Tuesday, 25 November 2014

When Engineering Isn't Just Engineering

Perhaps this is purely an Indian problem, because it frequently crops up in Indian forums. It has to do with the high social premium placed on an engineering education, and the subsequent pressure on many young students to choose this specialisation regardless of what they really feel about it.

The argument against this cultural pressure takes many forms, but the core idea is the same:

  • One must only do an engineering degree if one is genuinely interested in engineering as a career
  • No one should be forced into doing an engineering degree if their passion is something else
  • It's sad that students are lured into engineering because of monetary considerations
  • It's sad that engineering graduates go on to work in unrelated professions later on

I confess I myself chose engineering at the university level by elimination, because I was not at all interested in medicine, commerce or law. I further confess I did not practise as an engineer even for a day. I went on to do an MBA, then turned my back on the management profession as well, to end up as an IT professional.

The movie "3 Idiots" explores some of the above ideas in detail. The main protagonist is genuinely interested in science and technology, and he then goes on to win over 400 patents - entirely as a by-product of his passion. A classmate of his who is really more interested in wildlife photography plucks up the courage to give up engineering for his passion. A brilliant student is so frustrated by the heartless "system" that he takes his own life. So does another sensitive person who would rather have been a writer. These messages should not be controversial, but I do have some bones to pick with the movie's characterisation of an engineering college, especially the IITs on which it is modelled.

For example, there is something very wrong with this scene.

"Provide a descriptive answer rather than the quantitative result of a mathematical calculation", said no IIT professor ever

But we digress. Let's return to the core issue of cultural pressure to study engineering, especially at one of the prestigious IITs (Indian Institutes of Technology). I had a batchmate who dropped out of IIT to become a writer. Opinion was divided within his batch about the wisdom of his decision. Many of us thought he should at least have completed his degree before pursuing his passion. After all, one does not sneeze at an IIT degree, considering how hard it is to gain admission to one of the IITs. Fortunately for him, he did turn out to be an award-winning writer.

Now, another IIT student has written in harsh terms about his "mistake", and the article has prompted an outpouring of similar sentiment, judging by the comments following it. 

[...] there are many students like me and the system failed all of them

The system failed them!? From what I can gather, he is disappointed that he doesn't remember any of the subjects that he studies for his exams. Once the exams are over, he forgets whatever he learnt. He therefore believes he has learnt nothing and his entire education has been a waste. Along the way, he blames the poor teaching skills of most of the faculty, and the coaching classes that churn out "to-be engineers".

While no one should be coerced into a field of study they are not interested in, I think the author of this piece, and many others who criticise the "blind" pursuit of an engineering degree, are missing a critical aspect of the situation.

It is a fallacy to believe that the sole purpose of an engineering degree is to equip a person to work as an engineer in one particular discipline. Lamenting that one does not remember a subject after the exam betrays this fallacy. We need to understand that engineering as a generic set of skills has far wider application than in the engineering profession. Additionally, it's impossible to forget such skills after an exam, because they are really about learning better ways of thinking. One can't regress to less sophisticated ways of thinking.

The set of what can be called "engineering skills" include:

Mathematical ability of a high order. An engineering graduate is not afraid of maths. They can readily tackle problems requiring a knowledge of trigonometry, calculus, differential equations, Fourier transforms and the like. More importantly, they know they can pick up the concepts to tackle virtually any mathematical problem. This feeling of confidence is a wonderful one to have. Needless to say, advanced mathematics is useful in more fields than just engineering, and confident mathematicians are an asset in any such field. Finance is a case in point.

Systems thinking. An important part of problem-solving deals with isolating the relevant parts of a system from the irrelevant ones and considering only the relevant subset, which makes the problem much simpler and more tractable. The judgement required to draw an appropriate "system boundary" around some entities, such that interactions across the system boundary are reduced to a very simple set, goes a long way towards making a problem solvable. Systems thinking can be applied to anything from biology to geopolitics.

Mathematical modelling. This is related to both systems thinking and raw mathematical ability but is not quite the same thing. Systems thinking deals with isolation and with interfaces. Mathematical modelling deals with describing in precise quantitative terms how an entity behaves, and the entity in question could have been isolated in a previous step through an appropriate system boundary. By the "behaviour" of the entity, we refer to the quantifiable outputs that result from equally quantifiable inputs. Mathematical ability is then used to actually solve the relevant equations, but modelling describes the problem in the first place. Mathematical modelling is a general-purpose skill that can be applied to any field of study requiring quantitative answers, not just engineering.

Logical reasoning. Problems cannot be solved with sloppy reasoning. There may be more than one way to arrive at a solution to a given problem, but all of them need to obey a system of logic and to be justifiable. Logical thinking should be a universal skill, but unfortunately isn't.

I can't speak for all engineering colleges, but an IIT education provides exactly this set of skills. No question paper at IIT would ask a student to describe in words how an induction motor starts or how it functions. It would more likely contain a simplified diagram of such a motor with the relevant dimensions marked. Some values of parameters would be supplied, and the student would be asked to calculate the torque developed by the motor, or some such thing. Unless the student understands the concepts behind how the motor works, they will be unable to construct the mathematical model that represents the motor. Unless they have the math skills to solve the equations that comprise that model, they will be unable to arrive at the required answer. And of course, without systems thinking and logical reasoning, they will be unable to even tell if they are on the right track. If they can't do all of the above, they score a zero. The system is therefore ruthless, but effective in teaching engineers how to think.

A student of engineering who has been through four years of rigorous training in this kind of thinking can be a very valuable knowledge worker indeed. I would go so far as to say that it would be a waste of human capital for such a person to seek employment as an entry-level engineer. I think that for every engineering job available, the world needs to produce at least seven engineering graduates. One of them will fill the engineering job. The rest will take their skills to other professions that are equally hungry for them.

I graduated as a Civil Engineer but have never laid a brick in my life. Yet the years I spent studying engineering at IIT have profoundly influenced my thinking. Indeed, I owe what I am to this education. I hope the understanding that engineering (as a generic set of skills) is more than just engineering (as a profession) will help to convert some of the angst I see into a sense of acceptance and even satisfaction.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Enemy Mine - The Ugliness Of Cultural Arrogance

Australia and India signed a defence agreement today during Indian PM Narendra Modi's visit to Canberra.

Narendra Modi and Tony Abbott in Canberra

A couple of thoughts went through my head as I read the news, the foremost being how Samuel Huntington's Clash of Civilisations had taken yet another interesting turn. The other was that this seemed to be a replay of that underrated science fiction movie starring Dennis Quaid and Louis Gossett, Jr., Enemy Mine.

Enemy Mine is a story of how two individuals belonging to different species (humans and Dracs) that are at war, are forced to cooperate when they both crash-land on a planet with a hostile environment and vicious native fauna. Suddenly, their own differences seem inconsequential, and they finally become good friends.

An ant-lion of enormous proportions is only one of the dangers facing our mutually antagonistic heroes

A pragmatic basis for cooperation: "You are ugly, Davidge. But there are things out there that are uglier than you."

Australia has not traditionally viewed India as a natural ally. Indeed, Australia considered the expansion of Indian naval power in the 80s to be a threat! (I was a student in India at the time, highly politically aware, I might add, and I remember being quite offended at the inexplicably hostile attitude of what I viewed as a fellow democracy.)

In retrospect, that was not surprising given the understanding now afforded by Huntington's thesis. As a naive student, I might have seen the world in terms of democracies and non-democracies, but I was not to know that civilisational identities run far deeper. Australia belongs to and identifies strongly with Western civilisation, and an even narrower sub-group within it called the Anglosphere. India is not only not a Western country but the proud flagship of the distinct and much older Indic civilisation. It does not belong in the club, and so any increase in its power would naturally be viewed as a threat by the members of the club.

However, in recent times, a shift in Western attitudes seems to have taken place. The threatening rise of yet another non-member of the Anglosphere club has resulted in the club relaxing its rules for membership, it would appear.

Something out there that is uglier to Western eyes than an Indian elephant

Witness Tony Abbott's address at Queen's College, Oxford in 2012:

As with all the countries that think and argue among themselves in English (that these days include Singapore and Hong Kong, Malaysia and even India), what we have in common is usually more important than anything that divides us.

It sounds to me like the grounds are being laid for an invitation to join the club.

