinese official sources.

The mood in India today

One of the curious aspects of the conversation on the Indian side is the criticism by liberals of Modi's handling of the situation. This is not, as one might expect of liberals, along the lines of urging restraint or working for a peaceful solution. The attacks on Modi are from a position further to the right. Liberals are taunting Modi for being a pussycat and daring him to display greater belligerence towards the Chinese. This spectacle of liberals exhibiting a hypernationalism more characteristic of the right is a bit puzzling. Right-wing voices are obviously more muted in terms of criticising the Modi government, although their commentators are probably dismayed at his seeming inaction.

The point of unanimity among these Indian voices, right-wing or liberal, seems to be that the Chinese are treacherous enemies who cannot be trusted. There is consensus that India must somehow teach the Chinese a lesson, but the obvious dilemma is how to bell a cat five times your size.


The comments being made by Indians about China today, and thus the Indian attitude towards China that these represent, remind me of my childhood. I was born in 1963, a year after India's humiliating defeat by China in the 1962 border war. I remember how people of my parents' generation used to talk about China. The Chinese were treacherous people, they said. Zhou En Lai visited India promising peace, and even delivered an emotive quote in Hindi - "Hindi-Chini Bhai-Bhai" (Indians and Chinese are brothers), but as soon as he returned to Beijing, he ordered his troops to attack India, or so the narrative went.

Pakistan was the perennial enemy, of course, but the fact that India was never defeated by Pakistan moulded attitudes differently. The humiliation of a military defeat at the hands of China made all the difference.

As a former army officer put it recently in a candid Facebook comment, 

In the [army], our western neighbour [Pakistan] is looked on with varying degrees of pity, but our northern neighbour [China] is universally detested.

This is perfectly understandable given human nature. We tend to look down upon people we perceive as weaker than ourselves. We detest and resent those we perceive to be stronger.

Indian attitudes towards other countries

Indeed, a stronger power needs to behave exceedingly well and not be a threat if it is to elicit unqualified admiration. Most Western powers including the US have historically not threatened India in a direct way, although there is an indirect humiliation in the fact that the West does not respect India or its civilisation. That is why there is admiration for the West among Indians, tinged with some resentment that India's civilisational greatness is not given sufficient recognition in return. 

Towards Britain in particular, one would expect an attitude of outright hostility among Indians. Yet Indians display a surprising absence of rancour towards the British even though the latter presided over the most ruthlessly exploitative system in recent history - colonialism. Every element of the British setup in India, from its administrative bureaucracy (with its tellingly named "collectors"), to the railways and ports designed to ship raw material off to England to fuel its Industrial Revolution on the cheap, to the teaching of English to delegate part of the job of administration to native servants, everything was done to serve the interests of the British Empire to the utter detriment of India and the Indian people. Yet, because of the few scraps that were thrown their way, Indians developed an image of the empire that was relatively benign and even the stuff of romance. It was classic Stockholm Syndrome.

The reason for my digression into the Indian attitude towards the West, and Britain in particular, is to contrast it with the corresponding attitude towards China.

What might have been

On the face of it, India and China should have been natural allies and "brothers" (bhai-bhai, as Zhou En Lai put it). Both are ancient civilisations. The impassable border of the Himalayas ensured that the two civilisations had little contact over land, except through a few intrepid explorers and scholars. The major communication between the two was through the sea route, which favoured trade over war and conquest. The two countries were therefore spared the bitter history of conflict in spite of millennia of cultural contact.

In more recent times, both countries had been victims of colonialism. After the East India Company ceded control of India to the British crown in the aftermath of the 1857 war of independence, the country became a proper colony and remained so for almost a century. China too underwent its "century of humiliation" under no fewer than six colonial powers, one of which was Japan. When India attained independence in 1947 and Mao's communists seized power in 1949, the relationship between the two countries promised to be one of brotherhood. Two poor, populous, newly-liberated countries with no history of enmity or war between them, both with ancient civilisations that had known of and respected each other, should have been natural friends and allies.

