Monday, 25 February 2013

No Oscar For Pistorius

Here's a poem I wrote on a whim. Of course, the matter is sub judice and every suspect should be presumed innocent until proven guilty. With that caveat...

Oscar Pistorius
Was famously victorious
In more than one field of endeavour.
Far from being bloodied,
He outraced the able-bodied,
And bowled a fair maiden over.

But the boy who was limpin'
Then became a paralympian
Raced to his own ignominy.
Whispers of domestic violence
And a girl explosively silenced
Suggested possible misogyny.

Gunshots saw him dart
With an explosive start
To reach medal-winning glory.
But an explosive temper
And four gunshots to remember
Ended the dream story.

Initially denied bail,
And sent straight to jail,
They thought he'd do a runner.
(Thought he'd cut and run;
What an unintentional pun
On the name Blade Runner!)

Tearful and serious
He told a likely storius
Of taking his girlfriend for a burglar.
To escape a conviction,
He emoted with conviction.
Pity there's no Oscar for Oscar!

Carl, Oscar's elder brother
Is no less a lady-killer.
He ran over a woman with his car.
It "runs" in their family
Running over, or running simply,
And they share the letters C-A-R.

A boy who is lame
Can light an Olympic flame
And sing the body prosthetic.
But when a story lacks legs
The question it begs
Is how lame is this story synthetic?

For carjacking and vengeance
And anti-women violence
Is South Africa notorious.
What this springbok sayeth
Requires a leap of faith
Because it's highly piscatorious.

Friday, 22 February 2013

A Mythbusters-Style Assault On A Battery

A few days ago, I came across an amazing video on YouTube that revealed a little-known secret. Standard AA batteries cost about $5 for a pack of 4, but a 6V lantern battery costing $6-$7 can be broken to reveal 32 AA batteries packed inside! That's a saving of more than $30, or a discount of about 80%...

If Wall Street had been able to exercise such arbitrage, the Global Financial Crisis would have knocked us back to the Stone Age

Intrigued, I decided to check if this was true.

I bought one of those 6V batteries from Woolworths and subjected it to the same reverse-engineering exercise. 

Well, surprise!

It actually had four very non-standard cells inside which I can't really use anywhere else. A shame about the waste, but at least I gained a bit of knowledge for my $6.

Makes one feel a little silly, but anything in the cause of science ;-)

So I guess it all depends on the brand. Some manufacturers seem to use shortcuts that then expose them to the kind of arbitrage that the YouTube video suggests, and others don't.

Thursday, 21 February 2013

Binding Up A Nation's Wounds - What Sri Lanka Should Learn From Lincoln

This last week has seen new and dramatic evidence of war crimes that occurred towards the end of the 30-year Sri Lankan civil war, but the more dangerous and disturbing problem for the country is the rise of a culture of triumphalism. It signals that the country's government, army and sections of its society have learnt nothing from its long and debilitating internal conflict, and we are witnessing a return to the attitudes that led to that war in the first place. If measured by its potential impact on the country's fortunes, such stupidity is positively treasonous.

Who could have imagined that Buddhists could be violent?

The LTTE was a terror outfit that had to be crushed, but with the luxury of peace, the root cause behind the rise of such an outfit (i.e., the calculated disenfranchisement of the Tamil minority) deserves to be investigated and addressed. That is the only way for the country to move on rather than set in motion a fresh cycle of injustice, resentment and conflict.

When Singapore became independent in 1965, about 20 years after many other former European colonies, its leaders had the great advantage of observing which of their predecessors failed and why. Lee Kuan Yew explicitly mentions Sri Lanka as one of those that served as a warning to the fledgling nation of Singapore. 

[...] the advantage we had was that we became independent late. In 1965, we had 20 years of examples of failed states. So, we knew what to avoid - racial conflict, linguistic strife, religious conflict. We saw Ceylon.
Had we chosen Chinese, which was our majority language, we would have perished, economically and politically. [...] Riots - we've seen Sri Lanka, when they switched from English to Sinhala and disenfranchised the Tamils and so strife ever after. We chose - we didn't say it was our national language - we said it was our working language, that everybody learns English whatever language medium school you go to. Which means nobody needs interpretation to read English.

Even after a crippling war, Sri Lanka is fortunate enough to remain the best-positioned country in South Asia to become the next Singapore. But that entails learning lessons from its past self-destructive policies and taking steps to ensure that such conflict is never again allowed to come in the way of its citizens' progress. Disappointingly, this kind of mature soul-searching doesn't seem to be happening in the public sphere except for a few lone voices here and there.

