Wednesday, 14 December 2011

India the Afterthought

Synopsis: The nation-states of India and Pakistan came out of the same civilisational melting pot that has been stewing and bubbling in South Asia for over two millennia. But while modern India has embraced its inclusive and pluralistic heritage through its secular democracy where majority and minority groups enjoy equal privileges, Pakistan has been unwilling to do likewise. Pakistan's need to justify its separate existence from the mother country, India, have caused it to deny its own civilisational heritage of harmonious diversity and embark on a quest for a defining and unifying ideological purity that would be distinct from the Indian character. This quest has taken Pakistan towards more and more extreme and intolerant versions of Islam.

No superficial political analysis of recent decades, however even-handed, can provide the insight that it is in fact Pakistan's civilisational self-loathing that has spawned a cancer of violence that threatens itself, its neighbours and the wider world.

US-Pakistan relations have never been so bad, and the mutual recriminations are mounting. An article doing the rounds now is Bill Keller's "The Pakistanis have a Point", in which he tries to explain the Pakistani point of view to an American audience.

It's a fairly slick narrative, but unfortunately for him in this era of the Internet, there are enough others who know their history and can spot a spin job when they see one. [The comments section of the New York Times, where the article appeared, does an effective job of debunking the whitewash attempt.]

The Pakistanis have a point? I think what the Pakistanis have is an apologist. Or stated in the passive voice, Bill Keller's been had by the Pakistanis. Either that, or he's complicit. There's a lot of history that he provides, but he gives the game away to the cognoscenti by the history that he doesn't provide. Some glaring (and convenient) omissions from the Keller narrative that would be hard for the Pakistani establishment to explain away: The Bengal genocide of 1971, the Kunduz airlift of 2001 and the Mumbai attacks of 2008.

Let's give him the benefit of doubt, though. Even with the presumption of honesty, his analysis fails a basic test. While his effort to provide "couples therapy" to the US-Pakistan relationship by trying to understand the other point of view is commendable, he falls victim to the very mistake that he blames US policy for.

The policy mistake that he identifies is what he calls "Pakistan the afterthought". His point is that Pakistan is by far the more important country when comparing Afghanistan and Pakistan, so Pakistan should be the focus of the US administration in the Af-Pak region. The article ends with a quote that compares a nation of 30 million people (Afghanistan) against a nation of 200 million that also has nuclear weapons (Pakistan), and rhetorically asks which would be more important to the US in the year 2020.

I have a similar question for the author. Which is more important, a nation of 200 million (180 million today) or a nation of 1.2 billion? In the entire article that purports to provide a historical perspective and a policy prescription, India is, well, just an afterthought.

I would submit that the Indian perspective matters.

It's not just that India is a large and important country and its views should be taken into account for that reason.

It's not just that it's Indians who can understand Pakistanis best (the cynical would use the words "see through").

It's not just that the Western world is coming around to understanding what India has been saying for decades, a fact that Tony Blair admitted recently.

It's that in order to understand Pakistan, one must not take the word of the Pakistanis themselves, however honest and well-intentioned they may be as individuals, because very bluntly, the Pakistanis are a people in civilisational denial.

And it's that Indians understand far better both the civilisation and the denial, and the consequent motive for everything that Pakistan does.

Fundamentally, if one wants to understand what is happening in the Af-Pak region, it is not enough to go back a few decades in the history of the various nation-states involved, even if India is included in the analysis. For this is not about nation-states but about civilisations, and how various peoples choose to define themselves. Those definitions, whether authentic or spurious, then drive the behaviour of those peoples, shape national policies, and create and destroy nations.

Let's start from the opposite end for an example. Pakistanis in their various discourses will invariably refer to India as "Hindu". That is a civilisational lens they choose to wear, and we will come to that point later. The interesting thing is that this is not how Indians would describe their country at all! Indians look at India as a secular state. And while the cynics in Pakistan might scoff, "secular" is not just a word on a piece of paper (the Indian constitution). This is something Indians accept in their bones. This is the first lesson in civilisational thinking - India is not secular because the 1950 constitution says so. The constitution says so because Indian civilisation has always been pluralistic and inclusive. Every language is spoken, every religion is followed, every conqueror is absorbed and made Indian. That is India's DNA, making it a melting pot like no other civilisation in history (except one other which I will talk about towards the end). The constitution of the Indian nation-state fits the civilisation, and therefore the modern Indian identity is authentic.

For the opposite example of where a nation-state and its underlying civilisation are at war, one need look no further than over the Himalayas to China. The communist ideology of the Chinese nation-state is often hostile to the traditions of Chinese civilisation, and the worst excesses occurred during the Cultural Revolution, when Mao's communists tried to erase all traces of Chinese civilisation and replace it with an imported Marxist ideology. The Chinese national identity is therefore ersatz.

Self-loathing is a pitiable trait, whether in individuals or in nations. And in both, there are strong indications that self-loathing can lead to cancer.

To any outsider, it would be obvious that Indians and Pakistanis are fundamentally the same people. But such a suggestion is anathema to Pakistanis. (The suggestion is abhorrent to an increasing number of Indians too, for a very different reason. Especially after the unequivocal statement that was the Mumbai attack of 2008, Indians feel no reason to nurture a sentiment of unreciprocated brotherhood.)

The fervent wish of a large segment of Pakistanis is to have their civilisation based on the Arab rather than the Indian substrate. As any advertising professional will tell you, India the nation-state already "owns" the Indian civilisation in a "positioning" sense. Not only would Pakistan feel like an also-ran if it acknowledged its identical heritage, it could also dilute the separate identity that it must sustain in order to justify its very raison d'être.

The justification for the creation of Pakistan was that Hindus and Muslims could never live together. This argument is called the "Two-Nation Theory" (TNT), and has proven to be as explosive as the acronym. All of Pakistan's subsequent actions, not least its treatment of minorities, have clearly supported that argument. India's argument against partition and the creation of Pakistan was that not just Hindus and Muslims, but every minority group, could live as equals in the country. This is the secularist ideal that grew out of India's historical pluralism and found expression in the modern Indian constitution. The presence of a growing and increasingly prosperous Muslim minority in India supports India's secularist argument.