Huntington had referred to Russia and India as "swing civilisations", meaning that they could either side with Western civilisation or with other non-Western civilisations such as the Sinic or Islamic ones. It appears that the threat from China (and perhaps from Islamism as well) is now high enough for the Anglosphere club to open its doors to India. Speaking English has given India a second-class passport into the Anglosphere club.

As evidence of this, note that even this welcome is being afforded on terms that are purely Western.

Tony Abbott said in his speech welcoming Modi in parliament,
Australians admired the way India won independence – not by rejecting the values learned from Britain, but by appealing to them; not by fighting the colonisers, but by working on their conscience.

The reader will discern that even when describing the seminal moment of India's rupture with Britain, Abbott is emphasising the influence of Britain on India, rather than acknowledging India's non-violent struggle to be based on its own inherent civilisational values. The land of Buddha and Mahavira, the culture whose homegrown philosophy of Yoga has Ahimsa (non-violence) as its first and foremost Yama (ethical rule), has no need for Britain's civilising influence! India was not just a civilisation in terms of physical infrastructure but civilised in a deeply human sense long before the badlands that became Britain could lay claim to any such description. After all, Gandhi did not owe his non-violent style of agitation to his training as a barrister in London. His legal training might have helped him craft specific strategies to take on the Empire, but his fundamental philosophy came out of his exposure to living examples of non-violence in his childhood, such as his mother who would not kill a scorpion. Viewed through this lens, the cultural blindness that the London-born Abbott displayed here was breathtaking. You can take the man out of Britain, but you cannot take Anglocentrism out of the man.

In Abbott's eyes, India acquires legitimacy only from its characterisation as an English-speaking country that has imbibed Western cultural values. There is no effort to accept India as an equal on its own unique civilisational terms. Any defence agreement signed is therefore to be viewed not as one between equals, but as an oath of allegiance administered by a Western nation to a non-Western one that agrees to submit to Western values.

It's a testament to the intellectual poverty of Australia's current crop of political leaders and commentators that no one has noticed this glaring statement of cultural arrogance, much less seen fit to point it out.

India and the West can do business with each other not because India is now Westernised, but because the human values independently evolved by each of them happen to be compatible. Enough is known about Western values, but not quite enough is known about Indic ones, it would seem. Indian civilisation has been based on philosophies that acknowledge unity in diversity (Rig Veda 1.164.46, "Truth is one but the sages speak of it by many names") and emphasise universal brotherhood (Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam, or "the world is one family") even as they encourage the exchange and conflict of ideas (Purva Paksha, or a form of debate that mandates looking through an opponent's eyes). The civilisation could not have survived and evolved otherwise. It deserves to be given its due, not a condescending pat on the head for learning human values from the West.

Australians admire the way India won independence [...] by appealing to [the values learnt from Britain]

Can you see why that sort of praise can be viewed as insulting?

Much is made of the idea that Western civilisation owes its character to its "Judeo-Christian" roots That concept does have validity, even if Judaism and Christianity were long at each other's throats, and the vaunted "separation of church and state" was nothing but the Hebraic and the Hellenic aspects of Western civilisation being forcibly kept apart like squabbling children. Civilisations influence peoples and the conduct of nation-states. The Indic civilisation with its homegrown principles of unity in diversity, universal brotherhood and the acceptance of other viewpoints, intrinsically influences modern India, whether by the mundane non-event of a billion diverse people not erupting into civil war but staying together as a united nation, or India's uniquely non-violent freedom struggle, or India's leadership of the Non-Aligned Movement during the Cold War. (The Judeo-Christian value of "Thou shalt have no other gods before me", in similar fashion, results in Bush-era policies like "You are either with us or against us".)

[None of the above is intended to imply that the Indic civilisation is perfect, or superior to Western civilisation. Three glaring Indian weaknesses are superstition, caste-based discrimination and the poor status of women in society. These require India to look at itself through Western eyes to effect a change. Thankfully, this purva paksha is already happening, albeit slowly.]

For India, today's defence agreement with Australia no doubt represents an important alliance from a national security perspective given its own apprehensions about China, but it is not to be taken as a sign of having "arrived" in any sense. India will only truly arrive when its allies demonstrate through word and deed that they acknowledge and respect it as a distinct non-Western civilisation with independently evolved human values.

Saturday, 1 November 2014

What's Really Wrong With Farah Khan's "Happy New Year" (And Almost Every Bollywood Movie)

The critics have panned Farah Khan's movie "Happy New Year" for all the usual (and wrong) reasons. It's too long, the plot is silly, outlandish and unconvincing, the characters are caricatures, the plot twists are predictable, there are too many self-referential in-jokes, actors are underutilised in their roles, etc., etc.

Those criticisms are superficially valid, but movies like this still become blockbusters for a reason. They're entertaining. These movies are not made to please the critics. They're made to please the masses, and the masses are pleased. I've learned to enjoy movies like this because I tell my inner critic to take the evening off when I go to the theatres.

Well, my inner critic may be away, but there's still something tiny that troubles me even as I'm enjoying these movies - my conscience. There's something big and glaring that I picked up on through an accident of fate. I have lived outside India for twenty years now, and I guess I have become sensitised to think about the world and other people in very different ways. I don't think I would have changed to this extent had I remained in India. [Disclaimer: The above only refers to my personal journey, by the way. I'm not implying that Indians in India are less sensitised than Indians who live abroad.]

The problem with "Happy New Year" (and most Bollywood movies) is this - it's racist, it's sexist, it's homophobic (or whatever the word is that means "making fun of gays"), it's snobbish about people who can't speak English, it treats overweight and handicapped people as figures of fun, and in general, holds everyone outside an in-group in contempt. If you're an upper-class North Indian male who can speak English, are heterosexual, able-bodied and not grossly overweight, these movies will have you rolling in the aisles at all the funny things those other people say and do.

Take racism first. Happy New Year features an international dance competition, so obviously we need villains, and who better than the North Koreans, for whom nobody can possibly have a good word? Good choice there, Farah Khan. Introduce them as North Koreans for political reasons, and thereafter refer to them as just Koreans, since the distinction is unimportant thereafter. Obviously, the Koreans are cold, robotic, vicious and cruel people who treat competitors as enemies and show no mercy to their own children when they make mistakes. Contrast that with our warm, affectionate Indian selves who love children and help our enemies even when they want to kill us. Never mind that we can casually let loose with epithets like "haka noodle" whenever we see anyone with vaguely Asian features. It's all good fun. I don't know if art reflects life or life imitates art, but I'm not surprised to read that Indians from the northeastern states are routinely slurred with racist epithets in "mainland" Indian metros. Anyone who looks different from us is fair game.

("Kal Ho Na Ho" was cringe-inducing when it casually injected racist dialogues to characterise the competition between the Indian and Chinese restaurants. Even that otherwise excellent movie "Vicky Donor" ruined everything when the female lead (who should definitely have known better) referred to a child with Asian features as a "ching-chong" - at 1:57:20).

We've of course seen this trait in non-Indians as well - the practice of casting people other than ourselves as dangerous and cruel barbarians and ourselves as brave, wonderful, civilised people. Remember the "rescue" of Private Jessica Lynch by brave US soldiers from that terrible fedayeen-infested Iraqi hospital where she was being treated for her injuries by demonic doctors and psychopathic nurses?

Seriously, the practice of demonising the "other" has to stop.

Sexism - where do we even begin? I'l just talk about one scene in Happy New Year. We have Deepika Padukone as the dancer who is engaged by this group of men to teach them dancing. She's their teacher, for goodness's sake, but in the very next scene, she's going around the table, serving tea to all the seated men. Seriously!? (Yes, I know, the point of that scene was to show that she carries a torch for captain Charlie because she gives him his tea in a special mug, but I would have chosen another way to make that point).

Homophobia or something like it - Indian movies probably can't be accused of gay-bashing, but that's because they engage in gay-shaming. Gays have been a major source of merriment in Bollywood. They're effeminate and ridiculous and do the most creepy things, and of course all the main (straight) characters share a good laugh at them with the audience. Oh, gays are so funny!