I am by no means an expert on Sri Lanka, its culture, history or politics. I have visited the capital, Colombo (and was vastly impressed, by the way). In some ways, my Indian background gives me a unique window into this neighbouring country, and in other ways, it may actually hamper my understanding. I'm aware of these limitations. Yet this is what I see.

1. Sri Lanka has not treated its Tamil citizens as equals, and today, with the Tamil independence movement crushed, the temptation to ignore even the legitimate demands of the Tamils seems to have won out. Now a new front seems to have opened up between the Sinhalese Buddhist majority and the Muslim minority. Regardless of who started this latest round of confrontation, it shows that the seeds of internal strife continue to be sown, and that the popular leaders and groups of the majority community are not taking the long view or a statesmanlike pro-national position but are reverting to narrow identity politics. An important lesson of history, as Lee's Singapore was quick to learn, is that a society must carry its minorities along as equal citizens if the country is to be peaceful and prosperous. At the very least, it must avoid actively alienating its minorities. 

2. Organised religions have a lot of power over the minds of people who do not rely on reason and empathy to provide their moral compass. Allowing the clergy to influence politics is a really bad idea. Saudi Arabia and Iran stand as stark warnings to the world. It is difficult to imagine such a phenomenon occurring in a democratic country, or with a religion like Buddhism (which is generally considered peaceful), but the world is full of surprises. It would appear that Sri Lanka's monks are Buddhist only in name. They seem to be little better than militants in pious robes. As far back as 1959, prime minister Solomon Bandaranaike was assassinated by a Buddhist monk who carried a revolver hidden in his yellow robes. So much for being an exemplar of non-violence. The influence of the clergy on the Sinhalese Buddhist electorate, and through them, on elected governments, is a chilling confirmation of Ayn Rand's warning that democracy is nothing but mob rule that threatens the rights of individuals. The important lesson from history, as Western nations learnt over a period of 500 bloody years, is that religion, when taken out of the purely personal sphere, becomes a political philosophy as ruthless as any other. Church and state must stay in their separate spheres.

3. I have a deep and abiding suspicion of men in uniform. Give a man a uniform and a gun, wrap him up in the national flag so no "patriot" dares to criticise him, exonerate him from all accountability, and watch the human rights abuses begin. This is nothing specific to Sri Lanka. Virtually every army in history has been guilty of it. In spite of the tight clamp that exists on the media in conflict areas (often augmented by willing self-censorship), stories do get out. We do hear of My Lai and Abu Ghraib, and (thanks to Wikileaks) of the Apache helicopter shooting of civilians in Iraq. We do hear about the Indian army and paramilitary forces, protected by the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, and the things they have been up to in Kashmir, Manipur, and the Naxalite belt. We do hear about Pakistan's Frontier Corps and what is happening in Balochistan. So the photographic evidence of the Sri Lankan army killing a 12-year old boy in cold blood is shocking, but in a larger sense not really surprising. This is exactly what armed men with no accountability tend to do. The lesson is that we must insist on accountability from our armed forces, and treat accusations of rights violations as true unless proven otherwise. When the onus of establishing innocence falls on the generals, transparency will follow. Otherwise, with soldiers like these, who needs terrorists?

One of the things I was struck by when watching Steven Spielberg's "Abraham Lincoln" a few days ago was Lincoln's attitude to the South after the war was won. Southerners were not treated as a conquered people. There were no treason trials of former confederate leaders and no mass executions. In one of the final scenes of the movie, he tells General Ulysses Grant that since the war is now over, there should be "no more corpses".

Lincoln's second inaugural address is world-famous, especially this part:

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

Lincoln's assassination robbed the South of a friend, and his successors were perhaps not as generous in their treatment of the South as Lincoln might have been, and Southern resentment lingers on, even to this day.

It should be clear by now that any nation coming out of civil war needs healing, which only a wise leadership can provide.

The American Civil War lasted just 4 years. The warring factions were virtually identical on racial, religious and linguistic grounds, and the only differences between them were cultural and ideological. Even a rift as narrow as this has not yet fully healed.

US civil war soldiers - virtually identical but for ideology

Sri Lanka has endured a generation of civil war, and there are deep ethnic, religious and linguistic divisions between the victorious majority and the defeated minority. Healing Sri Lanka will be a far harder task.

Unfortunately, President Rajapaksa is no Lincoln. And that is why I fear Sri Lanka will never become the next Singapore.