Yet it all went horribly wrong. Why?

When I think about India and China, I see the relationship at three different levels - Political, Personal and Civilisational.

1. Political

I blame one historical figure for all of the needless ill-will that has become this generation's inheritance - Jawaharlal Nehru.

Mind you, Nehru was a visionary in most respects. His idea of the Indian state with its uncompromisingly democratic institutions, its secular nature with all communities treated alike, and his policy of non-alignment in foreign affairs, were all brilliant concepts ahead of his time. Not too many leaders at the time could have pulled off what he did. The failures of other newly-liberated countries (Ghana under Nkrumah, Egypt under Nasser, Yugoslavia under Tito, and Indonesia under Sukarno) highlighted how lucky India was to remain united, remain a democracy and gradually progress. It is a huge debt that today's generation of Indians owes to Nehru.

Yet there was at least one blind spot in Nehru's vision, and it was in his attitude to the Chinese. I believe Nehru was at heart a "brown sahib" who inherited the British patrician contempt for the Chinese people. To put it bluntly, he was probably a racist. He treated with disdain the hand of friendship offered by Mao and Zhou. He refused to re-negotiate the border that had previously been agreed by two earlier sovereigns (The British Empire and the Kingdom of Tibet). [The annexation of Tibet is of course an example of imperialist thinking by the Chinese. They believe that just because Tibet had once been ruled by Chinese emperors, it "belongs" to China indefinitely. But that is another matter. Once the annexation of Tibet became a fait accompli, realpolitik demanded that India respond to the new communist government of China when it raised the border issue in an initially civil manner.] As it turned out, not only was Nehru dismissive of the Chinese request for negotiations, he displayed breathtaking stupidity in actively provoking hostilities, and from a position of weakness to boot. The "Forward Policy" of his foreign minister VK Krishna Menon, which Nehru fully endorsed, consisted of placing Indian military outposts further and further into Chinese territory. One is at a loss to understand how Nehru expected this provocation to go without retaliation.

A Chinese and an Indian soldier face off at the border, in a photo from the 1960s

Needless to say, the Chinese taught Nehru a bitter lesson. Interestingly, although they advanced quite far into Indian territory during the war, they unilaterally withdrew to their original positions once the point had been made. Six decades later, many of us can clearly see that the fault was Nehru's, not that of the Chinese. They made a point and then withdrew.

But a generation of Indians was scarred for life by that short war. That generation could never see the events of their time in this way. The few who blamed Nehru did so for reasons of domestic politics. To most Indians at that time, the Chinese became known as treacherous people who could never be trusted, because they tended to stab you in the back after promising friendship.

That was an unfortunate narrative, and it's even more unfortunate that a replay of that narrative is underway today.

Modi seems to have borrowed a leaf from Nehru's book, which is ironic considering that he seems generally determined to be the un-Nehru in every other way. He has taken China too lightly.

To be sure, Modi has made more efforts than any past Indian prime minister to normalise relations with China. Even as Chief Minister of Gujarat, he made several trips to China to woo investment into his state. And as Prime Minister, he has made 5 official visits to China and met Xi Jinping on many more occasions. His personal rapport with Xi was meant to usher in a new era of trade, investment, cooperation and friendship.

Yet why has everything fallen apart? The hasty answer would be the one Indians seem comfortable with - that the Chinese are a treacherous people who can never be trusted. They have taken advantage of India's moment of weakness because of the Covid crisis, and have decided to attack.

I would urge saner reflection.

Specifically, I would call attention to the "Wuhan Consensus". When Modi and Xi met in Wuhan in 2018, they made an agreement with wide repercussions, and I believe Modi either did not understand the extent of its ramifications, or he has been sabotaged by elements within his own policy establishment.

Essentially, the Wuhan Consensus was that India would "cooperate with" China, and China would not create any trouble on the border in spite of its existing territorial claims.