Classism - England and America may be two countries separated by the same language, as Bernard Shaw said, but India is one country divided in two by that same language. Those who don't know English either aspire to learn it or want to rid India of it (sometimes at the same time), and those who speak it look down on those who don't. Happy New Year takes all these traits and rubs it in our faces. The scene where our supposedly wonderful English-speaking hero insults the female lead in the vilest sexist terms within her hearing, then charms her back by speaking to her in English just made me feel ... bad. But there was a redeeming feature, however unintended. The female lead's consistent quest for respect, which then makes her one of the most respectable characters in the movie, is a subtly powerful message for those who will listen. That respect isn't gained by her being able to speak English. In fact, the most fluent English in this movie is spoken by utter jerks.

Fat-shaming? In one of those humorous, musical, fast-forward interludes that shows our gang of heroes searching in vain for a dance teacher, an obese one is of course a mandatory part of the parade of unsuitable characters. (I don't know if that was Farah Khan's subtle dig at Saroj Khan.) Again, seriously, Bollywood needs to stop the practice.

The disabled got off relatively lightly this time, with just a few gags on epileptics and the partially deaf, but Bollywood in general finds disability irresistibly funny.

In short, that's what's really wrong with Happy New Year, and with virtually every movie that comes out of Bollywood. Indian directors should hire humanism consultants to educate them on messages that are simply unacceptable in other parts of the world. They don't really need to fix the weak plots and the cliches. Those could even be considered endearing traits of the genre, but if Bollywood ever wants to cross over to a mainstream world audience, there's a lot more basic stuff that needs fixing.

Saturday, 11 October 2014

The Problem With Islam Today Isn't Misinterpretation, It's Contradiction

Let's cut to the chase. I believe there are two fundamental problems with Islam:

1. The Sunnis and the Shias are not evenly matched
2. There is no New Testament in Islam

I'm not being facetious. Christianity's journey from its infamous mediaeval intolerance to the modern secular-democratic Western societies it has given rise to are because of (1) its unique history, in which the stalemated Catholic-Protestant wars led to the separation of church from state, reducing the temporal power of the church, and (2) the existence of a markedly more peaceful book (the New Testament) that devout Christians could adopt in preference to the violent Old Testament without sacrificing their faith altogether. Islam today cannot follow the same trajectory as mediaeval Christianity because these two unique elements do not exist within it. There's a rocky road ahead for all of us as a result.

Who am I to utter these impertinent pronouncements? I believe my background (as a Hindu-turned-atheist who grew up in a country with a significant Muslim minority and who spent five early years studying in a Catholic school) gives me unique insights that many others may not have, and in addition, as one who steers clear of all "isms" except humanism, I have the freethinking licence to say things that many probably don't dare let themselves think!

Scarcely 15 years ago, the West was largely ignorant about Islam. In Western minds, confusion reigned supreme about the various religions of the East. Buddhism was probably the one eastern religion that was somewhat understood. In contrast, Islam and Hinduism were often confused with each other. A British comic I read in my childhood showed a Hindu character exclaiming, "By the beard of the prophet!" I have watched an American TV show (It may have been "She's Baaack!", an episode of Sabrina the Teenage Witch) that showed women in an Arabic setting, dressed in belly dancer outfits and transparent veils, dancing with hands folded in a Hindu "namaste". The most embarrassing gaffe, in my opinion, was Star Trek's iconic villain Khan. His full name? Khan Noonien Singh! In addition to "Noonien" being a nonsense word that means nothing in any eastern language, can a Muslim surname like Khan coexist with a Hindu/Sikh surname like Singh? Only in the Western imagination, because the differences didn't really matter. Until very recently.

After September 11, 2001, Islam very rudely broke upon the consciousness of the Western world, and there is now a great deal more knowledge about Islam in the West than ever before. To be sure, a lot of it is misinformation (such as the belief that female genital mutilation is an Islamic problem rather than a Central African problem), but it is important to recognise that not everything that Westerners now believe about Islam is misinformation. A lot of it is in fact true, and from the perspective of Muslims, uncomfortably true.

For a while now, every time there has been a terror attack by Islamists, there are protests from other Muslims and from liberals that the people behind the attack are not true Muslims, because Islam is a religion of peace that does not condone the killing of innocents. But bizarrely, the claim from the Islamists who engage in acts of violence and terror is that they are doing no more than their sacred duty as they are obliged to by their faith.

Whom to believe? Surely both groups cannot simultaneously be right.

Well-spoken Muslim academics in the West who attempt the difficult job of interlocution between their religious compatriots and the public in their host countries don't manage to clear the air at all. One of the foremost such spokespersons in Australia is Walid Aly, a lecturer at Monash University, who usually pussyfoots around difficult issues concerning Islam and the West, and gives right-wing columnists plenty of ammunition. On the rare occasion that Walid Aly tangentially criticises his compatriots, a fellow Muslim academic immediately tears him down. The debate within Muslim intellectual circles thus appears to be highly circumscribed, and none of them dares approach the true heart of the issue without being called out as a traitor to the cause.

In recent times, the question of where Western Muslims stand with regard to the increasing rift between the Western and Islamic worlds has been posed in stark terms to local Muslim spokesmen (they are usually all men), and the response tends to be much dodging and weaving, with a litany of Muslim complaints being offered in lieu of a response.

Wassim Doureihi, spokesman of the Australian Muslim organisation Hizb-ut-Tahrir, was interviewed by ABC TV's Lateline recently and specifically asked if he condemned the atrocities of ISIS. The transcript is here, and it's very enlightening both for the things he said and for the one thing he refused to say!

Wassim Doureihi of Hizb-ut-Tahrir doing a masterful eel act on Lateline

More recently, an article by Fareed Zakaria appeared in the Washington Post. It was provocatively titled, "Let's be honest, Islam has a problem right now". But while Zakaria began promisingly enough, the actual piece was another apologistic exercise that neither asked the right questions nor answered them. I suspect that as a Muslim himself, Zakaria had no real leeway to do either. The comments section of the article, however, contained some brutally honest feedback that pulled no punches. To me, it signalled that a long overdue conversation was commencing, and that the elephant in the room was gradually beginning to be acknowledged.

The core question we need to answer is whether the extremists who kill and spread mayhem are being true to their faith (as they themselves claim) or are acting contrary to the tenets of their faith (as liberals and "moderate" Muslims claim).

Obviously, there is a simple way to answer this question - by analysing what is said in the Quran, which every believing Muslim accepts as the literal word of God - perfect, unalterable and valid for all time. Does the Quran sanction violence of the kind we see nowadays, or does it not? What do (or what should) "moderate" Muslims think? And perhaps more importantly, what does this mean for the rest of us who are not Muslims?

[I won't talk here about aspects of Islam that are often criticised, such as its treatment of women. I will restrict my comments to Islam's attitude towards violence, to its attitude towards those who are not characterised as "the faithful" - i.e., unbelievers, polytheists, idolators and apostates.]

To non-Muslims and non-practising Muslims, it's very important (especially in these days of seemingly increasing conflict) to know what the Quran says about us. Is it tolerant of our existence, or is it not? Indeed, the term "tolerance" itself may be deeply flawed and insulting in its condescension, as Rajiv Malhotra brilliantly argues in his article "Tolerance isn't good enough - The need for mutual respect in inter-faith relations".

To digress a bit, Hinduism is a religion that is externally accepting even as it is internally oppressive. That is, Hinduism treats many of its own followers (women and the so-called "lower" castes) much worse than it treats people of other faiths! But in spite of these internal evils, Hinduism genuinely considers every other religion as an equally valid path to salvation. It does not claim a monopoly on the truth, which is remarkable. In contrast, whether they are violent or not, the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) are unremittingly intolerant of other faiths, especially those they view as polytheistic and/or idolatrous.

This episode related by Rajiv Malhotra is illustrative:

My experiments in proposing mutual respect have also involved liberal Muslims. Soon after Sept. 11, 2001, in a radio interview in Dallas, I explained why mutual respect among religions is better than tolerance. One caller, identified as a local Pakistani community leader, congratulated me and expressed complete agreement. For her benefit, I elaborated that in Hinduism we frequently worship images [idols] of the divine, may view the divine as feminine, and that we believe in reincarnation. I felt glad that she had agreed to respect all this, and I clarified that "mutual respect" merely means that I am respected for my faith, with no requirement for others to adopt or practice [sic] it. I wanted to make sure she knew what she had agreed to respect and wasn't merely being politically correct. The woman hung up.