Saturday, 16 February 2013

When Worlds Collude - 4 (Between Rock And A Soft Place)

I was recently introduced to this soft and very pleasant piano piece (Johann Pachelbel's Canon):

The piece being played is actually not the original but a "variation"

And then I was asked to listen to the Rock rendition of the same:

To paraphrase Crocodile Dundee, "That's not a variation. THIS is a variation."

I'm partial to the sound of electric guitars, and have often dreamt of how Hindustani music would sound if played like a power ballad with raging guitars.

Now this is all Western music, so it's not a fusion of cultures across geographies, but across eras.

I don't know if Pachelbel is rolling in his grave or rocking, but I was simply blown away.

Breaking The Nexus Between Moralism And Crime

1. A conventional moral maxim or attitude.
2. The act or practice of moralizing.
3. Often undue concern for morality.

Yesterday, I updated my blog post on outrageous statements with the latest one by the Hindu Janajagruti Samiti (Society for Awakening the Hindu People):

Since the Bharatiya (Indian) youth is turning towards indulgence by blindly following westerners, it has been noticed that the sale of contraceptives peaks on this day [Valentine's Day].....This leads to a rise in incidents of rapes and other atrocities.

What?? What is the blinking connection between the rise in the use of contraceptives and the rise in incidents of rape?

I spent a while shaking my head in disbelief at how stupid people can be, and then I had an epiphany.

While almost everybody condemns rape, they don't all do it for the same reasons.

I condemn rape because it violates the rights of a human being. The HJS leader's statement (and those of others before him) suggests that many people condemn rape primarily because they see it as a loss of honour! And they are probably more concerned with the honour of families and communities, since a dishonoured woman can simply be made to hide from public view, or in extreme cases, be killed to "redeem her family's honour". That's the connection then, between rape and promiscuity, which is what the rise in the sale of contraceptives is meant to indicate. Both are violations of perceived notions of honour.

So let me confront this issue head-on, and address the traditionalists in society:

There is a big difference between sexual promiscuity and rape. You may not like to see increased sexual promiscuity in society, but no one is getting hurt, and so it is not a crime, no matter how much you may hate it. Rape violates the rights of a human being, and so it is a crime.

My painting that I blogged about earlier was an attempt to put the stigma of rape back where it belonged, i.e., not on the victim but on the offender, because this is a crime, not an issue of "honour".

The notion of "honour" perverts our notions of right and wrong. It makes us insensitive to human rights. And so, it is not enough to condemn rape. It is crucially important to condemn it for the right reasons, otherwise we are headed for a Talibanisation of society.

"But we don't want to see Indian society becoming like the West!"

The polite way to answer this objection is that democracy is utterly incompatible with restrictions on people's private lives. I'm tempted to express a less polite opinion, though: With the number of old fogies holding such views,  I hope they do us all a favour and die already.

Friday, 15 February 2013

How Young Is Too Young?

It's not often that I think disturbing thoughts after listening to classical music or watching a classical dance performance, yet I must confess to having a few misgivings after watching this highly talented 9 year old girl perform a marvellous Kuchipudi dance piece.

Alekhya Ennamsetty's expressive performance can make one forget she's only a child. Is that a good thing?

I'm not an expert on Indian dance, but I know just enough to understand that among the essential components of a dance are its rasa and bhaava (which together mean "mood"). The rasa of this dance is Sringaara (love/beauty/attraction) and its bhaava is Rati (love/attachment). The girl does an excellent job of conveying the mood of the dance, which is why I'm somewhat disturbed. Should little girls be schooled in emoting with facial expressions that (let's face it) denote flirtatiousness and coquetry?

This is related, although not entirely analogous, to child beauty pageants in the West where children are hypersexualised. The similarity is that in both cases, pre-pubescent girls are encouraged and rewarded for behaving like adult women. I guess the difference is that a beauty pageant is unabashedly about physical appearance, while the classical dance is primarily about mastering a set of skills. It so happens that some of those skills require the adoption of expressions and actions more suited to adults. I still find it disturbing, though.

Cute or disturbing is in the eye of the beholder

This isn't a moralistic rant against beauty pageants or classical dance in general, just a plea for children to be allowed to be children. The British government has even published a booklet called Letting Children Be Children, a "report on the commercialisation and sexualisation of childhood".

I'm sure I'll earn the ire of many for daring to criticise a cultural icon like Indian classical dance, but it's an authentic opinion that I'm willing to stand up for. The doyens of the art should evolve a 'G' rated version of classical dance that is safe to teach to children, and progress to the unadulterated version when the students are older.