China probably expected that after the Wuhan agreement, India would stop working against its interests. But since then, India has taken a number of steps that could be viewed by China as violating that agreement. India's discussions with members of "the Quad" (the US, Australia and Japan, with India to be its fourth vertex) which has the explicit objective of containing China, a recent statement by the Indian home minister claiming all of Aksai Chin (which the Chinese hold), statements from ministers urging a boycott of Chinese goods, talk of restrictions on Chinese investment in India, widespread criticism of China over Covid, etc., have no doubt angered the Chinese leadership.

A neutral person should try to look at it from Xi Jinping's perspective as well. He probably has critics even within his own establishment, notably from within the PLA (People's Liberation Army). The PLA has been getting stronger within the Chinese establishment, and is known to be urging a more muscular foreign policy. The Wuhan Consensus would have been a hard sell for Xi internally, but if he could show that he had bought India's cooperation so as to be able to concentrate on the bigger challenge posed by Trump's US, he could probably secure an internal consensus as well. But as soon as India began to make moves that violated that agreement from the perspective of China's interests, Xi would have been under immediate pressure to act.

My view on these developments is that Modi has failed - twice. The Wuhan Consensus may not have been fully thought through in terms of its ramifications. However, once agreed, its violation (real or perceived) was a second mistake.

What do I think India should have done? I think India should have dusted off Nehru's policy of Non-Alignment, and brought it up to date for a new era. The Cold War between the US and USSR is a thing of the past, but a new geopolitical struggle is looming. The West still lines up, however uneasily, behind the US. On the other side, China is leading a loose alliance with Russia and Iran. Both sides are looking to see which one India will choose.

My belief is that India must not choose either side. India must walk a tightrope between these two blocs, and the skills of its political leadership and diplomats will of course be taxed to the utmost in maintaining good relations with all powers while resisting pressure from them. This is not a cynical recommendation to play both sides and extract benefits from both, although that is how things will probably manifest themselves. I believe India simply has no choice. It cannot afford to be drawn into either side of this conflict. India must make itself economically strong, internally cohesive (no divisive communal nonsense), and be seen to be committed to international law rather than to narrow alliances. The latter is a zero-sum game, and we are witnessing the costs of playing that game.

At the time of writing, I have no idea how this immediate crisis will play out, but in the longer term, I don't see any alternative to Non-Alignment on India's part.

That's what I think about the political side of the India-China issue.

2. Personal

I'm equally concerned about the attitudes of people. The current climate seems to have given Indians, even liberal Indians, licence to indulge in stereotypical and viciously racist characterisations of their Chinese counterparts.

I will confess that my upbringing in India in the 1960s and 70s, moulded by the attitudes of older people, made me similarly distrustful of the Chinese as a race. However, I was fortunate to have migrated to Australia as an adult. As a result, I was able to emotionally leave behind a society traumatised by a humiliating war, and enter a more neutral environment where I was able to come in contact with hundreds of people of Chinese extraction, and form friendships with many of them. It has been a growing-up experience I would not have had if I hadn't left India.

In neutral societies such as Western countries, Indians and Chinese have the opportunity to meet as equals and often intermarry. The differences are clearly not irreconcilable.

It should come as no surprise that Indians and Chinese are quite similar in their cultural attitudes and beliefs. In fact, the cultural "distance" between India and China is much smaller than the corresponding distance between either of them and Western culture.

As a couple of quick examples from my personal life, I have found that Indian family relationships and obligations are more readily understood by Chinese people than by Westerners.

I once remarked to a Chinese work colleague that I was concerned about my parents back in India because I was the eldest son (the elder child and only son, to be precise). He placed his hands on my shoulders and massaged them, remarking with a laugh, "Your shoulders are very heavy". His understanding of my situation was immediate. The responsibility of the elder son towards his parents in their old age is a concept common to many eastern cultures.

