Thursday, 1 April 2021

In Defence Of Vivekananda

In the charged political atmosphere of today's India with its raging culture war between liberals and Hindu nationalists, old icons are constantly exhumed and reinterpreted from different ideological viewpoints, as can be expected.

One of those controversial personalities is Swami Vivekananda.

Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902)

A 19th century Hindu monk, he is regarded by some as a moderniser who helped Hindus gain a renewed sense of pride in their religion as an enlightened philosophy at par with the world's best. By others, he is seen as a dishonest interpreter of Hinduism and an apologist for some of its negative aspects, such as the caste system.

I'm going to look at Vivekananda afresh, from a personal and empathetic point of view. This is not to say that I am going to agree with his worldview or message, just that I will show that his approach to Hinduism was understandable given the circumstances that he was in.

Vivekananda and I

Vivekananda was born Narendranath Datta in 1863, exactly a hundred years before I was, but the environment in which he grew up was markedly different from what I experienced in my childhood. There were some similarities, of course. Both of us were born into relatively well-to-do Hindu families, with well-educated fathers (my mother was also well-educated), and both of us were fortunate enough to receive a good education, acquiring fluency in the English language along the way.

But the similarities ended there. I was born in an India that had been free of foreign rule for 16 years. The constitution of independent India was deliberately secular, and the prevailing philosophy as taught in schools reinforced the idea that all religions in the country were equal. It was not considered inferior to be a Hindu, and neither was it considered superior. All religions were considered equal but different.

The prevailing environment could not have been more different during Vivekananda's childhood. India was under the rule of a foreign colonial power. All authority figures when he was growing up were either British, or Indians profoundly influenced by Western philosophies, such as Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, and Keshab Chandra Sen. The prevailing attitude towards the Hindu religion was not that it was equal-but-different, but that it was significantly deficient in a number of ways.

Hinduism, in both its philosophy and its practice, was being critiqued from more than one angle. Christian theologians had been propounding the view that idolatry and polytheism were inferior beliefs, and this view had been accepted to varying degrees by various Indian thinkers of the time. Simultaneously, unjust Indian social practices, such as the harsh treatment of widows and the widespread practice of untouchability, were highlighted as backward aspects of the Hindu religion.

When I imagine looking at the world through the eyes of a Hindu boy born into that environment, I can feel a certain defensiveness about my religious identity, which I did not feel growing up in the India that I experienced.

What would I do if I were Narendranath Datta? Remember that, as an educated person, I would be constantly interacting with Western and Western-influenced people, and so I would not have had the convenient option of retreating into my own community, pretending that the non-Hindu world did not exist. I would be constantly reminded of my (inferior) Hindu identity.

I can see only two possibilities in that situation.

One option would have been resignation, to go through life passively, with a permanent feeling of inferiority.

The other option would have been surrender, to convert to Christianity or publicly adopt a philosophy that would be considered enlightened by that society.

To his credit, Narendranath Datta took neither of these paths. He neither resigned himself to an inferior status, nor did he surrender his cultural identity to adopt a foreign one. He chose a third path, which was to reinvent his own identity so that it became respectable in the Western-dominated society he lived in.

I think that's admirable. But how did he do that?

Let me pause to reflect on an incident from my own childhood.

My experience as a social outcast

When I was in primary school in Bangalore, sometime in Year 4 or Year 5, I was out in the playground at recess, along with a few others from my class. I saw that some of the students were pointing at something on the ground, and standing back at a respectful distance. I followed their gaze and saw a small garden lizard, not more than a couple of inches long. It was simply sitting on the ground with its head raised, not moving, just blinking and twitching its tail a bit. The other students were standing back in a circle, in what I interpreted to be fear.

A lizard of the kind I saw long ago in my school's playground

In my desire to be seen as a hero, I did what I'm deeply ashamed of today. I moved forward and stomped on the poor animal with my shoe, crushing it to death. I then stepped back triumphantly and looked at the others, expecting admiration for my bravery.

I was shocked and dismayed at their reaction. They recoiled from me, and I quickly gathered the reason. They were not condemning me for my wanton cruelty towards a harmless animal. Rather, they believed that I had committed a sin because that particular type of lizard had some superstitious significance for them. They were drawing back from me, not because they saw me as cruel, but because they saw me as cursed.

In that moment, I keenly felt the sting of social ostracism. I think I ran to a nearby tap and washed my hands. I remember that two girls ran up to me and touched me with the leafy branch of a plant, then withdrew.

I sensed that I had committed an act of ritual impurity, and that I would have to be ritually purified in order to be socially rehabilitated.