Incidentally, this is the fundamental reason for the Kashmir dispute, which Pakistan claims is the core issue with India, but which is actually more symptom than cause. Pakistan believes that Kashmir belongs to it for the simple reason that parts of it are majority Muslim (Kashmir's Jammu region is majority Hindu, and its Ladakh region is majority Buddhist, so not all parts of Kashmir are covered by this argument). For a Pakistani, the Muslim-majority argument makes their country's case for Kashmir open-and-shut. The argument is often couched in terms of "self-determination for the Kashmiri people", but the fig leaf fools no one.

To an Indian immersed in the secularist ideal, this argument is not just patent nonsense, it's also dangerously sectarian and parochial. Being Muslim is no reason not to be Indian. And although a distant possibility, Kashmir could hypothetically be cited as an example by some future religion-based secessionist movement. India fears fissures in its harmonious diversity as much as Pakistan seems to fear diversity itself.

This is why I believe the Kashmir dispute can never be resolved. It is not a mere territorial dispute, but a clash of two irreconcilable ideologies. Hindus and Muslims can either live together in peace, or they cannot. The two cannot be true at the same time. Therefore, either India is right and Pakistan is wrong, or vice-versa.

It's easy to see that India can only win this argument through a demonstration of lasting peace and stability. Pakistan can only win this argument through a demonstration of strife - within secular, pluralist India. There is a compelling reason why Pakistan must support terrorism and insurgency in India, Kashmir or no Kashmir. Insecurity about their identity dictates that they prove the Two-Nation Theory correct, and if it means hell for India's Muslims, so be it.

The alternative is to admit to an identity that is essentially Indian, which implies pluralism. In other words, Pakistan would be a country that is secular like India, but which happens to have a Muslim majority just like India happens to have a Hindu majority. Clearly, this makes the Two Nation Theory look silly and calls into question the partition of undivided India. Therefore an Indian identity cannot be admitted to.

But if Pakistani civilisation cannot be Indian, what can it be?

There are two answers, both preposterous.

One is the transplantation of an Arab civilisational identity, which is patently false and easily disproved. Only those who fervently want to can believe this. If Pakistan was miraculously transplanted to the middle east and found itself surrounded by Arab countries, I suspect the Pakistanis would very quickly rediscover their South Asian identity (It would be too much to expect them to accept their Indian identity even with this shock!) So much for an Arab civilisational identity for Pakistan.

The other is the substitution of the term "Pakistan" for Muslim-ruled India in the treatment of history, as evidenced by Pakistani textbooks, taught not just in madrassas but in mainstream English-medium schools. ("Previously, India was part of Pakistan [...] By the 13th century, Pakistan had spread to include the whole of Northern India and Bengal…Under the Khiljis Pakistan moved further Southward to include a greater part of Central India and the Deccan".) This line of argument conflates a few centuries of Muslim rule in India with an Islamic identity for the civilisation as a whole, which is then called Pakistan. That which remains Hindu is called India. It is a comforting lie to the faithful, but a lie nevertheless.

India largely accepts its period of Mughal rule as part of its chequered history (with the exception of the Hindu right, who play into the hands of the Islamists by seeing this period as a national humiliation; their sense of shame from historical fact implicitly endorses the Two-Nation Theory.) The secureness of the majority of Indians in their pluralist identity manifests itself in their unqualified pride in the Taj Mahal, a masterpiece of Islamic architecture. This would not be the case if they (i.e., Hindu Indians) saw it as a symbol of their past subjugation by Muslim rulers. Most Indians, regardless of religion, would unhesitatingly name the Mughal emperor Akbar as one of the greatest rulers in Indian history, alongside Hindu kings such as Chandragupta Maurya, Ashoka and Harsha. Indians take pride in all of Indian history, with its various twists and turns. This richness of cultural interplay is denied to more staid monocultures. Contrast this attitude with the insecurity of Islamists like the Taliban, who felt compelled to destroy the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan.

Cultural insecurity is a trait common to all Islamists, but in Pakistan it acquires a special flavour, because a purist Islamic identity is an essential ideological bulwark, not against an external enemy, but against the fundamental pluralism of its own original civilisation that must be denied at all costs. This pluralistic ethos must be erased if the idea of Pakistan is to be preserved. As evidence, while any nation would celebrate its Nobel laureates, Pakistan is silent about the only one it has ever produced. That is because Dr. Abdus Salam belonged to the Ahmadi sect of Islam, and Pakistanis refuse to accept Ahmadis as Muslim. Such is their fear of difference.

The psyche that bedevils Pakistan with respect to India is a superiority/inferiority complex. It cannot be explained away by the simple "smaller country defeated by larger neighbour" syndrome. After all, India was defeated by China in 1962, and although Indians are wary of China, the predominant attitudes of India towards China are grudging respect and a desire to emulate China's progress. There seems to be no respect for India in Pakistan (whether grudging or not), no desire to emulate, only a sense of dismay.

This is the dismay arising from the sentiment that goes, "We regal Muslims ruled over these weak, cowardly Hindus for centuries, and now they're bigger, stronger and progressing faster ?!"

Forget the fact that India is not Hindu but secular. That is the lens through which Pakistan sees India, because that is the lens through which Pakistan wants to see itself. If Pakistan must be different, the difference must be between Muslim and Hindu. Secularism is confusing and perhaps even incredible.

Everything that Pakistan has done since its creation has arisen from this primal fear of India as the mirror of truth that will expose their invented identity. Bill Keller can seek the truth all he wants within Pakistan, from "the gated enclaves of Islamabad to the manicured lawns of the military garrison in Peshawar, from the luxury fortress of the Serena Hotel to the exclusive apartments of the parliamentary housing blocks", but he will not find it there.

India is where the truth lies, and India is the reason for Pakistan's perplexing and ultimately self-destructive behaviour. Cancer often springs from self-loathing. The internecine violence consuming Pakistan today can be traced back to the loathing of the image that Pakistan sees in the mirror that is India. India is everything that Pakistan could have been, but could never let itself be, because then there would be no reason for a separate existence. The truth is in this dilemma.