A couple of years later, my parents were coming over to Australia for a month-long visit, and I mentioned this to an Anglo-Australian colleague. He asked me, "And will they be staying with you?" He was well-travelled and open-minded, and yet he genuinely couldn't comprehend that there was no question about where my parents would be staying when they visited Australia. I since learnt that many Australians with parents in the UK organise separate accommodation for them when they visit. Staying together is viewed as an imposition in Western culture, particularly the Anglo one. The Asian cultures are alike in being very different from this.

It pains me personally to see some of my most "liberal" Indian friends engage in blatantly racist stereotyping of the Chinese people, simply because of misunderstandings between the Chinese and Indian governments.

Mind you, I have absolutely no sympathy for the Chinese communist party and the government that it controls. I assess the various actions of the Chinese government as they occur to the best of my ability and decide what to think about them. But I have learnt enough from my many interactions with Chinese friends to make a clear distinction between the Chinese government and Chinese people. I refuse to let the negative behaviour of a government colour my view of people.

Let me shift gears once again and talk about my view of civilisations.

3. Civilisational

At a high-level, I consider myself a humanist. But I am not a naive believer in a borderless world and a common world government. The book that opened my eyes to the reality of the world was "The Clash of Civilisations" by Samuel Huntington. I realised after reading that book that a single united world, the dream of many liberal humanists, was a chimera, but so too was the right-nationalistic view of multiple nation-states. The world is neither one universal family, nor is it 200-odd distinct countries. From the perspective of identity, the only durable entities are civilisations, and these number between 6 and 14, depending on how you categorise them. (For example, Islamic civilisation may be seen as a monolith, but also separately as the Arab, Turkish and Persian civilisations.)

I see human history not as a pure conflict, or clash, of civilisations, but as a rough relay race. At different times, different civilisations dominate. They jostle and push one another aside in order to get ahead, but they also trade with and learn from one another. From a larger perspective, humanity progresses thanks to the innovations coming from its component civilisations. The Chinese civilisation innovated paper, gunpowder, printing and the compass. The Indic civilisation contributed, among other things, the place-value system of arithmetic along with its essential element, the concept of zero. Arab civilisation contributed advances in algebra, chemistry, and a host of other areas.

Western civilisation learnt from those that came before it, and it has in turn contributed to humanity in full measure. Virtually all of the technical advances and social revolutions (e.g., the European Enlightenment) of the last few centuries have come from Western civilisation. The relay race of human advancement continues on in its messy way, with plenty of jostling and pushing between its various civilisations and their representative nation-states, but with inevitable progress for all of humanity.

Not a clash but a (messy) relay race of civilisations

With such a big-picture perspective, I refuse to be drawn into petty characterisations of people and countries, and I am unable to accept a narrow concept of loyalty to a particular country or even a civilisation. I was born into one civilisation, and I live in a country that represents another civilisation, but I find it petty to consider myself to belong exclusively to one or the other. I have seen too much!


In sum, I would urge thinking Indians (especially liberals, who pride themselves on their ability to rise above the brutish level of thought represented by right-wing bigots) to stop their knee-jerk responses to media reports from the India-China border. Ponder the three aspects of the India-China relationship that I have touched upon above.

1. Political and geo-political - Avoid a "my country right or wrong" approach and try to see history impartially. Critique the actions of the Chinese government by all means, but without resorting to racist stereotyping. Also recognise that the Indian leadership has also made mistakes in its approach to China, in the 60s and even today. Whatever eventuates in the short-term, the best long-term policy for India is a renewed version of non-alignment.

2. Personal - Stop demonising people of another race. Recognise that Chinese people are human beings like yourselves. In fact, they are culturally closer to you than people of many other societies.

3. Civilisational - Look beyond the seeming clash of civilisations to see that competitive innovation results in progress for the human race as a whole. Both India and China (like the West, the Arab world, and others) will contribute to humanity's progress as a by-product of advancing the interests of their own people, and the consequent bumping and jostling should be viewed with acceptance as a necessary feature of human evolution.