I realised even then that tackling my peers' superstitious belief head-on would have got me nowhere. It would not have served my immediate interest (which was re-acceptance into the community) to argue that their notions of ritual purity and impurity were irrational. I therefore instinctively adopted a different strategy.

In Improvisational Theatre or Improv, the fundamental rule is never to contradict what your fellow actor says, but to agree with it and build on it. My strategy to deal with my social ostracism was similarly not to challenge its basis but to accept it up to a point, and then railroad it along a direction more friendly to my interests.

So this is what I said to the crowd around me:

"It's all right. I've washed my hands and touched the green."

I've washed my hands and touched the green.

I knew I was "bullshitting" even as I said it, but I realised that I could only fight superstition with superstition. I could not hope to debunk it. So killing a lizard was a sin. Fine. But I washed my hands and touched the green. That washed away my sin and purified me.

I think my explanation partly convinced them. I don't remember what exactly happened after that, but there was no permanent ostracism. Things went back to normal fairly quickly.

So that's how I dealt with a situation where I felt defensive about myself when society looked at me as someone who was somehow deficient or inferior.

The Vivekananda strategy

I can therefore empathise with the strategy that Vivekananda followed in order to rehabilitate himself with honour into a society that was otherwise critical and judgemental of his Hindu identity.

First, to blunt the Christian theological opposition to idolatry and polytheism, he dusted off one of the schools of Hindu philosophy, namely Advaita Vedanta, to argue that Hinduism too, at its core, postulated a single, formless deity called the Brahman, or Supreme Consciousness. He explained away both polytheism and idolatry by positioning them as 'aspects of divinity'. In his retelling, polytheism and idolatry were not sinful, but merely harmless ways to make an abstract concept concrete enough for ordinary people to comprehend. At its core, Hinduism was really no different from Christianity!

Second, in the spirit of Improv, he accepted the criticism of Hinduism's many social ills, but only up to a point. He joined in the condemnation of some of them, such as the poor treatment of widows.

I do not believe in a God or religion which cannot wipe the widow's tears or bring a piece of bread to the orphan's mouth.

But he railroaded criticism of others by accepting them only as failures of contemporary Hindu society, not of the Hindu religion itself.

This is what many of his critics today call out as dishonesty. Vivekananda claimed that caste in Hinduism was much more benign as a concept than how it was applied in practice. He made it seem like caste was an egalitarian division of labour which had unfortunately been interpreted as a hierarchy of superior and inferior human beings. He claimed that a single person could belong to all four castes depending on what they were doing.

Take a man in his different pursuits, for example: when he is engaged in serving another for pay, he is in Shudrahood; when he is busy transacting some piece of business for profit, on his own account, he is a Vaishya; when he fights to right wrongs, then the qualities of a Kshatriya come out in him; and when he meditates on God or passes his time in conversation about Him, then he is a Brahmin.

He referred to the scriptural concept that the three Gunas, or inherent qualities, were determinants of caste, but here he cleverly projected the view that anyone could attain the status of any caste by merely manifesting the requisite guna.

As there are Sattva, Rajas, and Tamas — one or other of these Gunas more or less — in every man, so the qualities which make a Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya, or Shudra are inherent in every man, more or less. But at times one or other of these qualities predominates in him in varying degrees, and it is manifested accordingly.

This interpretation is patently false, as a careful reading of the Bhagavadgita will readily show. There is no scriptural basis to believe that gunas are capable of changing a person's caste on a minute-by-minute basis, as Vivekananda implies. On the contrary, gunas are held to determine one's caste upon one's rebirth, and not before. A person's caste is fixed at birth and cannot be changed. Further, since the gunas are ranked from best (Sattva) to worst (Tamas), the castes that correspond to them are also ranked in a moral hierarchy - Brahmin (Sattva), Kshatriya (Rajas), Vaishya (a combination of Rajas and Tamas), and Shudra (Tamas alone). And as a further corollary, since one's birth in a caste is determined by the gunas one had exhibited in a previous birth, those born into a lower caste must have been bad people in their previous birth, not to be pitied or uplifted, but to be condemned and kept down.

[For clarity, "caste" above refers to the four broad varnas alone, and not to the myriad jaatis under them.]

It's clear that Vivekananda was bullshitting to make himself and his religion look better, in the face of social criticism. It was a clever combination of cherrypicking, deliberate misinterpretation, and projection of indefensible injustices as latter-day social corruptions of an otherwise benign philosophy.