Ironically, the Pakistanis are right to fear India. But it is not the military might of the Indian nation-state that they need to fear, or even its growing economic muscle. The danger that Pakistan faces is the long-term threat to their national identity. In a hundred years, while the lumbering Indian civilisation will continue on like a juggernaut, Pakistani culture will have been swamped and their separate identity erased. Their people hum Bollywood songs today. Their descendants will call themselves Indian in a hundred years. Every invader since Alexander the Great has been absorbed, and this puny challenger will fare no better. That's what a civilisation can do to an ersatz nation-state. The phony sand castle built up in history textbooks cannot stand up to the relentless waves of an authentic civilisational identity that keep crashing upon it in an incessant reminder.

What can be done about Pakistan? This is not a prescription for US policy, for the US is a stranger to these civilisational battles. Indeed, the US is a newcomer in civilisational terms. They are only now building a civilisational identity for themselves that is distinct from the European one that they originated from, a new pluralistic identity that is powerful and authentic, but the exact contours of the American civilisation will only be recognisable a few centuries from now. It is simply not relevant in the South Asian region at this point in time.

For now, the Pakistanis must be encouraged, as gently as possible and as bluntly as necessary, to accept their insignificance before the Indian nation-state. That would be the first step towards realism. Pakistan is not a country that is half the size of India, or even a fourth. It is almost one-eighth the size of India by population and even smaller in economic terms. In hostility, Pakistan can pretend (at great cost) to a semblance of parity. In peace, they will be exposed for the pygmies they are. The attractions of continued hostility are therefore obvious. But this is no good for peace in the region and the wider world. That's why the illusion has to be broken.

In facing up to this bitter truth, and in accepting their long-term fate to be submerged once again within a pan-Indian civilisational identity (regardless of the contours of the nation-states that may make up South Asian geography), lies their salvation. They have nothing to lose but a fake identity, and everything to gain. But they need to take that step, if not by themselves, then from prodding by an increasingly impatient world. Long-term peace in the region can only then follow.

Sunday, 23 October 2011

A Label for the Rest of Us

Every revolution needs a handy slogan, whether it's "No Taxation Without Representation" or "Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité". The latest revolution, born of the economic crisis hitting the world, seems to be centred around the notion of "99%" to distinguish the rest of us from the "1%" to describe our oppressors. Now that we have our slogan, the 1% had better start shaking in their boots. The revolution is on.

The slogan of the Occupy Wall Street protesters was "We are the 99%". Now the respected Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz has further fuelled the collective ire in a hard-hitting article by identifying "the 1%" as the cause of all of America's troubles.

This in a country so scared of socialism that a presidential candidate got into trouble for wanting to "spread the wealth around". One could argue that the irrational fear of socialism is what has landed Americans in this mess where 99% of the population is worse off than before, and 1% is far better off. I think it's the misunderstanding of the term "free market". It isn't about laissez-faire, it's about keeping markets truly competitive. I don't believe it was capitalism that has brought the US and the rest of the world to this pass. I think it's crony capitalism as perfectly described in Stiglitz's article, which is a horse of a different colour.

Somewhere, the ghosts of both Karl Marx and Adam Smith are laughing.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Redundant Tautologies

One of the amusing aspects of being an ethnic immigrant in a Western country is encountering repetitive descriptions of things ethnic, mainly food items.

E.g., Chai tea (that's tea tea), naan bread (just naan will do nicely) and raita sauce (ditto).

This is a nice image I found on the web, by the way. I like the stylistic representation of the Bharatanatyam dancer. [And since 'naatyam' means dance, perhaps Bharatanatyam would be 'Bharatanatyam dance'.]

The Japanese might have a similar feeling about the 'Nashi pears' sold in the supermarket (I'm told 'nashi' means 'pear' in Japanese).

I recently came across the latest example of this on the supermarket shelf. Don't miss the handy pronunciation guide ("Arta").

Atta flour is used to make naan bread. Now how about that?

Thursday, 20 October 2011

The Influence of Mary Blair

Thanks to the Google Doodle, I came to understand that today is the 100th birthday of Mary Blair (1911-1978).

The Google Doodle for Friday 21 October, 2011

Illustrator Mary Blair

I had never even heard of Mary Blair before, but a quick Google Image Search of her work was astonishing. I realise I have virtually grown up seeing her style of illustration everywhere, thanks to Walt Disney. I guess when you grow up exposed to a certain style of art, it becomes so familiar that it never even registers at a conscious level. I never thought to wonder about the person behind these illustrations.

Uncle Remus was a cartoon I remember reading as a small child

Even her still life has the same "look-and-feel" to it

She apparently did commercial ads as well

I guess we either hear of "serious" artists or of cartoonists, but illustrators seem to be unsung heroes.

Fortunately, not everyone has been as ignorant of Mary Blair and her work. Mike R Baker is an illustrator who has consciously produced work in her style. He even has her initials.

A very Mary Blair-esque Goddess Kali by Mike Baker

Great Cartoon on Mumbai Security

So true!

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Now What Do They Have Against Liberia?

I had to laugh when I saw this photograph of Pakistani protesters burning what they obviously thought was the US flag.

Guys, this is the US flag:

This is the Liberian flag:

I don't think the Liberians did anything to deserve this.

Monday, 10 October 2011

The Etymology of a Name

I attended a technical talk today by a person with the unusual surname of Velummylum. Given that his first name (Piragash) sounded like the Tamil rendering of a Sanskrit word ("Prakash" - Light), I looked closer at the surname to see if that was a Tamil word as well.

Tamil has no simple conjunction word for "and". If you wanted to say, "The Ant and the Grasshopper", you would have to say, "Ant-um Grasshopper-um" (with the Tamil equivalents for Ant and Grasshopper substituted, of course).

So Velummylum on first analysis, seemed to be "Velum Mylum" (வேலும் மயிலும்), i.e., the Vel and the Myl. Now Vel (pronounced 'vale') means 'spear' in Tamil and Myl (pronounced 'mayil') means 'peacock'.

"The Spear and the Peacock" may still not mean much to a non-Tamil even when translated, but the symbolism is very clear to a Tamil. They are the symbols of Lord Murugan, the Tamil name for Kartikeya, the warlord god born to Shiva and Parvati to destroy the demon Tarakasura. The spear is his weapon, and the peacock is his mount or vehicle ("Vahana"). Every Hindu god or goddess seems to have a favourite weapon and a particular animal or bird as their mount.