It seems impossible for a devout follower of an Abrahamic religion to "respect" another faith and yet claim to be a true believer of their own, because intolerance towards other faiths is a necessary component of these belief systems. Other faiths cannot be granted any semblance of legitimacy.

Western society is gradually becoming less rigidly Abrahamic in terms of intolerance, a phenomenon referred to by Lisa Miller in her article "We are all Hindus now". Hardline Christians reject this view, as this pastor does, blatantly arguing against tolerance. However, there are other, less doctrinaire, Christian denominations that seem to be more accepting of faith diversity.

Some Muslim strains are syncretic too, for example, the Sufis. However, fundamentalist Muslims typically are not. Fundamentalism implies a return to the fundamentals enshrined in the Quran, and the Quran is an intolerant document in the true mould of Abrahamic scripture.

Many translated verses from the Quran have been widely quoted. These are acutely embarrassing to Muslims and to Muslim apologists, who claim that the translations are either incorrect or taken out of context. However, the glare of the spotlight is only increasing. There are far too many independent translations available to us today, many of them by Muslim scholars, so it is getting harder to make the case that these verses have been mistranslated. Besides, the messages are repeated in multiple different ways, so there is very little scope for ambiguity overall. The messages in the Quran that need serious discussion include the following:

1. Exhortation to kill unbelievers (4:89)
2. Exhortation to kill polytheists (9:5)
3. Assurance that deviations from the faith are worse than killing (2:191)
4. Exhortation for unremitting violence until unbelievers submit (2:193)
5. Exhortation to be harsh to unbelievers (9:123)
6. Exhortation to engage in violent jihad even if a believer finds it distasteful (2:216)

These are just a sample. There are many, many more passages in the Quran that are filled with violent condemnation of unbelievers. The passionate vitriol in these verses is quite unnerving for an unbeliever to read!

To be fair, the Old Testament is also filled with violent and intolerant passages. But many Christians today implicitly reject the Old Testament, preferring to align their faith with the much less violent New Testament (even though Jesus did not repudiate the Old Testament but reaffirmed its validity). This has given devout Christians an easy way to distance themselves from their own religion's violent intolerance to unbelievers, a way that is not available to devout Muslims.

The Quran is a single book with no equivalent to the New Testament, so "moderate" Muslims are caught in a bind. That the Quran is saying some pretty awful things about unbelievers is increasingly hard to deny on grounds of mistranslation. We cannot be fooled by such denials anymore. Next, if the Quran is taken to be the literal word of God, these verses cannot reasonably be challenged by a believer. A Muslim who is genuinely tolerant of people of other faiths can neither reject such verses without being a heretic, nor accept them without giving up tolerance! This basic contradiction poses an ethical dilemma to well-meaning Muslims. However, I don't believe we are doing anyone any favours by being polite and refraining from forcing the issue. The issue needs to be forced.

We cannot forever pretend that Islamic terror is carried out by people who are un-Islamic. There is a deeper problem, and it is the inherent intolerance of the Quran towards non-Muslims that makes terrorists truer to their faith than the moderates.

There is hatred and violence in the Quran that is aimed at non-believers, and I don't think modern world society can ever make progress until these passages are explicitly repudiated by the majority of practising Muslims.

Non-Muslims who believe in equal rights for all (including Muslims) are justified in demanding a reciprocal sentiment from Muslims. However, this seemingly reasonable demand is a hard one for Muslims to accede to because of the basic contradiction we talked about. It is hard for a person to be both a true believer in a religion that recommends violence towards unbelievers, and a good citizen of a secular democracy that demands respecting the rights and private beliefs of all. One or the other set of beliefs will have to yield to the other, and publicly too.

If the Sunnis and the Shias were equally matched in every Muslim country, the standoff might have been able to force a separation of mosque and state in Islamic society, much like what happened in Christendom centuries ago. But this is an unlikely scenario. Sunni Islam is the dominant strain in the Muslim world, and fundamentalist denominations of Sunni Islam are responsible for most acts of terror and intimidation in the world today. Besides, Islam is very much a political manifesto with definite opinions on the running of a state, so it is not likely to retreat into a monastery, metaphorically speaking.

And so, the question of where Muslims stand on the issue of violence against unbelievers will not go away. The question will continue to be asked, and increasingly loudly. It will need to be answered convincingly, not with counter-complaints and not with weasel words. The only answer that will satisfy us ("unbelievers" of all stripes) is an unequivocal repudiation by Muslims of those sections of the Quran that express hatred and incite violence against the rest of us, for the mere crime of being unbelievers.

What this partial repudiation of their holy book would mean for their faith is for Muslims to work out. The elephant in the room cannot continue to be ignored.

Monday, 6 October 2014

Kashmir As Bollywood's Tormented Muse

I want to talk about some special Indian movies made in the last decade - Dil Se, Shaurya, Fanaa and now Haider. The common thread running through all these movies is, of course, Kashmir.

I have not seen Dil Se except for its two captivating song sequences (Chaiyya Chaiyya and the title song Dil Se Re). However, the one significant point that the film dared to raise was the issue of atrocities by the Indian armed forces in Kashmir, with the female protagonist depicted as a victim of rape trauma. That must have riled the right wing, but uncomfortable facts need to be faced, and if a movie can bring an issue into the public consciousness, then more power to the moviemakers.

Fanaa was a very well-made, emotionally charged film (as are most of Aamir Khan's films), but what damaged it for me was its dishonest premise. The film shows an independent Kashmiri terrorist group holding the governments of both India and Pakistan to ransom. The premise that Pakistan is an innocent victim of Kashmiri terror is so laughable that even the most gullible peacenik would be embarrassed to repeat it. Still, Fanaa holds its place in the annals of Bollywood as a significant statement about Kashmir and its relationship to India, even if it is a projection of what Indians want Kashmiris to feel.

The two remaining movies are remakes. Shaurya was a remake of "A Few Good Men" and Haider is an adaptation of Shakespeare's Hamlet. Surprisingly, the Indian adaptations don't look like imitations but as genuine, standalone classics. I believe that their choice of Kashmir as background is the reason. In Kashmir, India has a genuine trove of torment and suffering that can facilitate powerful storytelling because of its authenticity. An Indian movie like Madras Café (reviewed by me here) that dealt with the Sri Lankan crisis can only be partly authentic, because it was, after all, about another country's war, another society's pain. Indeed, almost half of that movie is devoted to the one aspect of the Sri Lankan civil war that actually impacted India - the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. The best movie about the Sri Lankan civil war will probably come from a Sri Lankan filmmaker (probably a Tamil) who has first-hand knowledge of the pain of those years.

But back to Bollywood and Kashmir.

Kashmir is what made Shaurya (in my opinion) a much better movie than A Few Good Men (and the latter was pretty darn good!). The Hollywood original came out in the year 1992, at a time of relative peace between the fall of the Soviet Union (1989) and the sudden advent of Islamic terror (Sept 11, 2001). Colonel Jessup's imagery of a "wall" defending the US that he mans is therefore not very convincing in the absence of a credible danger to the US. However, when a similar situation is retold in the context of the Indian army's presence in the restive state of Kashmir, it is credible and real. Colonel Jessup's Indian counterpart, Brigadier Pratap (chillingly played by Kay Kay Menon) exudes both moral certainty and menace in equal measure. The blurred line between defending one's country against Islamist insurgents and outright Islamophobia is the very substantive issue Shaurya explores, not a fictitious "code red" as in the Hollywood blockbuster.

Kay Kay Menon brings out the menace of Brigadier Pratap in this short clip from Shaurya. It would take a brave officer indeed to call him to the witness stand.

I can watch Shaurya again and again, and it gives me goose pimples because it is so close to real-life. Heck, I'd say the only unrealistic part of Shaurya was that justice was served in the end. Human rights violations like what the movie depicted have occurred many times in Kashmir without the perpetrators having to face justice as in the movie.