But as I said before, I can entirely empathise. Faced with an analogous situation, I readily took recourse to dishonest narratives to rehabilitate myself into respectable society, so I can hardly cast the first stone at Vivekananda.

And there rests my defence.


I cannot help but compare and contrast Narendranath Datta with his partial namesake Narendra Modi. I believe both of them are examples of cultural insecurity. One disguised his insecurity with philosophical posturing. The other has turned it into a narrative of Hindu victimhood, and exploits it for political gain.

What the two Narendras share in common is not Hindu pride but cultural insecurity

A secure Hindu in today's India should be able to accept legitimate criticism of their religion, in the light of modern humanistic thought, and drive reforms without being defensive. Casteism and misogyny are obvious elements in Hinduism crying out to be jettisoned. Of course, superstitious beliefs are another obvious target, but that could be seen as a bridge too far, since the path of rationalism may result in the abandonment of the religion altogether!

[Also read my blog post "The Three Hinduisms".]

Sunday, 31 January 2021

How I Made Pho A Friend

They say that if you ever fall off a horse when learning to ride, you should try to get back in the saddle as quickly as possible, otherwise the fear of failure will never go away.

Last week, one of my Facebook friends posted some appetising photos of (the Vietnamese dish) Pho that she had made. Inspired, I got the recipe from her and attempted to make the dish myself. Alas, it was such a catastrophic failure that the whole pot had to go straight to the compost bin. (Yes, it really was that bad.)

Looking to get back in the saddle as quickly as possible, I enlisted the help of my better half to make a second attempt the very next day. Even though she had never made Pho before either, she had the benefit of a few decades of culinary experience, and the wisdom that brings with it.

We went back to the drawing board together, and studied (vegetarian) recipes from more than one source, just to get a feel for the philosophy of the dish. Actually, I would call it the architecture of the dish.

Pho consists of three architectural components.

1. The stock, or broth. This is a clear liquid that acts as the base, and is responsible for giving the dish its distinctive flavour. All the ingredients that go to make up this stock are to be filtered out and thrown away once their flavours have been infused into the liquid.

2. A set of "global" ingredients that will be compiled into the stock and made available to all "users". Usually but not always, these will be cooked vegetables.

3. A set of "run-time" ingredients that each user will configure for themselves when they download the dish into their local environment (bowl). Usually but not always, these will be raw vegetables, noodles and condiments.

Once I understood the architecture of Pho, I realised why my previous attempt had been such a dismal failure. As we say in the IT Architecture profession, "Architecture without implementation is a daydream; implementation without architecture is a nightmare."

I had jumped straight into implementation like an immature developer, without bothering to understand the architecture of the dish. No wonder I had ended up with a nightmare.

Hopefully, now that we had an architecture and were going to implement it, all would be goodness.

And it was.

Here's a sneak preview of the final result.

A bowl of Pho as deployed to a particular user's customised environment

On with the recipe, then!

1. The stock or broth

The main ingredients required to make the stock are these:

One or two sliced onions (depending on the quantity of water used), roasted and slightly charred, so as to acquire a mildly burnt flavour.

Chopped ginger, also roasted and slightly charred.

A few garlic pods, chopped and fried in oil

Spices, dry roasted:

A stick of cinnamon

Two whole pieces (stars) of star anise

A teaspoon of fennel seeds

A few cloves

A few cardamom pods

Any other vegetables except brassicas (i.e., avoid cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, etc.)

Put 4 cups of water (or 8 cups if serving 4 people) in a slow cooker and add all of the above ingredients in suitable quantities for that volume of water. Cook at high heat for about 4 hours, then filter out all the solid ingredients, leaving behind a clear liquid. This is the broth.

Taste it, and add salt and soy sauce in judicious quantities.

2. Global ingredients

Place pieces of cauliflower, carrot, beans, edamame, etc., in a steaming tray and cook until they're the right mix of crisp and tender.

Cut some lemon slices but do not cook them.

Add all the global ingredients to the broth. This is what all users will get.

Global ingredients floating in broth

3. Run-time ingredients

Add rice noodles to boiling water, cover with a lid and leave for a while until fully soft and expanded. Wash in cold water, filter and set aside in a separate bowl.

Chop mushrooms, fry in oil and set aside in a separate bowl.