I'm told there is a very famous devotional song "Velum Mayilum Thunai" (Succour of Spear and Peacock), an allegorical appeal to Lord Murugan's protection.

I thought I'd dig around the web for some nice pictures of Murugan. Here's a traditional one, the kind that I would see in shops and homes during my childhood holiday visits to Madurai, where my grandmother lived. The peacock holds down a serpent, symbolic of all kinds of evil in human nature, I guess.

This is the version by Raja Ravi Varma, the famous Indian artist who was influenced by the Dutch portraitist Theodor Jenson. [The fusion of classical Indian and Dutch Impressionist styles made Raja Ravi Varma one of India's greatest artists. As Aatish Taseer rightly observed in the novel "Stranger to History" that I reviewed, the world is richer in its hybrids.] This version shows Murugan in his six-headed form with two consorts and lots of different weapons. The serpent is bigger than before, but the peacock seems to have the situation under control.

Here's a more modern rendition that I really like. I couldn't tell who the artist was, but here's the site I got it from. They missed the serpent, though.

It's the story of my life. I set out to learn about technology, then get drawn into even more interesting research into linguistics, culture, religion and art!

Saturday, 8 October 2011

India's Strategic Aikido

Much analysis has gone into the announcement of the strategic deal between India and Afghanistan. Under this agreement, India will train Afghan security forces to be able to shoulder the responsibility of holding their country together after the withdrawal of Western forces in 2014.

Even though there is no proposal in this agreement to put Indian boots on the ground, most analysts warn that the aspiration is as hopeless as it is ambitious. There is a feeling that Pakistan holds all the cards and can very easily play the spoiler in Afghanistan. India's influence in that landlocked country is handicapped by geography to the same extent that Pakistan is advantaged by it. When push comes to shove, it seems apparent that India is headed for humiliation. The lessons of India's disastrous excursion into Sri Lanka in the early nineties also come to mind. This seems to be a bad idea, no matter who thought it up.

However, there is another way of looking at this. The New Delhi-Kabul axis is bound to whip Pakistan up into a frenzy, and that may be its very intent among the policymakers in South Block. This could do to Pakistan what Ronald Reagan's SDI ("Star Wars") did to the Soviet Union - push it over the brink into bankruptcy by raising the costs of keeping up.

India can afford an arms race. Pakistan can't. Pakistan's traditional donor of military aid, the US, is increasingly reluctant to supply arms, partly out of pique at the duplicitous role of the Pakistani military, but also partly out of the forced frugality of its own internal financial crisis. The Chinese are vocal supporters of Pakistan, but have been pointedly reticent about opening their wallets to actually help. As for the Saudis, they would probably lean towards India in a conflict, as their behaviour during the Kargil war could attest. They do far more business with India than with Pakistan, and money talks. And that about exhausts Pakistan's list of friends.

Aikido is the art of turning one's opponent's momentum against himself with a minimum of effort and no physical contact. By the mere announcement of the agreement with Afghanistan, India has ensured that Pakistan will devote even more frenzied energy into shaping Afghanistan to its own liking, a diversion of resources that it can ill afford at this point in its history. Pakistan has never been economically weaker. Its GDP growth rate last year was an anaemic 2.5%, when it needs 4% to even stay in the same place. Power shutdowns ("load shedding") are a feature of daily life, not because of increasing demand as in India, but because of decreasing supply. Power, or the loss of it, is an economic multiplier, and this does not bode well for Pakistan's GDP growth next year and the year after. Even without an exhausting military race, the Pakistanis are inexorably bankrupting themselves.

There probably is some even greater wisdom in the Indian strategy, because India is also simultaneously holding trade talks with Pakistan to eventually move towards a free trade agreement. That would of course benefit both countries, but it will benefit the weaker economy much more, since the savings would be all the more precious.

In other words, there is a carrot and a stick for Pakistan in the Indian strategy. An adversarial attitude towards India will hasten the onset of bankruptcy and the chaos that will ensue. A thawing of hostility can conversely ease the pain and gradually lead to a return to normalcy and eventual prosperity. The choice is entirely Pakistan's to make. But the path to redemption will require submission to the idea of India's superiority, a swallowing of pride that the Pakistani establishment has never been willing to accept.

They may have no choice. The reality they face is harsh and uncompromising. Pakistan's quest for strategic parity with India was always an unachievable dream. A country with just a seventh of another's population can never aspire to anything resembling parity. It may seem unjust, but India will always dominate South Asia on account of its inherent advantage of relative size. The pygmies (and yes, Pakistan is among them) may understandably chafe at it, but all the rest have come to terms with it. Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and even Burma and Afghanistan further afield, are realising the benefits of warming to an economically resurgent India. [One only hopes that India will resist the tendency to arrogance and hubris, and maintain a "light touch" in its dealings with its neighbours, because India's greatest potential enemy is India itself.]

The economic carrot and stick may be just the tactic required to get Pakistan to accept the reality of its situation. With some deft footwork, India can get Pakistan to lurch to where it wants it. Like with the five stages of grief, Pakistan for its own sake needs to arrive at an acceptance, however bitter, of India's dominance in every sphere. Otherwise, survival itself will become a problem.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Terror Takes Two To Tango

I have no sympathy for terrorists. In fact, as an Indian, I consider Americans to be johnny-come-latelies to the anti-terrorism party. We in India knew of terror first-hand decades before 9/11, so it's amusing at one level to see how quickly Americans developed a sense of outrage at terrorism once it started to be directed at them. Till that point, Indians were being lectured on patience and restraint, and told to sit down and talk to the sponsors of terror to "resolve differences".

Yeah, we did see a lot of sitting down and talking between the US and Al Qaeda right after 9/11, didn't we?