Tuesday, 9 June 2020

My Two Sentence Horror Story

You may have come across the "Two-Sentence Horror Story" challenge.

This isn't actually new. When I was a kid, my grandfather told me this story with a wicked chuckle.

"I don't believe in ghosts," he said.
"Well, I do," she replied and disappeared.

For some reason, this has become a thing again, and I guess the only modern addition is the explicit restriction on the length of the story to exactly two sentences. You can Google for examples or look herehere, or here.

Now, those who know me can readily tell that I dislike cruelty and morbidity, can't handle too much tension, and have no patience for superstition and "spirituality". Which is why my favourite movie genres are superhero, science fiction, rom-com and cartoons. And which is why my favourite two-sentence horror story from all of the above examples is this:
I needed to quickly run a SQL command to update a single row in an Oracle DB table at work. To my horror, it came back with "–2,378,231 rows affected." — waysafe
My job requires me to face this potential horror every day, so the hairs on the back of my neck rise in empathy, and I wish I could pass on this tip to the above writer: "Always begin a transaction before updating the database, so you can roll it back if it doesn't go the way you expect."

But I digress. How would I rise to the Two-Sentence Horror Story Challenge?

Well, I also happen to like languages, and I have a weird sense of humour, so here is my contribution. Are you ready?

A girl was walking along a dark, lonely road in Germany, very tired, when she saw a bench by the roadside. It sat on her.

Just picture it. Ooh, delicious thrills!

However, the real horror I'm illustrating here is the German language. It assigns genders to nouns rather like a sorting hat from Durmstrang, I imagine, without regard to a noun's own wishes ("Not Slytherin, please, not Slytherin!") or even to common sense.

Other languages have been known to assign genders to inanimate objects, and it's a kind of atrocity that humankind has normalised. But it's probably only German that can callously assign the neuter gender to living beings that already have a definite, non-neuter gender of their own thanks to biology.

A bench in German (Bank) has the feminine gender (die Bank), and a girl (Mädchen) has the neuter gender (das Mädchen)!

When translated into German, my two-sentence "horror story" could even be a scene out of Seinfeld, in the sense that nothing happens. An inanimate object doesn't suddenly come to life on a dark, lonely road and overpower a human being. It's just a poor, tired, neuter-gendered German girl taking a bit of a rest by sitting on a feminine-gendered German bench.

Nothing to see here. Move on.

Das Mädchen setzte sich auf die Bank. Es saß auf ihr.
(The girl sat (self) on the bench. It sat on her.)

Thursday, 4 June 2020

An Intellectual Challenge to Western Civilisation?

A friend's question on Facebook triggered some thoughts that have been simmering in my mind for many years.

He posted:
I chanced upon an article which was on 4 philosophers who were not afraid to go back to scratch. I had heard only of Sartre and Wittgenstein out of these. It is my humble contention that they had nothing useful to say either before or after their hard reset.

Which brings me to my more important question.

Why are there no Indian philosophers of any standing? People will bring up S. Radhakrishnan who also did not have a whole lot to say. Narendranath Dutt maybe but that was long ago? Eh, folks?
That was my cue to get my thoughts together and post a response. He suggested I make this an independent post, and so here it is.

Contemplating the cosmos and all of existence from a fresh, yet ancient, philosophical perspective

You've raised a great question, and I have some thoughts on this.

1. All the theistic philosophers can be removed from consideration. Nothing they say stands up to serious scrutiny as their entire worldview is constructed upon the axiom of faith or unquestioning belief. That means most of the Indian philosophers are eliminated from consideration, except a few.

2. People nowadays make much of the idea of "decolonising one's mind" and "intellectually challenging the West". Rajiv Malhotra made a good beginning with his book "Being Different" and his HuffPost article on "Tolerance isn't good enough". He also funded studies to research and document examples of real scientific advancement in ancient India (such as in metallurgy, medicine, agriculture, water management, shipbuilding, astronomy, mind sciences, etc.) before he succumbed to Hindutva and conspiracy theories, and officially became a nutcase.