Set aside bowls for each of the following ingredients:

Chopped spring onions/shallots

Chopped coleslaw vegetables (cabbage, carrot, onions)

Chopped mint and basil

Sprouted moong beans

Chopped jalapeno peppers in a mixture of vinegar and soy sauce

Some hot sriracha sauce

Run-time ingredients, each in a separate bowl, ready for users to optionally add them to their individual servings of broth (which already contains all the global ingredients, of course)

It turns out that this architecture is highly democratic. Those who don't like mushrooms don't have to add them to their bowls. Those who wish to avoid carbs can ignore the rice noodles. Those who can't handle spice can skip the jalapeno peppers and the sriracha sauce.

With this componentised architecture, users get to eat a dish customised to their taste, and everyone is happy.

I thanked my better half for helping me get back in the saddle, and she thanked me for introducing her to a new horse.

Tuesday, 26 January 2021

The Perils Of A Post-Trump World

Ding, dong, the witch is dead!

Much of the world, not just the blue part of the US, is celebrating the exit of the obnoxious Donald Trump. This was a man who managed to offend practically everyone, while appealing only to the insecurities and base emotions of his supporters.

But now that he's gone, what can we expect from his successor?

I think it would be a good idea for those who wanted to see Trump gone to step back a bit from the polemical view of Trump as the devil incarnate and Biden as an angel in white. The situation is far more nuanced, especially for those of us in the rest of the world outside the US.

What I wish for is a geopolitical stalemate where the US and China keep each other honest, and the rest of the world stays safe as a consequence. What I fear most is a cosy backroom deal between Biden and Xi that carves the rest of the world up between two rapacious superpowers.

For a start, Trump was a refreshingly different president from all of his predecessors, because the ugliness and naked self-interest in US foreign policy was laid bare for all to see. There was no pretence that the US stood for anything higher than its own self-interest. In being so famously transactional, Trump reduced the image of the US from its historical projection of exceptionalism to one where it was just another country with its own axe to grind. It was a bit of unwitting honesty from an American president not seen since the days of "Honest Abe".

That image may not altogether vanish, since the world cannot unsee what it has once seen.

Biden and his team will of course do their best to show that the US is back in the hands of the adults in the room, and the old, familiar lectures on freedom, democracy and human rights will once again be selectively heard whenever the US wants to effect a regime change to its advantage.

Even as things return to the old normal, disquieting aspects to the Biden administration are already beginning to be seen.

The first few appointees of Biden's team have been lobbyists and insiders of the Pentagon and the arms industry. His secretary of state is a known hawk

Watch the easy camaraderie between Antony Blinken (Democrat), and his interrogator Sen Lindsey Graham (Republican) during the former's confirmation hearing as incoming Secretary of State. US foreign policy stays constant, with bipartisan consensus.

For those with hopes of a more peaceful world, this is bad news. The arms industry thrives when there are conflagrations around the world, and so it is unlikely that President Biden is going to wind back the wars.

Right on cue, there have been bomb blasts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Algeria, Yemen and Syria. If an American president ever wanted an excuse not to draw down overseas troops, he will not want for options.

That's not the only piece of bad news.

One of the things that Trump should be given credit for was his recent approach to China. After some leniency in the earlier part of his term, Trump swung around to suspicion and hostility towards China, especially after Covid. He began to push back on China in every sphere. He did not blink on trade, and he began to unabashedly cultivate "the Quad" (consisting of the US, Japan, India and Australia) to signal his willingness to confront China militarily. His accompanying rhetoric was harsh and aggressive too.

China under Xi has been a bully, and in the manner expected of bullies faced with credible threats, the dragon blinked. Surprisingly meek and conciliatory statements issued from Beijing. The wolf warrior diplomats went into retreat.

China has no intention to pick a fight with the US
-- Wang Yi, Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister - Dec 18, 2020

It remains to be seen whether Biden will keep up that pressure. As a realist, I try to follow the money. The US arms industry gains from the forever war in the Middle East. China wants the freedom to expand its tentacles throughout Asia and up to the doors of Europe through its Belt and Road Initiative. It's not so much "free trade" as the ability for China to sell to every corner of the globe. The trade war between the US and China is hurtful to both.

A new administration in Washington is an opportunity for both countries to reset their relationship to mutual advantage. What I fear most is a backroom deal to avoid the trap of a new Cold War and to instead establish a cosy duopoly. The US keeps its existing backyards of the Americas and Europe, and gets to play its deadly war games in the Middle East. China gets untrammeled overlordship over all of Asia, including the Indian subcontinent. A new agreement is signed between the two superpowers of the East and the West that ends their bruising trade war.