In fact, after 9/11, we began to hear new vocabulary and new concepts. It was OK to detain people without trial because they were "enemy combatants". Er, wasn't there something called the Geneva Convention that specifically addressed the rights of enemy combatants? No worries there, no less a person than the US Vice-President (Dick Cheney) informed us that waterboarding was not torture. And if you were talking about real torture, that was called "enhanced interrogation" and outsourced to authoritarian allies like Hosni Mubarak's Egypt, because that wasn't something the US did. But then Abu Ghraib entered our vocabulary as well, letting us know exactly how the US itself treated its prisoners. The name didn't quite rhyme with My Lai, but there was a definite resonance.

This week, it appears American hypocrisy has reached new levels.

The radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki has been killed, and it appears that a Justice Department memo authorised his killing. We don't know for sure that Anwar al-Awlaki actually plotted any terror attacks, because State Secrets privilege was reportedly used to keep all discussion of his targetting out of the courts and out of the public eye. Sure, he preached hatred and terror, but one could argue that as an American citizen (he was born in the US) he was just exercising his First Amendment right to free speech. Hate speech is actually protected in the US, as Neo-Nazis are smugly aware.

So how is the Justice Department memo any different from a fatwa, and how is this killing any different from an assassination?

Again, let me repeat that I have no sympathy for a jihadist, because my country of birth has suffered from the effects of a jihadist philosophy from the eleventh century. I'm just pointing out that Western countries lecture others on human rights, the rule of law and due process, so what's happening here? I guess it all just means that when the chips are down, all pretence of being civilised is discarded, and it's the law of the jungle once more.

What a bunch of creeps all around, eh?

However, as they say, the wheels of God grind slow, but they grind exceedingly fine.

Now the news every day revolves around how the US is slowly turning on a country that it more and more reluctantly refers to as an ally. Call it nemesis or call it karma, decades of terror directed at India are finally receiving payback from another direction, and that's usually the way things work in this world.

And so, while the US and Pakistan are circling each other, snarling and spitting, Indians are minding their business with a studied indifference, biting their lips hard to suppress a grin. Don't look now, but doesn't that couple look absolutely made for each other?

That's some memo from that Justice Department in the sky!

Friday, 30 September 2011

New Thinking in Australia - The Asian Century

In a recognition that the Asian Century is upon us, the Australian government has commissioned a policy white paper on the place of Australia in the new Asia.

Let's not be distracted by GFC II or any short-term economic crisis sweeping the world. Over the medium to long term, there is going to be a massive shift in the make-up of the world, from being mostly poor to being mostly middle-class. (Whoopee!)

What's interesting is that the bulk of this middle-class will be from Asia. [What's also interesting is that while the aggregate spending of this Asian middle class will be huge, an individual family will still be highly budget-conscious, because they still won't be as well-off as a Western middle-class family. That calls for a very different product and marketing strategy to sell into this market.]

The rise of Asia is therefore a significant shift in the world's centre of gravity, and Australia would be wise to plan for it. This is in fact a welcome development for Australia, since the historical "tyranny of distance" that the country has suffered from has now been replaced by the "advantage of adjacency", as the Economist puts it. Australia is now closer to the action than any other Western country and should take full advantage of it. Given that Australians still don't have a high awareness of Asian societies, how they work and how to work with them, perhaps the white paper will spur the necessary investments in education and the like to better gear up the country.

The related controversy is around the notion of "Big Australia" (i.e., should Australia aim for a population significantly above its current 20 million?) and immigration policy. The relative advantages of size versus sustainability will be fought over for a few years at least. Regardless of which side is "right", it's important that Australia begin to have this debate. The stakes are high and the potential payoffs enormous.

I like it when debates are about planning for prosperity rather than about problems.

Learning a Different Language

They say learning a different language, especially in one's fifties, keeps the brain nimble and may prevent the onset of Alzheimer's and other conditions. They also say one should try and learn a language whose script, vocabulary, grammar, etc., are very different from one's own. The logic being that learning similar languages will simply reuse old neural pathways in the brain and not create new ones. That's why many Westerners have favoured learning Japanese. It has until recently been the most "useful" non-Western language. Perhaps Mandarin will overtake Japanese soon in this department.

And this is an entirely unscientific assertion, but perhaps this is why I had never heard of Alzheimer's while in India. Everybody there is at least bilingual. And if an Indian knew English, Hindi and a South Indian language, they would know languages from three linguistic families with completely different morphology and syntax.

I was reminded of all this when I saw an out-of-office autoreply from a person on one of the mailing lists I'm subscribed to. This is in French, and I did attend a semester of French at college, but I would think any English speaker could decipher this using the "neural pathways" they already have:

et merci de votre message.

Je suis absent du bureau avec peu de d'accès à ma messagerie.

Je prendrai connaissance de votre message à mon retour dès le 10 octobre.
En cas d'urgence, vous pouvez contacter M. _____ ( email address ).

Bien à vous

A few familiar words (if spelt slightly differently) and a well-understood context, and the message becomes completely comprehensible. Even the "Bien à vous" sign-off seems to translate to the Aussie "Good on ya" (though it probably doesn't mean the same thing!)

As Mr Spock would say, fascinating.

Germany's Sacrifice to Save Europe

Belated war reparations!

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Autism and the Engineer's Brain

The August 29, 2011 issue of Time magazine had an article "Could new marriage patterns explain autism?" I was intrigued, and read it with interest. The full article is only available to subscribers, but a summary can be found here.

The theory is that a certain type of autism (i.e., Asperger's syndrome) is remarkably similar to the normal functioning of an engineer's brain. Quite aside from the ribbing that engineers are likely to receive from their spouses and others thanks to this theory, there is a serious implication to this.

In the late 1990s, [researcher Simon Baron-Cohen had] come to believe that a common cognitive profile — a tendency toward what he called systemizing (focusing on systems and how they work), combined with noted deficits in empathy, or the ability to read and relate to others — existed both in people with autism and, to a much lesser extent, in many of their relatives. He'd begun to theorize that this sort of brain type would be common in any population that brought people with very strong math, science and tech skills to cluster together — and to think that if these high systemizers were choosing one another as mates, they might be particularly likely to have autistic children.

The article goes on to describe research from the Netherlands, where a survey of schoolchildren from three similar regions (i.e., similar by area and socioeconomic profile) - Eindhoven, Haarlem and Utrecht - showed that two to four times as many children in Eindhoven had been diagnosed with autism compared to the other two regions. Eindhoven is known as the Dutch Silicon Valley and has a higher concentration of IT workers and engineers compared to the others.