On the other hand, teaching classical dance could be seen as the new way to raise your child's EQ! (Stampede of Asian feet heard in background.) Sigh.

Friday, 8 February 2013

When Worlds Collude - 3 (Bharatanatyam in Beijing)

Cultural cross-pollination is often boringly common in one direction, but rare and interesting in the opposite direction. Nobody looks twice at people from non-Asian cultures who wear white martial arts uniforms and learn Judo, Kung-fu or Tae-Kwon-Do. India, for example, has thousands of East Asian-style martial arts training centres.

As an example of a rare and interesting cultural flow in the reverse direction, a recent article in The Hindu drew attention to a Chinese dance teacher in Beijing who teaches about a hundred girls the intricacies of the South Indian dance form, Bharatanatyam (pronounced BHUH-ruh-thuh-NAAT-yuhm, with the first 't' soft and the second hard and with only one long vowel in the entire word).

Jin Shanshan was introduced to Bharatanatyam by the legendary Chinese dancer Zhang Jun, who had visited India in the 1950s. Ms Jin later visited India herself and learned from masters in the art, and today she runs a popular class of her own in China's capital, with plans to open another centre in Shanghai.

The Hindu also carried an interview with Ms Jin.

Jin Shanshan - Crouching Tiger, Hidden Talent

This is a video clip from The Hindu.

Extreme makeovers - It's amazing what a sari, a 'pottu' and chanting in Sanskrit can do to one's appearance

If I have a quibble, it's just that I think Kuchipudi is a more graceful dance form than Bharatanatyam. But I can't deny that I found this very pleasurable to watch.

When Worlds Collude - 2 (Nightingale Natalie Di Luccio)

I said in my last blog entry that examples of Western influence on the rest of the world are hardly news. They are the norm. And so the hordes of Chinese kids learning to play the piano or Kashmiri girls forming rock bands are only to be expected. Of course, the non-Western cultures in question add their own unique twist to these phenomena, whether it is through aggressive "Tiger Mom" style regimentation or fatwas condemning the cultural invasion.

And so, while it's no big deal when non-Westerners learn Western music, it's something else when Westerners learn non-Western music. In my childhood, much was made of the Carnatic musician "Higgins Bhaagavatar", who was actually an American called Jon Higgins. He earned the respectful title of "Bhaagavatar" (maestro) after impressing the South Indian cognoscenti with his skill, - no mean feat considering the sourpusses many of them can be. (Alas, Higgins's musical career was tragically cut short when he was killed in a road accident in 1984.)

A modern-day example is Natalie Di Luccio, who has become famous among Indians for her masterful renditions of popular Bollywood songs. What makes her songs special is that she brings a throaty Western abandon to these familiar numbers, and the listener is treated to a distinct and very enjoyable variant.

Initially, she seemed to struggle with the variety of Hindi consonants, but her later songs show that she's finally mastered their pronunciation.

[Hindi has both "hard" and "soft" consonants. Think of the way the letter 't' is pronounced in the English word to and in the French word tous. The former is 'hard', the latter 'soft'. The common joke is that if you mispronounce the Hindi "Main aata hoon, bataata hoon" ("I'm coming, I'll explain") by using the hard form of 't' instead of the soft, then you'll be making the rather weird admission "I'm flour, I'm a potato". To complicate things even further, Hindi has aspirated and non-aspirated variants of both hard and soft consonants! An aspirated consonant is pronounced with an explosive 'h' sound, like in "phat".]

Natalie's first song (Tu Jaane Na) went mildly viral, for very good reason. She has an amazing voice, and it didn't hurt at all that she's very easy on the eye herself. The song and the movie it appeared in (Ajab Prem Ki Ghazab Kahani) are themselves good examples of globalisation, even if the Italian-Canadian Natalie hadn't uttered a single honeyed note. The original version of Tu Jaane Na was sung by the very photogenic Atif Aslam, one of many Pakistani artistes whose careers have been helped by the Indian film industry. The female lead in Ajab Prem Ki Ghazab Kahani was played by Katrina Kaif, who owes her striking good looks to her own hybrid genealogy. She has a Kashmiri Indian father and an English mother. Good looks are global too, it would seem.

So here's Natalie's divine first hit, Tu Jaane Na, marred only slightly by her failure to grasp soft consonants in Hindi:

Natalie Di Luccio's Tu Jaane Na - I'm flour, I'm a potato, but I look nice and have a lovely voice

Her later songs are equally mellifluous, and she's learned to use the right consonants too. Here's Kahin To Hogi Woh from the movie Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na (for some reason, I find that movie title very hard to remember).