[For countries like India, this would be unqualified bad news. The US has been an unreliable ally to India even at the best of times. (At the worst of times, it has been a vicious and vindictive enemy, as Nixon and Kissinger demonstrated during the 1971 Bangladesh war.) Abandonment of India by the US following a duopoly deal would mean that any putative hyphenation between India and China would disappear at a stroke. With the role of the US abruptly switched from security guarantor to the ally of an adversary, India's strategic options would narrow precipitously, and its fate would be left to the tender mercies of China. India would have to make significant territorial amends for its recent show of resistance to China's border incursions, and would have to very publicly accept China's suzerainty over all of Asia, including its own neighbourhood. It would be an unprecedented cultural humiliation in addition to being a permanent economic impost on future growth.

Australia, as part of the Anglosphere's "Five Eyes" alliance, will probably continue to receive US protection, but India will be jettisoned without a second thought. The fate of Taiwan and Japan is uncertain.]

Not all aspects of the US-China duopoly deal are likely to be settled quickly and amicably. The most interesting item on the negotiating table would be Africa, I imagine. There is no clear early winner between the US and China in terms of influence over Africa, and the continent could turn into a battleground. I see Africa as the new Poland for two schemers to pretend to agree on, before one of them betrays the other.

To sum up, it may be too early to go, "Ding dong, the witch is dead!" The main peril of the post-Trump era is the possible start to the new joint reign of the Wicked Witch of the West and the Wicked Witch of the East. The rest of the world should hunker down for a long and harsh winter.

Saturday, 23 January 2021

Teflon Modi And The "Infallible" John Howard - A Chin Up To Indian Liberals

modi and john howard
What do Indian PM Narendra Modi and former Australian PM John Howard have in common? A lot. Not just their apparent invulnerability, but also their unapparent vulnerability.

A recent poll by the India Today group shows that 74% of Indians believe that Prime Minister Narendra Modi's performance is "good or outstanding".

Only 6% of survey respondents see Modi's performance as poor

A number of other Indians are simply incredulous at these results. As journalist Aakar Patel tweeted while referencing this poll, 

We are in the 37th month of sequential decline in GDP growth. This is our fourth year of decline. Indians were poorer in 2018 than they were in 2013, and that was before this 37 month decline began. This is Govt data. Modi era has set us back 10 years.

Of course, as the comments following Patel's tweet show, many people simply don't believe these survey results. They consider India Today to be part of the "sold media" whose function today is to subtly push the government narrative onto an unsuspecting populace.

In the absence of evidence to support that accusation, let us assume the survey results to be genuine and accurate.

Harking back to Aakar Patel's points, just how does Modi manage to retain his stratospheric levels of popularity in the face of such a dismal performance over the past 7 years? Some of my liberal friends were despondent at these survey results. If the Indian people were willing to give high marks to a government that had clearly failed to deliver, what did that mean? The implication to them was very clear, i.e., that the majority of Indians had bought into the Hindutva ideology and were in fact expressing their satisfaction with the progress of Modi's majoritarian agenda, with no regard to the economic hardship they have had to endure. Some of these friends were despondently resigning themselves to three or even four terms of a Modi government, and the seemingly inevitable prospect of India becoming a theocratic Hindu state with a permanently fascist polity.

Having lived in Australia since 1998, I recollected a parallel from Australian politics, and I put together this piece to provide them some cheer.

Former Australian PM John Howard won four consecutive 3-year terms (in 1996, 1998, 2001, and 2004) before losing in 2007, when he even lost his own seat.

What suddenly happened in 2007?

Nothing happened. That's what was so surprising. Howard was an extremely successful prime minister and a sure-footed politician who always seemed to sense the public mood, and invariably did things that gained popular approval.

In 1996, shortly after his first victory, the Port Arthur massacre took place - Australia's worst mass shooting tragedy. Howard reacted with alacrity, banning all automatic weapons and implementing a buyback program. That made him very popular. (In the US, this would have contravened the Second Amendment.)

This was also the term when Pauline Hanson, then a newly elected independent MP, made her maiden speech, a sensational diatribe against Aboriginal people, Asians, and immigrants in general. She suddenly gained popularity with a section of the electorate that was feeling threatened by Asian migration. Most other politicians condemned her speech, but John Howard stayed completely silent. He in fact very quietly started implementing aspects of her demands in immigration policy, and stole the wind from her sails. He swung the racist vote to his party without saying anything! This is exactly like Modi's strategy of staying silent and pointedly not condemning extreme and bigoted statements by others.

Howard won again in 1998, but with a reduced majority. He took a big risk when he pushed through the GST in 2000, which was unpopular at the time, but which turned out to be visionary and, in retrospect, one of Australia's great success stories (One flat rate of 10% on all goods and services, period). Just before the 2001 election, he famously refused entry to The Tampa, a Norwegian ship that had rescued boat people from a capsized vessel. Once again, that act appealed to the immigration hardliners and he won his third election. This is again like Modi and his Balakot operation just before the 2019 election.