The article also says the change in marriage patterns (i.e., more marriages between engineer types) does not adequately account for the rise in cases of autism, so one shouldn't rush to conclusions here. However, this could be one of the factors responsible.

The article prompted me to think about myself anew. I'm comfortable with the way I think, because that has always been me, but the article was a bit of a jolt. Did I have a brain that was "normal" for an engineer but also autistic to some degree? The prospect was a bit chilling, because it implied that had I married another engineer, our children, with reinforcing traits from both parents, could very likely have been autistic. As it happened, my wife turned out to be an accountant with a brain that functions (exasperatingly to me) totally unlike that of an engineer! Our son was assessed as moderately gifted but not autistic. Of course, I also derive lots of pleasure from interacting with people, so perhaps I myself have balancing traits. I believe this is referred to in the literature as a "strong female brain" (though why they don't call it a "sensitive male brain" is beyond me).

I began to see myself a bit differently after reading that article. For instance, I have always had a breakfast of eggs and toast in the same way for many years (the routine is itself a telltale sign, I guess). I watched myself recently as an impartial observer as I went about fixing this breakfast, and I realised that "normal" people would go about it very differently. The many steps along the way are probably undertaken unthinkingly by normal people, but to me, they represented problems that had certain solutions that were superior to others. I had to find the "best" solution to each of these problems before I could have a satisfactory breakfast.

Here are three of the "problems" I identified when fixing myself a breakfast of fried eggs on toast. I wonder how many people can identify with this kind of thinking.

Problem 1: How to take two eggs out of a box of twelve

To most people, this is not a "problem". Just take any two eggs out of it and put the box back in the fridge! But this was a serious issue to me. I thought about it in many ways before arriving at the "correct" solution. If someone else takes eggs out of the box anytime in-between, I have to rearrange them to get them back to a "correct" configuration, and I absolutely hate it if an odd number of eggs is left in the box.

Problem 2: How to place a fried egg on a slice of bread

This is a fiendish problem! There is no clean way to place something circular (infuriatingly, not perfectly circular!) onto something square without bits sticking out. But I did find a solution to that, too.

Problem 3: How to apply ketchup to a sandwich

After getting the eggs out of the box correctly and placing the fried egg on the bread equally elegantly, it's time to add ketchup. This is another hard problem, and the many solutions I tried were all unsatisfactory. Finally, I hit upon one. This is not symmetrical (which bugs me a little), but it has characteristics of uniformity on average. I'm pragmatic enough to settle for a "good enough" solution.

This is what I have been doing for years, and this is perfectly natural to me. I solved all of these problems years ago and I enjoy the satisfaction of an elegantly and "correctly" prepared breakfast every morning.

But then I read the article on autism and saw myself doing all this, and I thought to myself, "!"

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Badlega Bharat (India Will Change)

Renaissance and Reformation. Glasnost and Perestroika. Someday someone will come up with the pair of words that will best describe the twin revolutions sweeping India today.

The liberalisation story came first. Unshackling India's economy from years of socialist low growth was the start of the first revolution. So much so that "10% growth" has become the dream that inspires politician and public alike. Rival parties, normally quick to undo each other's initiatives on coming to power, now build on each other's work. Tamil Nadu's DMK and AIADMK parties and the unbroken industrialisation of the state (in spite of repeated changes in the ruling party) are a case in point. Somewhere along the way, a miracle has happened. Politicians are beginning to put the interests of their states ahead of petty political point scoring. The dream - that India can and will be an economic power - has ignited the collective imagination. Ten percent growth, year on year, will transform the country in half a generation. The BJP's "India Shining" was not the catchphrase of the revolution after all. "Ten percent growth" is.

Which brings us to the other thing that the term "ten percent" often connotes - corruption. Regardless of the merits and demerits of the rival Lokpal (public ombudsman) Bills, the tactics used by agitators to negotiate with the government, etc., one fact remains. Indians are fed up with corruption and are becoming increasingly vocal about it. Politicians are being put on notice that helping themselves from the public coffers will not be tolerated. Petty bureaucrats are now warned that demands for bribes will not go unpunished. Is this a false dawn? Time will tell. But the catchphrase "Badlega Bharat" (India will Change) is as powerful as the vision of 10% growth. It is a warning to the powerful and the corrupt. You have taken India for granted so far, but India will change, tomorrow's India will be different...

I think it was Gurcharan Das who said that corruption drastically reduces when more than half the population becomes middle class. The poor are corruptible and the rich can corrupt, but the middle class neither needs special favours nor is readily bribed. The anti-corruption agitation is a sign of India's growing middle class. That's why the oft-heard dismissal of Anna Hazare's anti-corruption crusade as "just a middle class phenomenon" misses the point entirely. Of course it's a middle-class phenomenon! Since the middle class will keep growing, the pressure on the corrupt will only increase. Regardless of the fate of the Lokpal Bill, corruption in the polity must decrease. It's a law of nature.

I foresee at least one juicy outcome in the near future. The government of India will be forced by public pressure to officially demand a list of Indian holders of Swiss bank accounts. It will be doubly entertaining to watch the proceedings, because many of these account holders are top functionaries of the Indian government, and they will resort to every legal (and illegal) contortion to avoid making that demand of the Swiss. But the truth will eventually be dragged out, and I suspect Indian politics will never be the same again. Of course, rumours are that Indians are moving their money from Swiss banks to banks in Mauritius, Dubai and Singapore, and the dance will no doubt continue. But at least the crooks are on the run now.

Imagine the elimination of corruption (or at least its drastic reduction) and a growth rate of 10% a year. India will be an unstoppable force. The country appears perpetually unstable and ungovernable (Galbraith's "functioning anarchy"), but as Shashi Tharoor put it so eloquently, Indians have evolved a consensus on how to manage without consensus, and the current social revolution is just the latest manifestation of that. 'Tis a perfect storm that blows a world of good.

[Update 28/08/2011: Anna wins]

Friday, 12 August 2011

A Few More Photos of Colombo

Now this is rush hour in Colombo (Thursday evening, 1730).

And this.