3. So no intellectual has yet arisen who can take on this task of challenging Western thought on a sound philosophical basis. I believe there is an Indic (I won't call it Indian or Hindu because I want to retain the distinction between civilisation, nation-state and religion) philosophy that can challenge all of modern Western thought. That philosophy is Samkhya.

4. The entire edifice of modern Western thought, indeed most of its science-based civilisation, is based upon the notion of the independent observer. If you can independently observe and verify what I observe, that is the basis of objectivity and evidence-based reason, i.e., what we know of as "science". But what if there is no objective reality?

5. Samkhya is a non-theistic Indic philosophy that argues that the observer is an inextricable part of the universe that they observe, and so there is no possibility of "objectivity". Indeed, this echoes the Observer Effect in physics, which is well-known but somehow doesn't seem to challenge the otherwise pervasive view of objectivity that underpins all of Western thought.

6. I have been hoping for an alternative philosophical edifice that can be constructed to challenge all of Western thought in some measure, one that is based on Samkhya. Denial of objectivity is not just a theoretical hypothesis, since the Double-Slit Experiment has proved its basis in fact. Mind you, there is some "woo" even in Samkhya, which needs to be cleaned up before it can be turned into a respectable philosophy in the modern world.

7. I would like to see an alternative civilisational worldview, a non-theistic one, based on this cleaned-up Samkhya. This is different from the narrow and intellectually lazy dream of the Hindutva crowd to replace the Western-inspired constitution with the Manusmriti, etc. We should not regress to a pre-Enlightenment worldview. We need our own Enlightenment, based on an autochthonic philosophical foundation.

Those are my thoughts on this. Would be happy to receive comments.

Saturday, 30 May 2020

Sage Advice For A Confucian Civilisation

China's mishandling of the Covid-19 crisis, especially its heavy-handed threats against those who have demanded an enquiry into the pandemic's origins, betrays a blindness born out of hubris.

Clearly, China's current leadership believes the time has come to discard Deng's advice to "hide your strength and bide your time" (itself a well-known Chinese idiom "韜光養晦、有所作為 (tāo guāng yǎng huì, yōu suō zuò wéi)" ("Hide strength, bide time, amount to something")).

The mask of China's "peaceful rise" is off, and the dragon has bared its fangs.

I think it's a terrible miscalculation on China's part.

All that China's threats have served to achieve is strengthen the arguments of those who have long warned of the dangers of allowing China too much leverage over their economies. Since China has now shown that it is willing to use trade and economic levers to punish those who question its actions, other countries cannot but take steps to reduce their dependence on China. It will be a change in policy forced by China's own intemperate actions, and even its many allies and sympathisers in foreign countries will now be forced on the back foot. China's decades-long push to inextricably weave itself into the fabric of the world's economy will now receive a permanent setback, and this will be a needless crisis of China's own making.

I can only conclude that for all the vaunted wisdom of a 5000-year old civilisation, hubris has blinded China's current leaders, rendering them short-sighted and stupid.

Did they fail to comprehend the profound wisdom of this old saying?
A soft answer turneth away wrath; but grievous words stir up anger
-- Proverbs 15:1

If a foreign source of wisdom is too much to swallow, then a home-grown one would have served just as well.

When anger rises, think of the consequences
-- Confucius

All wise counsel would have been essentially the same - Think many times before lashing out in anger. But China's current leadership completely disregarded it.

When the first mutterings about China's errors of omission and commission with regard to the spread of Covid-19 began to be heard, China should have moved with alacrity to disarm its critics, not to threaten them.