Howard's third term saw the 2001 WTC attacks, and he joined Bush and Blair in sending troops to Iraq, which became very unpopular later. He was at his weakest before the 2004 election, but he got a major reprieve because Labor's leader at the time (Mark Latham) put off many people. Latham was a known goon and a hothead who had once broken a cabbie's arm during an altercation. Howard won his fourth term in 2004 because of the TINA factor. This is exactly like how people see no alternative to Modi because Indian opposition parties are such a disaster.

Mind you, Howard's stewardship of the economy during his four terms was beyond reproach. Not only did he run surplus budgets, he also paid off the national debt. During his tenure, Australia built up a huge surplus called the Future Fund (which came in very useful for Kevin Rudd in 2008-2009 when he had to provide a Keynesian stimulus after the GFC). Also, under John Howard and his Treasurer Peter Costello, Australia neatly avoided the recessions that hit the rest of the world, first during the Asian currency crisis in 1997-98 and then during the Tech crash of 2001.

It's good to have a surplus like that as a buffer for the future. Well, the future is here. -- Kevin Rudd, unlocking the Future Fund to provide a stimulus package in 2008

Impeccable economic management credentials. Expertise in dog-whistling hardline right-wing messages without actually saying anything that people could point at.

Yet John Howard lost in 2007. How? Why?

Analysts have been searching for reasons, and they usually come up with three. The first two are very weak, IMO.

1. He tried to tinker with labour legislation with a new policy called WorkChoices, which reduced employee rights, but he backpedalled on it after facing opposition.

2. There was a feeling that Australia needed to do something urgently on climate change, which Howard (as a conservative) did not think was important.

3. There was a sudden and inexplicable "shift in the wind", with people just feeling that he had overstayed his welcome and it was time for a change.

In fact, Kevin Rudd followed a very clever policy of not differing much from Howard except on climate change. He portrayed himself as an economic conservative too, so on paper, there was really not much to choose between the two opponents. Rudd deliberately made it hard for Howard to attack him on policy, since he mirrored Howard on all his policies. He just happened not to be John Howard. He banked on voters' weariness with Howard. And it paid off.

Howard did not just lose the 2007 election. He lost his own seat. He was only the second sitting Australian PM to lose his own seat.

Such a dramatic and swift fall, and for no apparent reason. Howard did everything right, and even his critics had to grudgingly admit that he was one of Australia's best economic managers. Ultimately, the wind just shifted and, in the words of a columnist, "John Howard was yesterday's man".

Modi is not going to rule forever, even if it seems that way. One day, for no reason at all, the wind will shift, and that will be that.

Thursday, 21 January 2021

Squinting At India From Down Under

1. Proud Filer

Of late, some Indian friends of mine have started applying a badge to their profile pictures that says "Proud Filer". This refers, of course, to the fact that they have filed their taxes. The badge shows that India's Income Tax department is trying to provide positive reinforcement for this desired behaviour. All good and wholesome stuff.

It's just a bit amusing to me. I'm sure people will call this snobbery on my part, but I see nothing to be proud about in doing what is expected and the norm. I have been filing taxes all my working life, both in India and in Australia, and I never thought it was something I should pat myself on the back for, with a badge on my profile pic and everything.

A typical profile pic with the badge of honour

In Australia, one is allowed to start working (part-time) after the age of 14 years and 9 months. (Until that arbitrarily defined age, I suppose it would be considered child labour and hence illegal.) My son started to work part-time at a library at around that age, and he filed his first tax return at the age of 15. Of course, since his earnings were well below the taxable threshold, he paid no tax that year. This continued until he got his first full-time job after graduation at the age of 23, at which point his income crossed the tax-free threshold and he began to pay income tax. But he had had to file his returns every year from the age of 15! It's an offence not to file a tax return if you've earned any income during the year. Whether your income crosses the tax-free threshold or not is beside the point.

I can understand that in a country with a low tax base and a low level of tax compliance, it's necessary to encourage the filing of taxes with a feel-good incentive like a badge. I suppose it's "one small step for an individual taxpayer, but a giant leap for the tax department and the economy".

What other expected behaviours can one reward with badges, I wonder.

"Proud Non-Litterer"
"Proud Follower of Road Rules"
"Proud Non-Payer of Bribes to Officials"

Apologies again for sounding like a snob. I'm still not able to get over my amusement at this.