The "You can't handle the truth" speech

The issue of Kashmir divides Indian left-liberals and nationalists, and the divide appears unbridgeable. To the former, it is clear as day that the will of a people should be respected even if it is unpalatable to others, hence if the majority of Kashmiris want independence from India, they should be allowed to go their way. To the latter, it is unacceptable that the blood of Indian soldiers should have been spilt in vain, unacceptable that after multiple successful conflicts with Pakistan over Kashmir, India should meekly roll over and let the state go. The borders of India are inviolate to a nationalist, and if keeping those borders intact involves denying basic freedoms to a people (sometimes quite brutally), then such measures are justified.

The left/right divide is actually quite understandable when the concept of morality is dissected, as psychologist Steven Pinker has done. According to Pinker, morality consists of 5 strands - fairness, harm, community, authority and purity.

The ranking and placement of moral spheres also divides the cultures of liberals and conservatives in the United States. Many bones of contention, like homosexuality, atheism and one-parent families from the right, or racial imbalances, sweatshops and executive pay from the left, reflect different weightings of the spheres. In a large Web survey, Haidt found that liberals put a lopsided moral weight on harm and fairness while playing down group loyalty, authority and purity. Conservatives instead place a moderately high weight on all five. It’s not surprising that each side thinks it is driven by lofty ethical values and that the other side is base and unprincipled.

I believe either Pinker or the Haidt survey is being a bit too charitable to the Conservatives. I think that Conservatives place a lopsided moral weight on community, authority and purity at the expense of fairness and harm, rather than being even-handed about all five strands. Only this explains why right-leaning people in many countries tend to downplay human rights violations by "our boys in uniform" and view any criticism of the armed forces as unpatriotic, even treasonous. The right wing in India tends to deflect criticism of human rights violations in Kashmir by talking about the wrongs suffered by the Hindu Kashmiri Pundits at the hands of Muslim militants (as if two wrongs could ever make a right).

It may be surmised from the above paragraphs that I am a left-leaning liberal, and that is largely true, but there is a twist. Yes, I am completely against giving untrammelled powers to men in uniform, and completely against torture as an instrument of intelligence gathering. Yet I also believe that the Kashmiri separatists are deluded in their demands for Azaadi (freedom). Not only is their desire not shared by Pakistan (which will swallow up an independent Kashmir within minutes of its birth), but it is also quite possibly unviable.

I am speaking not just of economic viability but also of political viability. It may be possible for Kashmir to remake itself as an Asian Switzerland, - a scenic tourist paradise, politically neutral and with unique exports. However, it is people, not natural resources, that make a nation. I'm afraid the track record of Muslim states has not been very encouraging. Kashmir has had a multicultural past, with Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs sharing the region with Muslims, who have also been divided into Sunni and Shia sects, and subsects like the Salafis, Deobandis and Barelvis. Today, the Buddhists, Hindus and Sikhs have disappeared from the Kashmir valley, the Shias are isolated in the Gilgit region (under Pakistani occupation), and Wahhabi-influenced Sunnis have extinguished most traces of syncretism. It may be politically incorrect to say it, but Muslim states have a disturbing tendency to fracture along sectarian lines and disintegrate with violence and bloodshed. Would an independent Kashmir become Switzerland or Syria? Call me cynical, but my money is on Syria.

For this one reason alone, I believe Kashmir would be better off staying with India. India is a flawed democracy (with many of those flaws stemming from its treatment of Kashmir), but I think the greatest hope for Kashmir's autonomy, peace and progress will come from its integration into India rather than from independence.

Haider is the latest Bollywood movie to rake up Kashmir in the Indian consciousness (See my review here). That story has offended many (notably nationalistic Indians, who believe it glorifies terrorists and demonises the Indian army). There is even a trending Twitter campaign to #BoycottHaider, but this piece by an ex-armyman, no less, explains why the world needs more stories like Haider.

What we need is more dialogue about Kashmir and other contentious issues, not less. A democracy must not shy away from discussing difficult topics, and Bollywood movies are a great way to start the conversation. In Kashmir, Bollywood has found both its muse and a gold mine.

Movie Review - Haider

(Warning - plot spoilers ahead)

Vishal Bhardwaj's movie "Haider" that is currently the talk of the town tells two stories at once. It retells Shakespeare's Hamlet using Kashmir as the backdrop. It also tells a tale of Kashmir using Hamlet as plot framework. Which of the two stories leaps out at you depends on whether you're a student of literature or a student of political history. I'm a little bit of both, so to me, this extremely well-made movie was a double treat.

An adaptation of Hamlet, replete with the play's imagery

As an adaptation of Hamlet, the movie is fairly faithful in drawing its parallels (except for a very significant Gandhian twist at the end). As with that more light-hearted movie Bride and Prejudice, which masterfully adapted Jane Austen's work, the characters in Haider provide early hints of their roles with names that resemble those of their literary counterparts (Hamlet/Haider, Claudius/Khurram, Gertrude/Ghazala, Polonius/Pervez, Laertes/Liyaqat, etc.) Major plot milestones in the original play find an echo in the movie's storyline, and the screenplay does not seem contrived to achieve that result. One particularly brilliant parallel that fit smoothly within the film's narrative was the scene of Hamlet's remonstrations with his mother, with Polonius's interruption and his subsequent death at Hamlet's hands. Indeed,  I found myself so caught up in the Haider story that I had to consciously stop and remind myself at critical junctures about the corresponding scene from Hamlet. Not everything was a simple parallel, though. The interpretation of the old king's ghost, carrying its tale of betrayal and exhorting revenge, is particularly innovative. Trust the talented Irrfan Khan to pull that one off.

Hamlet as a play is considered a masterpiece both for what it explicitly says and for what it leaves open to interpretation. As with all of Shakespeare's great tragedies, it is also a portrait of its protagonist and the fateful character traits that define him and take the play where it goes. Haider's character is influenced both by the political environment in which he grows up (such as his friendship with classmates who have links to militants) and by his family, the towering personalities of his father and mother. A lot of what follows is then almost fated to happen.

The acting was uniformly good, and I could not single out any one actor for high praise. The characters of Haider (Hamlet), Khurram (Claudius) and Ghazala (Gertrude) were naturally complex. Shahid Kapoor, Kay Kay Menon and Tabu play those roles extremely well. This is not to say that the others were any less good. The entire cast carried off an ambitious directorial venture, the third in Vishal Bhardwaj's adaptations of Shakespeare after Omkara (Othello) and Maqbool (MacBeth).

The reason why Haider works so well as an adaptation of Hamlet is that there was in truth something rotten in the state of Kashmir in 1995. A shakespearean tragedy is a natural fit in that setting.

The tale of Kashmir told through the plot device of Hamlet is bound to be much more controversial than a mere adaptation of Hamlet to a Kashmiri setting, since Kashmir is a wound that is far from healed even today. 

I'll  write a separate post on why Kashmir provides so much rich material for Indian filmmakers, but let me end this one by saying Haider as a movie is a powerful experience for any viewer, even those unfamiliar with either Hamlet or the history of Kashmir. With its many violent and gruesome scenes, it is not for the faint of heart, but often, the most perceptive commentary on life is art. Haider is a superlative work of art. I give it 4 stars out of 5.

Saturday, 6 September 2014

How The Golden Rule Trips Up Right-Wing Thinking

An Indian friend sent around a link to a videoclip showing British schoolchildren chanting Sanskrit hymns at Buckingham Palace.

I'm not sure I could pronounce some of these words!

His accompanying comment, a swipe at Indian liberals, was this:

At a time when pseudo-secularists in India are moving away from Hindu traditions in the name of being ‘saecoolaar’ (sic) it is heartening to see other countries embrace it!

Speaking for myself, I see no evidence to support fundamental Hindu beliefs like reincarnation and karma, and it makes no sense to me to follow mindless ritual in the name of tradition. I also find that as I grow older, far from mellowing, I'm less and less tolerant of hypocrisy and bullsh*t. So of course I felt compelled to respond.

I wrote:

Interesting. I wonder how patriotic nationalists in Britain look upon the influence of foreign cultures on their children, and whether they consider those who allow their kids to imbibe such influences as pseudo-liberals and "Manu's children" [The Indian right-wing likes to call English-speaking Indians "Macaulay's Children" after Thomas Macaulay, who introduced English-language education to India]. After all, there is a proud Judeo-Christian ethos that is native to Britain. Why should the British majority accept "Manu ki aulaad" as equal cultural torch-bearers in their country? [The Indian right-wing coined the term "Babar ki aulaad" (progeny of the Mughal invader Babar) to refer to Indian Muslims.] On the contrary, all immigrants to Britain should consider themselves culturally Judeo-Christian, right? [The Indian right-wing believes that Indian Muslims and Christians should consider themselves culturally Hindu.]
See the parallels?