The reach of Bollywood celebrities - Aamir Khan sells mobiles here. (A passerby stared curiously at me, wondering what the heck I saw worth clicking in a roadside poster.)

And Aamir Khan isn't the only one. Priyanka Chopra and Shilpa Shetty stared haughtily down at me from the cosmetics aisle of the Arpico supermarket.

I snagged my bag on a protruding screw inside this autorickshaw. I realised that this sort of workmanship is perfectly acceptable in India and Sri Lanka, but Australians would probably make an OH&S (Occupational Health and Safety) issue out of it.

There's a beautiful Buddha shrine on my street (Park Street), just a couple of minutes' walk from the hotel.

I murmured a 'thank you' to him. This trip has been pure magic.

Monday, 8 August 2011

Reflections on Culture and Tradition

I had a powerful experience yesterday when shopping at the Arpico supermarket in Colombo. The counter clerk was a friendly and smart-looking youth. When I handed him my credit card, he took it with his right hand, and with his left hand holding his right elbow. The gesture brought back memories and feelings in a rush.

In 2000, when I applied for Australian citizenship, I was surprised when the Australian immigration officer (a Caucasian) took my passport with both hands. This is, of course, the (East) Asian way of showing respect. I guess he had been trained to be culturally sensitive because of the large number of East Asians applying for Australian citizenship. Although I immediately recognised the gesture as one of respect, I was not emotionally touched by it. However, when the youth at Arpico took my card in the respectful Tamil style, it touched and moved me, and this is why.

When taken to visit temples as a child, I was taught to throw flowers on the idol in an underarm movement using my right hand, with my left hand holding my right elbow. I don't know if this is prevalent in the rest of India or even in the rest of South India, but it is definitely part of Tamil culture. The left hand is considered unclean and must never be proffered to others, either to give or to receive anything. Only the right hand may be used in any transaction. This much is common to all of India. When great respect is to be shown, as when showering the idol of a deity with flowers, the left hand must support the right at the elbow. I believe this is a uniquely Tamil gesture.

The incident made me think a lot about my life, especially my ideological choices. In my late teens, when reading about communal riots and killings in the papers, I determined that religion was evil and nothing but superstition that led men astray. I was also studying engineering at the time, and I believed that science and reason were the answer. I guess I still do.

That started me on my journey of conscious agnosticism. I never became a communist, like many other idealistic students, but I did try to be a practising agnostic. This meant consciously violating rules that had been taught to me as part of my culture if they made no sense. I would whistle after sunset, I would ask people where they were going as they were leaving, I would openly blaspheme. (In later years, I would mock my wife for murmuring prayers in Sanskrit, "a language neither she nor God understood.") I inured myself to stepping on paper without flinching, and to moving books aside with my feet, conscious acts to defy Goddess Saraswathi's certain wrath. The heavens never opened to strike me dead, and I have remained an agnostic with a healthy aversion to organised religion. I even composed a couplet to summarise my philosophy:

There may or may not be a God
But religion is a fraud

It has been decades since I even thought about the respectful supported-elbow gesture, and the fact that a young man half my age, from my own culture, in another country, was keeping the tradition alive - no, living the tradition - made me think for a long time.

I have forged a powerful identity for myself by defining what I stand for and stand against, and this has made me what I am. Still, I found myself asking, have I gained or have I lost?

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Evening Walk in Downtown Colombo

The evening was cooler and a lot less sultry, so it was quite pleasant to walk. By the way, this is the sign at the end of my street. The Sri Lankans seem to have mastered the Three Language Formula :-).

I went to a nearby KFC where I found to my pleasant surprise that veggie burgers were available. KFC in Australia doesn't serve veggie burgers but KFC in Dubai did when I was there in 1995-98. It says something about demographics and consumer demand, but I'm not sure what. The burger cost LKR 255, and the counter guy asked if I wanted cheese. I said yes, and the price then came to LKR 285. The burger was only half the size of the Hungry Jack's veggie burger in Sydney, so the PPP equation really holds. For the price of a single veggie burger in Sydney, you can get two half-size ones in Colombo. Hats off to The Economist!

I've been seeing another amusing sight on the roads - buses with the name "Lanka Ashok Leyland" on them. This is amusing because I grew up seeing "Ashok Leyland" buses in India, and I learnt only much later that this was a joint undertaking between Ashok Motors and British Leyland. Now as the model has travelled further, the name has been further localised by prefixing "Lanka" to it.

Looks like the long arm of the Internet equalises the whole world. Google, Yahoo!, Facebook, they're everywhere!

A petrol bunk. Nothing special about it. It's just slightly different from anything I've seen before.

This sign caught my attention for a reason. Long ago, when on a tourist bus in Singapore with my parents, my father pointed to a sign on a ministry building and remarked about the difference between the Tamil word for "ministry" as used in Singapore and in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. It was spelt "Amaichchu" (அமைச்சு) in Singaporean Tamil, while in Tamil Nadu, the word is "Amaichchagam" (அமைச்சகம், with the 'g' pronounced almost like 'h'). It was interesting to see from the sign below that Sri Lankan Tamil also has it as "Amaichchu". When it comes to Tamil usage, is the mother country out of step? I wonder how Malaysian Tamils spell the word.

Bollywood-style film posters in Sri Lanka! I love these familiar-yet-different experiences. It turns out this is a hit movie (Mahindagamanaya).

Then I went back to Arpico (the supermarket) for some shopping. I bought some tea for my relatives in India when I go there next week. It was at the shopping centre that I saw my first Buddhist monk in the flesh! He was in brick red robes and was probably doing some shopping himself. I saw another person approach him and bow to him, and I heard the monk say something with the word "Deerghaayu" (Sanskrit for "long life") in it. I love it when I can pierce the veil of another culture, even if only for a moment, and understand what's happening. I'm also grateful that through spending my formative years in India, I've been able to pick up so much linguistic and cultural background without conscious effort. I'm sure if I go to Pakistan, all the conscious and unconscious Hindi/Urdu learning will similarly pay off. I remember reading the phrase "India's cultural penumbra" in some article somewhere that talked about the entire region from Africa to Southeast Asia. It's at moments like this that its meaning comes home to me with full force.