A simple apology along these lines would have taken the wind out of their sails:

"We're sorry that a virus that originated in our country has devastated so many others around the world. We mistakenly assumed that we could contain the spread of the virus within our borders without causing panic to our trading partners, but we acknowledge that this delay in communication was a miscalculation on our part. We are willing to work with the WHO and other multilateral agencies to evolve systems to ensure that a repeat of this tragedy does not occur. We will also provide medical aid, supplies and other support to societies impacted by the SARS-CoV-2 virus."

And that would have immediately put to bed any incipient inquiry that anyone around the world had begun to demand. Why bother to investigate the origins of the pandemic when China itself had readily acknowledged its origins and owned up to its failings?

In due course, China would have been forgiven, and the world would have moved on. China's position in the world's supply chains would have been intact and unchallenged. Further, China's image as a benign and responsible power would have received a boost.

Now the genie is out of the bottle and cannot be put back in. The sight of China as a bully cannot be unseen, and every one of the countries that China deals with must now be reworking their policies and strategies to reduce China's leverage. They will also be cooperating more among themselves in this endeavour, disadvantaging China geostrategically.

Deng must be tut-tutting in his grave.

Friday, 17 April 2020

Carnatic Music Appreciation For The Once-Scarred

The Trinity of Carnatic Music - Muthuswamy Dikshitar, Thyagaraja, and Shyama Shastry

A North Indian friend of mine posted on Facebook about his frustration at not being able to appreciate Carnatic (South Indian classical) music in spite of repeated attempts with an open mind. He could deeply appreciate Hindustani (North Indian classical) music, and his sense of puzzlement came across in his post. The two genres of music are based on very similar concepts of scale and rhythm, so why did one transport him while the other utterly fail to impress?

I could also see that he was trying hard to balance honesty with a desire not to offend South Indians. After all, there is no polite way to tell someone, "I think my culture is superior to yours," even if that was the truth.

As a South Indian, I realised I could help him out without the constraint of political correctness that handicapped his expression.

I'm reproducing my response to him, suitably annotated and modified:

I feel your pain. There is nothing wrong with you. It's not you, it's Carnatic music ;-)

It amazes me how two genres of music (Hindustani and Carnatic) that are based on similar principles of raag and taal (or raga and tala) can sound so different aesthetically.

One of the theories I have heard is that voice quality is given a lot more importance in the Hindustani tradition. In Carnatic, technical perfection is valued far above voice quality. A Carnatic vocalist is lauded for a performance where they adhered strictly to every beat, note and nuance of the compositions they rendered even if they sounded like a toad. A certain female doyen of yesteryear who was popularly known by her three initials (but who shall remain unnamed in this blog) was one such prominent specimen of the family bufonidae.

I'm South Indian and I grew up in the South till my twenties. I had heard Carnatic music off and on during this period but never warmed to it. Then when I was 22, I heard Hindustani Classical Music for the first time (Check out item no. 6 in this blog post of mine), and my mind was blown. I've been kicking myself ever since for having wasted the first 22 years of my life.

Having said that, I have learnt to re-appreciate Carnatic music in limited contexts, and I will share some of these approaches with you.

The Carnatic style has certain advantages. The songs are typically in a faster tempo and mercifully short. Also possibly a positive from your perspective is that the lyrics are all religiously-themed, unlike much of Hindustani music which is of the "piya nahin aavat, souten ghar jaavat" type.

[Connoisseurs of Hindustani music may squirm here, but too many lyrics are devoted to the theme of faithless husbands who leave their wives pining for them while they enjoy themselves in the company of a mistress.]

And so, my approaches:

1. Try instrumental if toad vocals don't appeal. Saadhinchane in raga Aarabhi (I don't know the Hindustani equivalent) by the late U Srinivas on the mandolin is absolutely rollicking. You will probably tap your feet to it on the first go, and by the third time you play it, you'll be hooked. It's incredible.

2. Some ragas sound distinctly better than others. NaaTTai and Shahaana are two that I like. The closest equivalent to NaaTTai in Hindustani is JogNaaTTai is very majestic, more so than even Darbaari, IMO. Maha Ganapathim in NaaTTai is one of my favourites, and this piece also has relatively pleasing vocals. You may hear echoes of the Dil Se title song, since that is in Jog.