There are people of every culture who want others to respect it and adopt elements of it, but do not want to adopt elements of other cultures because they are cultural "impurities". That's standard right-wing thinking, which JK Rowling has portrayed most insightfully as the Slytherin culture of "pure-bloods" against "mud-bloods". Call me "secular" (and spell it as creatively as you like), but I just find this kind of thinking laughable.
The Golden Rule ("Do unto others as you would have others do unto you") is a fundamental basis for morality that predates Christ and Christianity. It is a reciprocal basis for treatment of other people that is virtually the definition of fairness. The cultural jingoism expressed by the right-wing of any society contradicts the Golden Rule. It holds that "others must respect our culture, and we welcome it when they adopt elements of our culture because it validates our belief in its innate goodness and superiority, but if members of our society adopt elements of a "foreign" culture, that is bad and unpatriotic".

I see right-wing thinking as hypocritical and stemming from a sense of cultural inferiority, because a culturally secure person would be open to accepting positive influences from other cultures and adapting themselves accordingly. One of the reasons why the English language has thriven and grown from strength to strength is because of its willingness to adopt and assimilate foreign words. Languages that have striven to remain culturally pure seem clumsy when describing new concepts (e.g., the French term "
toile d'araignée mondiale" for the World Wide Web).

On the one hand, it's disheartening that a rather intolerant, bigoted, culturally exclusive kind of thinking is beginning to be expressed even by members of the educated classes. But on the other, sunlight is the best disinfectant, and it is better that these views be openly aired and debated rather than remain an underground ideology of the resentful and disaffected.

Saturday, 30 August 2014

Ten Books Challenge - The Ten Fiction Books That Have Influenced Me Most

(I was "tagged" by a friend on Facebook as part of the "#TenBooksChallenge" that is doing the rounds of late. The idea is to list the ten books that have influenced one the most, and to "tag" one's friends in turn to get them to do the same.

I was delighted to read the names of books that others have listed, and I'm more than happy to participate.)

I have already posted my list of ten non-fiction books.

This is my fiction list.

1. There's a Hippie on the Highway, by James Hadley Chase (Panther Books)

I grew up on Enid Blyton and The Hardy Boys, but I really began to read for pleasure when I stumbled upon James Hadley Chase in high school. I think I must have read at least 50-60 of his novels, and my own creative writing at the time showed unmistakeable signs of his influence, with murder plots and car chases galore.

Some of the more memorable ones were "Miss Shumway Waves a Wand" (a supernatural-themed, very different novel from the usual Chase), "The Whiff of Money" (a gripping spy story), "The Way the Cookie Crumbles" (the story of an ingenious heist), "An Ear to the Ground" (a poignant story of a good man led to his doom by temptation), "The Flesh of the Orchid" (another sad story of a woman who could not protect the man she loved from assassins), "Cade" (perhaps the saddest Chase story of all), and many more.

But if I had to nominate one, based on the number of times I went back to read it, it would have to be "There's a Hippie on the Highway". I could identify with Harry Mitchell, the hero and Vietnam vet, who remains steadfast and straightforward in spite of the corruption and crime around him.

2. Stories from Somadeva's Kathasaritsagara, translated by CH Tawney (Jaico Publishing House)

Which Indian child has not grown up with Amar Chitra Katha comics? Indian history and mythology have been brought to life in the imaginations of so many by this unmatched collection of illustrated books.

But rarely have I come across a book (i.e., not in comic book format) on Indian mythological stories that captured my imagination with the same concoction of rich characters and heroic action. The Panchatantra was relatively tame, and the Ramayana and the Mahabharata occupied a different space in one's mind. I craved stories.

Hansa Mehta's "Adventures of King Vikrama" fit the bill excellently, and this remains one of my favourites. But even better was the 1880 translation by CH Tawney of the work of Somadeva, the "Kathaa-sarit-saagara", the "ocean of streams of story".

Many pleasant afternoons during my secondary school childhood were spent reading this book, and imagining the adventures of its many heroes.

Then single combats took place between the gods and Asuras, and Vidyutprabha, the father of Vidyuddhvaja, rushed in wrath upon Indra. Indra found himself being gradually worsted by the Daitya in the interchange of missiles; so he flung his thunderbolt at him. And then that Daitya, smitten by the thunderbolt, fell dead. And that enraged Vidyuddhvaja so that he attacked Indra. And, though his life was not in danger, he began by discharging at him the weapon of Brahma; and other great Asuras struck at him with other weapons. Then Indra called to mind the weapon of Pasupati, presided over by Siva himself, which immediately presented itself in front of him; he worshipped it, and discharged it among his foes. That weapon, which was of the nature of a destroying fire, consumed the army of the Asuras; but Vidyuddhvaja, being a child, only fell senseless when smitten by it; for that weapon does not harm children, old men, or fugitives. Then all the gods returned home victorious.
Intoxicating stuff! And best of all, that wonderful collection is free to read and download here!

3. The Collected Short Stories of Saki, by HH Munro (Wordsworth Classics)

Humour is one of my favourite genres, and PG Wodehouse and Richmal Crompton have had me in splits on several occasions. But there is one person whose humour has just that extra dash of wicked wit, and that is Saki (the pseudonym of HH Munro), who unfortunately was cut down in his prime during the First World War.

[...] Her husband gardens in all weathers. When a man goes out in the pouring rain to brush caterpillars off rose trees, I generally imagine his life indoors leaves something to be desired.


A young lady with a confidential voice favoured us with a long recitation about a little girl who died or did something equally hackneyed, and then the Major gave us a graphic account of a struggle he had with a wounded bear. I privately wished that the bears would win sometimes on these occasions; at least they wouldn't go vapouring about it afterwards.

And the classic

I've been carefully brought up, and I don't like to play games of skill for milk chocolate, so I invented a headache and retired from the scene. I had been preceded a few minutes earlier by Miss Langshan-Smith, a rather formidable lady, who always got up at some uncomfortable hour in the morning, and gave you the impression that she had been in communication with most of the European governments before breakfast. There was a paper pinned to her door with a signed request that she might be called particularly early on the morrow. Such an opportunity does not come twice in a lifetime. I covered up everything except the signature with another notice, to the effect that before these words should meet the eye she would have ended a misspent life, was sorry for the trouble she was causing, and would like a military funeral. A few minutes later, I violently exploded an air-filled paper bag on the landing, and gave a stage moan that could be heard in the cellars. Then I pursued my original intention and went to bed. The noise those people made in forcing open the good lady's door was positively indecorous; she resisted gallantly, but I believe they searched her for bullets for about a quarter of an hour as if she had been a historic battlefield.

4. Nick Carter/Killmaster - The Amazon, by John Messman (Tandem Books)

Somewhere around the time I went to junior college (Years 11 and 12), I graduated from James Hadley Chase to Nick Carter. I think I might have read 20-30 of these outlandish spy thrillers. Chase was tame in comparison. The Nick Carter stories also had sufficient erotic content to appeal to a young male.

I liked quite a few of these, such as "Moscow", "Code Name Werewolf", and "Time Clock of Death", but my favourite would have to be "The Amazon". The action was virtually non-stop, and (ahem) the other kind of action was pretty good too.

5. Selected Stories - Konstantin Paustovsky (Progress Publishers, Moscow)

Thanks to my father's job as a professor of linguistics in the foreign languages section of the Indian Institute of Science, I had access to a steady stream of Russian, German and French books, movies and music. Especially Russian, because my father knew Russian fairly well. Through him, my mother came to read some modern (at the time) Russian authors, and one of those was Konstantin Paustovsky. Although my mother liked his stories, a Russian lady we knew at the time dismissed his work as "ochin sentimentalnyi!" ("very maudlin").

I read one of his books in English, and while I could see why someone would find his stories too sentimental, I thought they were innocently romantic and very heartwarming.

I particularly liked "Snow", "Precious Cargo" and "A Basket of Fir Cones" in that collection.