2. Jobs for Kids

That reminds me of another interesting difference between parental attitudes in Australia and India. Kids in Australia are expected to start working part-time from the allowed age of 14 years and 9 months, both to earn their own pocket money and to gain valuable work experience. The most valued jobs are customer-facing ones, since such experience is highly useful in a service economy. You will see high-school and college kids working at supermarket checkout counters, as clothing shop assistants, waiters, etc. It is not looked down upon.

I don't know what the attitudes of middle-class India are like today towards children from educated families working at such service jobs, but I certainly remember what it was like in my youth.

In 1984, one of my IIT classmates had applied for a graduate course at a US university and had also applied for a teaching assistantship to help cover his expenses. I was present when he read out the letter he received from a professor at that university. The professor regretted that there were no paid assistantships available, but he promised to help my friend get a job driving the university bus. We all had a big laugh at this, and my friend emphasised the point, saying, "My dad will never let me go to the US if he knows I'm going to be driving a bus!"

Educated, middle-class Indians used to consider it beneath their dignity to do anything but a white-collar job. I certainly hope those attitudes have changed.

3. Dignity of Labour

And this in turn reminds me of another interesting difference in value systems I have seen between India and Australia, viz., the position of tradespeople. Plumbers, electricians, pavers, roof restorers, tree loppers and others are very highly paid in Australia, and these professions are no less respectable than corporate or academic jobs. Indeed, skilled tradespeople are among the highest income earners in the country.

To take one very stark example, plumbers are most often called in to deal with blocked toilet drains, and their job necessarily brings them into frequent contact with human faeces. In India, such a job would be considered to be the lowest of the low, and the existence of the caste system bears witness to this pervasive social attitude. In Australia, thankfully, there is no stigma at all attached to this trade. It's a truly egalitarian society.

If anything, the snobbery in Australia runs the other way. In India, students who secure admission to an educational institution "on merit", i.e., by scoring high marks in an entrance test, tend to look down on their classmates who have secured admission by paying "capitation fees" or through a "management quota". Scholastic ability ("merit") has legitimacy that fee-paying ability does not.

In Australia, I have heard from Indian friends (whose children gained admission to private schools on a scholarship) that they were disdained by their classmates who were paying full fees. In a complete inversion of social strata, the students who were able to pay full fees were the children of highly-paid tradespeople, whereas the children of my highly educated friends working in academia and mid-level corporate positions were constrained by economics to seek financial assistance through scholarships, which then made them the object of their classmates' contempt.

These are some of the interesting differences I've seen between the societies of my native country and my adoptive one.

Wednesday, 30 December 2020

My Hopes For The World, Post 2020

It's the last day of 2020, a year many will be glad to see the back of. The last year has been associated with some of the most unpleasant memories, mainly because of the Covid-19 pandemic that disrupted normal life, impacted livelihoods, and -- not least, took many lives. For many families that lost loved ones or suffered economic hardship over the past year, the very sight of the number "2020" will forever retain a negative connotation.

The Tamil culture that I'm a part of has the astrological notion of the shani-dasai (period of Saturn), a phase of life that is associated with suffering, hardship, trials and tribulations. Importantly however, this period is believed to lead one to ultimate success by putting one through a test. Further, when the shani-dasai ends, Saturn is believed to leave one with a gift.

While I'm hardly superstitious, I like to take the positive from every example and allegory, and so this is what I wish will happen to the world once 2020 is but a memory.

The Way the World Works

I believe that we are on our way to the Leisure Society, but until we get there, work will continue to be a major part of our lives. Having said that, there is no reason why the nature of work should not make a clean break from the past.

I hope the culture of working from home forced by the pandemic has helped both employers and employees understand its benefits enough to want to retain this new culture. So much wasted time and effort has been eliminated from society these past few months. People haven't had to commute, and have saved at least a couple of hours every day. They could afford to get more sleep and spend more time with their families. So much energy has been saved and pollution avoided because of the virtual elimination of rush-hour traffic, especially its wasteful waits and crawling pace. For employers too, the opportunity to permanently save on commercial real estate would not have gone unnoticed. This also has knock-on effects. Employees can afford to move away from congested urban centres to more spacious homes in regional areas. The counter-magnets that urban planners have long been searching for have made their appearance at last.

We are 20 years into the 21st century. The world should not continue to work as though it is still in the 20th.

Some professions cannot operate remotely. Hairdressers, physiotherapists, care-givers to the elderly or the handicapped, all of these will have to continue working on site. But these professionals can also operate in local clusters, without unnecessary centralisation in CBDs.