Kahin To Hoga Woh - I'm no longer flour or a potato, but I still look nice and have a lovely voice

Here's an oldie, the song Pehla Nasha (literally, "first intoxication") from Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar:

[Thanks to Ganesh Subramanian for the correction. I'd always thought it was from QSQT (Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak). I don't watch too many Bollywood movies and just listen to the songs passively when someone else plays them...]

Pehla Nasha - truly intoxicating

I hope Natalie sings more and more Bollywood numbers in future. They sound refreshingly different in her voice.

Update May 2015: Natalie Di Luccio seems to have made a niche for herself not only in Bollywood, but also in Indian regional language films. She provides the female vocals to the Tamil song 'Aila Aila' in the hit movie "I". Incidentally, the movie also features a British female lead, Amy Jackson.

Pay attention to the innovative "ads" in this clip

While her Tamil pronunciation isn't ideal, she does give the lyrics character, and the operatic quality of her vocalisation is admirably well done.

When Worlds Collude - 1 (Cultural Cross-Pollination)

As a child, I was a history buff as well as a science fiction buff, and one of my favourite genres was Alternative History, which dealt with questions such as "what would the world be like if the Nazis had defeated the Allies, or if Carthage had defeated Rome"?

As I grew older, the romance of war faded, as I began to realise the truth of General Sherman's famous quote, "War is hell". The romance of history then took on a subtler hue for me, as I began to see the gentler ways in which cultures have influenced each other, even those that were historical enemies (especially those that were historical enemies!).

In early 2012, I visited the fort of Amer in Rajasthan, India, and saw a curious sight, which I wrote about in my blog.

Ganesh Pol (Ganesh Gate) at Amer Fort in Rajasthan - An arch in the Islamic style with a very un-Islamic Hindu God consecrating it

Islam is uncompromisingly opposed to polytheism and idolatry, an opposition that continues to this day and has caused deep resentment among other cultures. Yet here Lord Ganesh sits peacefully enough, blending harmoniously with the characteristic geometric art of a culture that has historically been hostile to the Hindu pantheon.

I constantly look for such examples of cultural cross-pollination in everyday situations, and I get goose-bumps when I find ones that touch me personally.

For example, when I read about the 2009-2010 "Green Movement" protests in Iran, I experienced a thrill when I read that the protesters had assembled in Tehran's main square, Maidan-e-azadi ("Freedom Field" or "Freedom Square"). Indians need no translation of these words at all. We understand them in our bones. There is an Azad Maidan in the heart of Mumbai as well. I realised with a start that Persian civilisation had touched me personally, after centuries of trade, invasion and cultural exchange had done their work. The world had now reached a point where an Indian-born person like myself could read a news item about Iran in an Australian newspaper through the medium of English - and natively understand the Farsi words in them.

I've been on this cultural forensic quest for a long time.

It occurred to me one day when I was still in my teens that most of my world-view was shaped either by my Indianness or by my exposure to English-language works. Surely, there must be a world of interactions between other people out there that had nothing to do with India or the English-speaking world. For example, the Japanese and the Germans were allies in the Second World War. Surely these two cultures, completely alien to each other but brought together by forces of history, must have had some influence on each other! My father, a linguist, confirmed my conjecture with an example from language. He told me that the Japanese word for part-time work was arubaito, which comes from the German word for work, arbeit.

Ah so, wunderbar!

The influence of the West on the rest of the world is no news. It's the flows in the reverse direction that are more interesting, such as Indian place-names influencing the names of fabrics and clothing (calico, cashmere, jodhpurs and dungarees).

As Saki wickedly observes in Reginald's Christmas Revel,

On Christmas evening we were supposed to be specially festive in the Old English fashion. The hall was horribly draughty, but it seemed to be the proper place to revel in, and it was decorated with Japanese fans and Chinese lanterns, which gave it a very Old English effect.

It's this particular kind of "Old English effect" that I'm looking for, where foreign cultural influences are assimilated to the point where they become native. Sort of like curry being considered the unofficial UK national dish, or falafel and hommus being considered Israeli national dishes.

In our post-modern world, we each boast several identities, not just a single one. That's because we are each the product of several worlds that have perhaps collided violently in the past, but which today conspire to influence us with their rich, hybrid flavours.

I'll share my findings on this blog under the title "When Worlds Collude".