It was thanks to Paustovsky that I formed an image of the Russian people as being uniformly warm and affectionate, and it took the Russian invasion of Afghanistan (and the horror stories that came out of that war) to jolt me out of that illusion. I grew up when I learned not to believe in stereotypes, whether positive or negative.

6. The Foundation Trilogy, by Isaac Asimov (Panther Books)

Science Fiction is perhaps my favourite genre by far, and one of my favourites in that genre is Asimov's Foundation Trilogy. This had so many wonderful new concepts in it. The science of psychohistory was one of them. The premise of psychohistory is this: It's not possible to predict the trajectory of a single atom, or the future of a single person. But it is possible to predict the trajectory of a ball, because it's made up of trillions of atoms. Similarly, when dealing with a society consisting of trillions of individuals, it is possible to predict the future of that society as a whole. The whole Foundation story was based on the idea that a psychohistorian predicted the downfall of the galactic empire, and proposed to shorten the coming millennia of chaos by setting up a "foundation" to store the empire's knowledge.

Foundation offered several fascinating nuggets of ideas. One was that regardless of the combinations of weak/strong emperor and weak/strong viceroy, the Foundation would never be under threat from the Empire. Then there was the unexpected spanner in the works thrown by the appearance of a mutant person whose existence psychohistory could never have predicted, and who threatened to overturn the Foundation's carefully laid plans. And finally, there was the secret "Second Foundation", made up solely of psychohistorians (the original Foundation did not have a single one), and its surprising location.

Although Asimov's Robot stories are individually more interesting, the Foundation trilogy stands alone as a classic because of its elaborate and comprehensive story.

7. The Philip K Dick Reader, by Philip K Dick (Citadel Press)

Great as Asimov was, he was not the best science fiction author, in my opinion. I think that honour goes to Philip K Dick. Dick's stories have formed the basis of blockbuster movies such as "Bladerunner" and "Minority Report".

Two stories that I love in this collection are "Second Variety" and "To Serve The Master". Both are deliciously disturbing.

8. The Stories of Ray Bradbury, by Ray Bradbury (Alfred A Knopf, Publisher)

I've written more than once about Ray Bradbury, and this post should tell you what I think of his writing. Ray Bradbury is a word-wrangler par excellence. I wish I could write like him.

As a consolation, I at least have this gargantuan collection of Bradbury's stories, and I often open it to read passages from my favourites, "A Story of Love", "And So Died Riabouchinska", "The Lake", "A Scent of Sarsaparilla", and others. The man amazes me.

9. The Complete Sherlock Holmes, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (Bantam Classics)

Surprisingly, I read the complete set of Sherlock Holmes stories only in my mid-twenties. I had read a few stories earlier on occasion (our English textbook in school even had "The Blue Carbuncle"), but nothing prepared me for the treat I received when I bought the whole collection and began to read them all.

I think the best thing about the stories is the consistent level of quality. With the exception of the few stories narrated in the first person by Holmes himself, all of them are excellent.

"To anyone who wishes to study mankind this is the spot. . . . Look at the magnificent types! Look at these two men who are coming towards us, for example."

"The billiard-marker and the other?"

"Precisely. What do you make of the other?"

The two men had stopped opposite the window. Some chalk marks over the waistcoat pocket were the only signs of billiards which I [Watson] could see in one of them. The other was a very small, dark fellow, with his hat pushed back and several packages under his arm.

"An old soldier, I perceive," said Sherlock.

"And very recently discharged," remarked the brother.

"Served in India, I see."

"And a non-commissioned officer."

"Royal Artillery, I fancy," said Sherlock.

"And a widower."

"But with a child."

"Children, my dear boy, children."
In my hostel at IIT Kanpur, a small group of Holmes fans tried in vain to "deduce" things about one another, but we never achieved much success beyond remarking to friends carrying empty bottles, "I deduce you are going to the mess to get water."

10. Harry Potter (all 7 books), by JK Rowling (Bloomsbury Publishing)

I don't believe the selection of JK Rowling's magnum opus should be controversial in the least. Rowling is Enid Blyton reborn, and with the karmic reward of steroids to boot.

I think Rowling's contribution goes beyond smooth entertainment. She has changed our world for the better by re-igniting the love of reading in a new generation.

---- Postscript ---

I was toying with the idea of including "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy in this list, but decided against it. While I like Tolkien very much, this is not the easiest set of books to read. It takes a supreme effort of will to complete reading "The Two Towers", for example. I believe a good book should not be an effort to read.

[If you liked this post, you might like these other autobiographical pieces as well:
Ten Things Teachers Taught Me
Ten Great Epiphanies Of My Life
Ten Books Challenge - The Ten Non-Fiction Books That Have Influenced Me Most
The Comics That Made Me What I Am]

Ten Books Challenge - The Ten Non-Fiction Books That Have Influenced Me Most

(I was "tagged" by a friend on Facebook as part of the "#TenBooksChallenge" that is doing the rounds of late. The idea is to list the ten books that have influenced one the most, and to "tag" one's friends in turn to get them to do the same.

I was delighted to read the names of books that others have listed, and I'm more than happy to participate.)

I'm going to cheat a little. Try as I might, I could not reduce the number of my favourite books to just ten. So I've created two lists of ten, one consisting of fiction books, and the other of non-fiction.

This is my non-fiction list.

1. Physics for Entertainment, by Ya. Perelman (Foreign Languages Publishing House, Moscow)

One of the peculiar joys of growing up in India in the 70s was the availability of ultra-cheap Russian books translated into English. Many of these were on Science and Mathematics, the first "popular science" books that most of my cohort encountered, and parents were happy to buy these for their children. "Physics for Entertainment" was in two volumes, with lots of fascinating facts, and copiously illustrated throughout. This was one of my favourites from a very young age, and I'm happy to see that it's available online

(Later on, I came across a similarly fascinating Russian book on Chemistry called "107 Stories About Chemistry" by L Vlasov and D Trifonov. In many ways, I liked this even better than "Physics for Entertainment", but Perelman's book remains the classic of its genre.)

2. Communism - A Study of Revolution, by Gerald W Johnson (A Pennant Student Edition)

There are three writers I admire and envy. One is Ray Bradbury, whose "prose poetry" is mesmerising (more on him in the companion post on my ten favourite fiction books). The second is the gifted young writer Aatish Taseer, who uses his twin gifts of insightful perception and an inspired turn of phrase to create unforgettable pictures of everything he writes about.

The third writer on my list is Gerald W Johnson. Johnson's skill is in his use of extremely simple English to create a narrative of such gripping intensity that even a non-fiction book becomes a page-turner. I bought "Communism - A Study of Revolution" out of idle interest and began to read it one afternoon. I could only put it down when I had finished. This happened many times. I would pick it up and start reading at some random page, and would not be able to put it down till I finished the entire book.

Consider these early paragraphs.

Karl Marx was a great man. Say that to the next person you happen to meet and the chances are more than even that he will be shocked, because that is not the light in which we have seen him. To most of us the name brings to mind some cartoonist's picture of a wild, bushy-haired creature with fierce whiskers, holding a bomb that he is about to throw. Marx in some ways was terrible, because he made some terrible mistakes. But he was a student such as the world has seldom seen. He read every book - that is, every serious book - he could put his hands on, and he not only read, he remembered what he read. More than that, when he dug up facts that most people had forgotten, or had never known, he could put them together and figure out what they meant.

That is a rare quality. It is so rare, indeed, that we have a special name for a man who can take a large number of facts, put them together, and from the whole collection bring out some important truth that nobody has seen before. We call him a philosopher.
A bit gender-insensitive (aren't there female philosophers?), but then, this was written in the 60s.

3. Ninety Minutes at Entebbe, by William Stevenson (Bantam Books)

Few books have influenced my politics like this one. I read "Ninety Minutes at Entebbe" when I was in Year 10. This is the true story of how Israel mounted a daring rescue of its citizens who were being held hostage by PLO terrorists in faraway Entebbe, Uganda, under the protection of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. Against formidable odds, after rigorous planning and training, and a 4000 kilometer flight path that circumvented hostile countries along the way, Israeli special forces stormed the aircraft and rescued almost all the hostages. The commander of the commando team (Yonatan "Yonni" Netanyahu) was killed in the fighting, and one of the passengers who was in hospital rather than at the airport had to be left behind, but other than that, the operation was a stunning success and established Israel's reputation as a country not to be messed with.