3. A lot of Carnatic music has been composed for dance (Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi), and is hence strong on rhythm and quite catchy. (I have an analogous rant on how the Andhra-origin Kuchipudi style is so much more graceful and elegant than the more famous Bharatanatyam style of my home state Tamil Nadu). Watch Sandhya Raju perform this Kuchipudi piece which is again in Raga NaaTTai.

4. There's quite a bit of Carnatic fusion music going around, and some of it is quite good. Agam is, I believe, a Bangalore-based group that has come up with some good numbers. Being from Bangalore myself, I like to think Bangalore types are a lot more cool than their cousins from staid old Chennai. Try their Dhanashree Tillana, originally composed by King Swati TirunaaL of Kerala (or by one of his many court composers who signed over their IP to him!)

[As an aside, this particular piece (Tillana in Raga Dhanashree) seems extremely popular for dance and fusion. See my blog post on this.]

5. When Carnatic fusion and dance combine, the effect can be doubly pleasing. Watch this dance by two talented girls, choreographed around "Swans of Saraswathi", Agam's rendition of BanTu Riiti KOlu in Raga Hamsanaadham

6. The old mainstay for small, bearable doses of Carnatic music is of course film songs. I grew up in Bangalore in the 70s, and the Kannada film songs of the period were often based on classical ragas (mostly Carnatic but also Hindustani on occasion). Since you posted Raag Malkauns, here is a film song in the Carnatic analog (Raga Hindolam, not to be confused with the Hindustani Hindol). The blurb on an old Music Today cassette on Night Ragas talked about "the sublimity and sense of cosmic movement" of this raga, which always comes across for me, whether I listen to Malkauns or Hindolam.

Avoid watching the cringe-inducing visuals if possible, although you will no doubt wonder about the context. A boy's family has come to a girl's house to "see" her in regard to marriage, and as is often the practice in South Indian arranged marriages, the girl is asked to sing. The lyrics are about Krishna who came from Brindavan to see Bhama (his second wife Satyabhama after Rukmini).

7. Comic relief: You probably know the "ruk-ruk-ruk" song from the Bollywood movie Vijaypath featuring Tabu. In the Tamil movie Avvai Shanmugi (remake of Mrs Doubtfire/Chachi 420), Kamalahaasan (in disguise as a respectable "mami") sings this song in a sabha, but in the Carnatic style. The Raga is Shahaana, which I had mentioned earlier as one of my favourite Carnatic ragas.

Monday, 13 April 2020

Hindutva And Its Steadfast Ninda Stuti

When I was a kid, my father told me about an intriguing concept in Hindu theology called "ninda stuti" (worship through insult).

The idea of "ninda stuti" is that abusing God is also a form of prayer

Apparently, there was a man who hated God so much that he spent every single moment of his waking life cursing Him. When he died, he was surprised to find himself in Heaven with a beaming Almighty. He enquired as to why he was in Heaven when all he had done was curse, and God replied, "Yeah, but you were thinking of me all the time, and that's what counts."


Why do I bring this up?

I'm astounded at the devotion that some of my friends display towards Hindutva. This is the only religion-based ideology, as far as I know, that demands a fierce, unwavering obsession with *another* religion. From the moment they open their eyes in the morning to when they drift off to sleep at night, all they can think about are Muslims and Islam. Hinduism itself is just an afterthought.

"Jai Shri Ram! %@#^^$ the Muslims! Jai Bajrang Bali! ##$@$* the Muslims!"

I think when they die, Allah will take them straight to Jannat and give them 72 Houris each. Surely He must be pleased with this special kind of Kafir. Not even devout Muslims think about Islam so steadfastly. They're something special.

(I don't think they will mind being in a Muslim paradise either. A lot of them already work for petrodollars in the Middle East without blushing.)