I also bought a T-shirt at Arpico because I found it very interesting. It's part of a series of artifacts labelled "Mother Sri Lanka" (like "Mera Bharat Mahaan", I guess). What I thought was clever was the way they spelt the three words in the three languages of the country - English, Tamil and Sinhalese. In fact, it was the red Tamil "Shree" that first caught my eye.

"Help spread the message of pride and honour of a great nation by purchasing this product."


Lunchtime Walk in Downtown Colombo

I took a walk around noon to see some sights. It was hot and muggy. I think it must have rained recently.

There were soldiers standing outside my hotel and I saw them wave down an autorickshaw and ask the passenger some questions, but they took no notice of me. It was a reminder that this is a nation that has very recently emerged from a civil war and the constant threat of terrorist violence.

My driver of last night had recommended a small restaurant near my hotel, so I walked there.

The Sri Krishna Villas (double L!) is a fairly downmarket Tamil restaurant, but like a western tourist, I was interested in an "authentic cultural experience" complete with cuisine. I ordered a standard meal plate. There was no spoon provided, so I washed my hands and went for it. I don't eat with my fingers even at home, so this would have been amusing to my family :-). Surprisingly, there was no yoghurt or buttermilk to have as the last rice course, but there was a sweet dish. The bill came to LKR 115, perhaps AUD 2.30 in PPP terms. Cheap at the price, but it wasn't a great meal all told, and I probably won't go there again.

It was fairly hot and uncomfortable to walk in the sun, but I wanted to buy a street map of Colombo. Again, surprisingly, this proved very hard to do. I was directed from place to place, but no one seemed to have street maps. The last place I visited was a supermarket (Arpico), which seemed very like a supermarket in India. There were guards milling around the supermarket, so I didn't dare take any pictures.

Some street scenes were amusing, and I snapped them. I find it surreal when things are familiar yet different, like my trip to Mauritius in 1991.

The Sinhalese script looks hauntingly familiar, like I should know it. It looks South Indian (although I'm told Sinhalese is related to Oriya rather than to any of the South Indian languages), but I can't read it for the life of me, though I can read two South Indian scripts (Kannada and Tamil) and sort of decipher a third (Telugu).

There are autorickshaws on the streets, just like in India, and they're made by Bajaj too. People refer to them as tuk-tuks, but then the driver of a passing tuk-tuk called out to me, "Auto?", just like in India.

I thought this poster ad for a DVD was interesting.

This is a nice banyan tree at one end of Park Street, where my hotel is.

This is the entrance to Park Street hotel.

The hotel has a colonial style. I think I can understand why the British colonised our countries in the first place ;-).

And this is my room. Ver-ry nice.

Saturday, 6 August 2011

Sri Lanka - First Impressions

I'm in Sri Lanka, on a trip combining business with pleasure. Here are some initial impressions.

When departing Sydney for Colombo (via Singapore), I was struck by two curious facts. One, no currency exchange counter had Sri Lankan rupees. Two, neither of the two bookstores I saw in the airport had travel guides on Sri Lanka. Mind you, there are travel guides for virtually every country from Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe and even for cities (San Francisco, for example), but the omission of an entire country was very strange. I put these down to the fact that Sri Lanka is only just emerging as a travel destination after decades of civil war. Let's see how things look next year.

[I did manage to find a travel guide for Sri Lanka at Singapore airport, but the currency exchange counters there had no Sri Lankan rupees either. I had to wait till I reached Colombo for that.]

Coming to currency exchange, an Australian dollar (AUD) trades for about 110 Sri Lankan rupees (LKR), but that still gave me no indication of what I could consider cheap or expensive by local standards. [1 AUD is currently 46 INR (Indian rupees).] Remembering the informal Purchasing Power Parity calculator of The Economist, I asked the driver of the airport pickup car about the price of a burger at McDonalds. He said it was between LKR 250 and 300. A burger in Sydney costs between AUD 5 and 6, so that's a factor of 50. Taking the official exchange rate into account, it means one can buy two burgers in Colombo for the price of one in Sydney. In other words, I should expect things to be half as expensive in Colombo when I convert their prices to Australian dollars.

Cultural curiosities: As an Indian emigré in Australia, I'm gifted with two lenses with which to see the world. My first impression of the streets of Colombo (at least at midnight, which is when I was driven from the airport to the hotel) was that they were definitely not of First World standards, but seemed far cleaner and in better condition than roads in many Indian cities. (Having said that, the roads in Chennai have been getting better the last few times I was there.)

We were averaging 80 kmph, but my driver Harish (short for Harishchandran), said it was impossible to do more than 25 kmph during rush hour.

Harish, as it turned out, was a Tamil, but after an initial attempt to converse with me in Tamil, he decided it was better to fall back to English! I realised the truth of George Bernard Shaw's comment about England and America. Indian Tamils and Sri Lankan Tamils are two people separated by the same language!

Three are huge Buddha statues at prominent roundabouts in the city, which I have never seen anywhere else. The airport also featured sayings and slogans based on Buddhism, and I realised I have never before been to a Buddhist country. [India is culturally diverse but overwhelmingly Hindu, Australia is similarly diverse but predominantly Christian, and even relatively cosmopolitan Dubai is unmistakeably Muslim.]

Talking of Muslim, I saw many groups of young men playing cricket on the main roads at one o'clock in the morning! Harish explained that these were Muslims, and since the month was Ramadan, they were enjoying life at night (when there were no fasting restrictions). The next day was a Sunday as well, so it was Saturday Night Fever for these youths.

The next few posts will have more of my impressions as I see more of Colombo.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Perverse in Verse

He talks animatedly as he walks,
But there's no one near.

I glimpse a fang above his jawline.
Is he grinning from ear to ear?

Is he a raving lunatic?
My mind begins to fear.

Well, I'm relieved to tell you no.
That's his bluetooth headgear.

(I've been having fun with my LG Optimus One Android phone and BluAnt Q2 headset, hence the inspiration.)

Saturday, 5 March 2011

Vandalism of Mailboxes on our Street

Some examples of what dissolute youth will do after a drinking binge:

Mailbox ripped from its moorings...

...deposited in front of another house...

...and puked in.

I've documented this on Google MyMaps for good measure.