For me in particular, this marked the beginning of my admiration for Israel. With the rise in Islamist violence since Sep 2001, that admiration has also grown (tempered a bit by reports of excesses against civilians).

4. Marketing Warfare, by Al Ries and Jack Trout (McGraw-Hill)

Two books were the rage during my MBA days, both by the same duo of authors. The first was "Positioning - The Battle For Your Mind". This was a revolutionary book that introduced a number of new ideas, for instance, that the battle by competitors is not fought "out there" in the marketplace, but inside the prospective customer's head, and that placing second in a contest is as good as losing.

As good as "Positioning" was, it dragged in places and wasn't a very easy read. The book that followed, "Marketing Warfare", was an absolute masterpiece. It had all of the authors' trademark sarcastic humour, revolutionary ideas and simple writing style. Even better, this book was a breeze to read, an absolute delight. I got a number of takeaways from this book:

- A defender only needs to be 70% as strong as an attacker to thwart an attack.
- A market leader must constantly attack itself to keep ahead of its potential competitors.
- When attacking a competitor, a company must not attack a weakness that is a weakness. It must attack a weakness that is inherent in the competitor's strength.

5. Platoon Leader, by James R McDonough (Bantam Books)

McDonough's narration of his experiences as a young lieutenant during the Vietnam war affected me at several levels. At one level, this was a book on leadership, and the author's personal anecdotes of the times he had to pull himself together in spite of his fears challenged me to show courage and stand up to the many difficult situations I faced at around that time. At another level, I began to respect and admire the author for his moral position on many difficult situations that he faced during that messy conflict. But the main impact that the book had on me was in instilling in me the conviction that men in uniform must never be granted untrammelled power over a civilian populace, because atrocities are bound to occur.

McDonough writes,

Some men in combat will commit war crimes, just as some men in combat will fail to take care of themselves. They will experiment with drugs, steal property, abuse women. When this happens, it destroys the discipline of a unit, making it easier for others to follow suit. War is, at its very core, the absence of order; and the absence of order leads very quickly to the absence of morality, unless the leader can preserve each of them in its place. [...] He must allow no cutting of corners. A bottle of soda stolen from an old peasant woman leads gradually but directly to the rape of her daughter if the line is not drawn in the beginning. [...] The commander was the link to order and civility, and he had to be humane. At the same time, he had to be uncompromising to protect the lives of all. The job was not easy.

One of the heartrending incidents mentioned in the book concerns a group of American soldiers who raided a village at night and forcibly abducted a young girl before the eyes of her helpless family. (They later killed her after raping her.) As they were dragging the girl away, the girl's mother ran after them, holding out a scarf to her daughter to at least protect her from the cold.

The memory of that passage still shocks me, and the thought of that forlorn act of love and care of a helpless mother still brings me close to tears. That's why, no matter which country we are talking about, I cannot accept the standard "patriotic", right-wing rhetoric about "our boys who are risking their lives to protect our freedom". This is also why I am totally against the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) that indemnifies the Indian army during its operations in Kashmir, Manipur and elsewhere. Men in uniform must always be held accountable, otherwise atrocities are bound to happen.

6. Fundamentals of Database Systems, by Elmasri and Navathe (Benjamin/Cummings)

In 1990, I enrolled for a one-year part-time diploma program in software technology (This was before I went back to school for my masters degree in Computer Science.) I had a couple of years of experience with the Ingres relational database, but lacked a knowledge of formal database theory. The diploma program taught me how to design database systems ("data modelling"), and I learnt a new skill - that of drawing Entity-Relationship Diagrams.

When I did enrol for my masters in 1992, my thesis was on "Designing for Performance in RDBMS-based Systems", and I proposed an extension to the Entity-Relationship Diagram to incorporate elements of access patterns and load. You can download my thesis from here.

Even today, after more than 27 years of experience in various IT functions, my love for Linux and Open Source, my many years of experience with Java, and the last decade of my career as an architect, I consider myself to be fundamentally a "data person".

If there is one book that has made me what I am professionally, that has to be "Fundamentals of Database Systems". Thank you, Ramez Elmasri and Shamkant Navathe.

7. The Soul of a New Machine, by Tracy Kidder (Little, Brown and Company)

Very rarely, a book comes along that makes one feel like a hero by association. Tracy Kidder's true story about the development of Data General's Eclipse MV/8000 minicomputer reads like a racy spy novel. Indeed, it has elements of espionage in it, as when Data General's Tom West (the main designer of the Eclipse) impersonates a Digital Equipment Corp (DEC) technician at a DEC customer site to sneak a peek at the insides of the early VAX minicomputer to estimate how much it must have cost to build.

All of a sudden, the computer industry was "cool", and we were all part of a brave new frontier. My employer (CMC Ltd) often used VAX minicomputers, and when I once visited a client's data centre, I saw a Data General machine there, and the thrill I felt cannot be described. It was more than a feeling of living history. I felt like I had been catapulted right into a action-packed novel. I was standing face-to-face with an Eclipse MV/8000, the main character in "The Soul of a New Machine".

8. Adventure Capitalist, by Jim Rogers (Random House)

Jim Rogers is a well-known name in Wall Street circles. He was an early partner of George Soros, and his investment style is unique. He has made at least two trips around the world using very unconventional means of transport, and has looked at countries and societies up close from the viewpoint of a potential foreign investor. I have not read his first book "Investment Biker" about his trip around the world on a motorcycle, but his second book "Adventure Capitalist" was delightful and informative, peppered with little-known facts and consequent insights about dozens of countries.

For example, I remember his contrasting pictures of China and Japan. In China, the waitress attending him at a restaurant would run, not walk, across the room when she sensed he wanted something. In Japan, the waiters claimed there was no rice on the menu even though it was a sushi restaurant and every dish had rice in it. Rogers's investment decisions followed his assessment of the countries' cultures, especially their attitudes towards customer service, as a predictor of future economic performance - buy China, sell Japan.

The book was written in 2004. In the decade since then, China has surged, while Japan has stagnated. There is quite possibly some method in Jim Rogers's idiosyncratic investing style.

9. Double Your Wealth And Halve Your Worries (without the mumbo-jumbo), by Nicole Pedersen-McKinnon (Wilkinson Publishing)

There was a phase in my life when I read many books on personal wealth, and three of them stand out. One is Robert Kiyosaki's "Rich Dad, Poor Dad". The second is "The Millionaire Next Door" by Thomas J Stanley and William D Danko. But if I had to nominate just one, it would have to be Nicole Pedersen-McKinnon's practical guide "Double Your Wealth And Halve Your Worries", written in the typically no-nonsense Aussie style and packed with common sense tips and advice. I have benefited a great deal from following her financial advice.

My heartfelt gratitude, Ms Pedersen-McKinnon.

10. The Clash of Civilizations, by Samuel Huntington (Simon & Schuster)

Geopolitics has always fascinated me, and Huntington's seminal book explains it all. It is a sobering, somewhat disconcerting book. If what Huntington says is true (and I must say I think it is more than plausible), then the idealist vision of a world where we all dance around a fire singing Kumbaya (or L'Internationale) is a pipe-dream.

The world consists of five (or perhaps six) major civilisational groups, and all of human history is a result of the competition between these civilisations. Western civilisation is the dominant one at present, although it was not always so. Even within Western civilisation, there are in-groups and out-groups, as James Bennett further details in his book "The Anglosphere Challenge".

I have been coming to a similar conclusion for years, and when I read Huntington's book, it was an awful confirmation. I now know that there can never be one world, nor even a peaceful and harmonious world. Civilisations strive to express themselves, to extend their power and to influence others. At the very least, they struggle to prevent other civilisations from dominating them. When civilisations rise, they threaten the dominance of others, and their rise will therefore not go unchallenged. This means that conflict and strife will be our companions forever.

"The Clash of Civilizations" has influenced my thinking greatly. For instance, I can no longer look at India and China as countries. I now see them as the flagship nation-states of the Indic and Sinic civilisations, respectively.

[If you liked this post, you might like these other autobiographical pieces as well:
Ten Things Teachers Taught Me
Ten Great Epiphanies Of My Life
Ten Books Challenge - The Ten Fiction Books That Have Influenced Me Most
The Comics That Made Me What I Am]