Employers have to learn to embrace tools that give them the ability to set tasks and measure deliverables without having to physically watch over a roomful of employees like a strict schoolteacher.

The Public Health Landscape

I believe Covid-19 has permanently altered some aspects of public health. With the awareness that this is by no means the last pandemic we are going to see, the world has doubtless improved its ability to respond with alacrity to the next one. The admirable capability that East Asia as a whole has demonstrated this year (thanks to the experience of past regional outbreaks) will eventually be par for the course worldwide. Quarantining, social distancing norms, the habit of wearing facemasks, the infrastructure for contact tracing and alerting, all of these will become embedded in the hardware and software of society. The next pandemic will not take us by surprise the way this one has. We will take it in our stride, with little disruption to our daily lives.

Victory Over the Pathogen

Let me be even more ambitious in my predictions. I believe that the threshold of tolerance breached by this year's pandemic has finally forced humankind to stop seeing viral pathogens as merely a nuisance to be tolerated year after year. The flu vaccine of recent years has been a hit-and-miss approach with partial success against the ever-new strains of influenza that attacked every winter, but the tide has now decisively turned. I believe the forced research into the details of how viruses work will result in the the development of a super-vaccine, one that will end, once and for all, the threat of all viral diseases in humankind, including the flu and the common cold. In a few short years after 2020, we will not remember what a cold or the flu was like.

I think medical research in general has received a boost because of the urgency of the search for treatments for Covid-vulnerable people. I would not be surprised if cures for autoimmune diseases as well as other conditions classed as co-morbidities are also found in the very near future.

In short, while I agree with most people that 2020 has been a year like none other, I prefer to interpret that in a positive sense. I hope and believe that 2020 will mark a turning point in the fortunes of the world, because of the gift that Saturn is going to leave behind.

We are entering the future now. Cheers! 

Thursday, 12 November 2020

Sad Puppy-Dog Eyes - Some Of My Favourite Bollywood Songs Featuring Sanjay Dutt

I lived and worked in Bombay (Mumbai) for 8 years between 1987 and 1995 (apart from a year and a half when I was in Kanpur). I didn't realise it then, but this was the very first time I experienced what may have been taken for granted by many others. For the first time, I heard Bollywood songs on a regular basis, and it was all around me - on the radio, on TV, from roadside loudspeakers, etc.

This had never happened to me before. During my childhood in Bangalore through the 70s, I mostly heard Kannada songs on the radio. During my IIT Madras days (1980-85), it was Tamil songs. I discovered Hindustani classical music during my stint at IIM Ahmedabad (1985-87), and that was what I played when I visited the institute's DJ club. The music that I consciously sought out and played during my teens was Western pop. So I had never previously experienced anything like the barrage of Hindi film songs that hit me when I moved to Bombay in 1987.

It's true what they say - the best music, by definition, is the one you grow up with. If I were asked about the "golden period" of Kannada film songs, I would name the 70s. Similarly, the early 80s were to me the "golden period" of Tamil film songs. It's not surprising that the "golden period" of Hindi film songs to me was the period from 1987 to 1995.

While I have many, many favourites from that time, I thought I'd focus on those that I later found were from movies starring Sanjay Dutt.

I know he's a controversial character, but I've always had a soft spot for him because of his sad puppy-dog eyes, and the many personal tragedies in his life.

And so, the songs:

1. 'Jeeye To Jeeye Kaise' from 'Saajan'

Saajan was a very silly movie, IMO. But many of the songs were good. This clip also captures the pathos of Dutt's character, who is a cripple.

"Lagta nahin dil kahin bin aapke"
(My heart is not at peace without you)

2. 'Mera Dil Bhi Kitna Paagal Hai' from 'Saajan'

In this clip, the most moving scene for me is when Dutt's character sees himself without his handicap.

"Par saamne jab tum aate ho, kuch bhi kehne se darta hai"
(But when you are before me, (my heart) is too scared to say anything)

3. 'Tumhe Apna Banane Ki Kasam' from 'Sadak'

I haven't seen this movie. I know the story, and it's too gritty for me. But the song was very touching.

"Meri nas nas mein tu banke lahu samayi hai, samayi hai"
(You have become the blood that flows in my veins)

4. 'Aur Is Dil Mein Kya Rakha Hai' from 'Imaandaar'

I haven't seen this movie either, but I like the song a lot.

"Cheerke dekhe dil mera to, tera hi naam likha rakha hai"
(Tear open my heart and see, it is your name that is written inside)