Thursday, June 30, 2005

Rising out of the earth, and defiling the sacred

A little bit of history first. A magnificent ancient city has been unearthed in Chattisgarh, and the sheer scale of the discovery is quite astounding. Outlook writes about the find.

……Sirpur was the capital of the ancient South Kosala kingdom between the 4th and 6th centuries AD. Spread over an area of 25 sq km, the Sirpur archaeological complex is almost four times as big as Nalanda. Lengthwise, the Sirpur site extends almost seven km. In comparison, Bodh Gaya, also in Bihar, is less than three km long…….

The site also reflects the complex, tolerant, “multi-faith” society that India was, even 1500 years ago. Of course, “Hinduism” was never one single faith; it was and remains a medley of beliefs (though there seem to be too many trouble makers around who want to say otherwise).

……."It's an integrated multi-religious complex," says Indira Mishra, the bureaucrat who heads the task force on Sirpur. The fact that temples of Buddha, Shiva and Vishnu have all been unearthed here indicate a tolerant, harmonious society. The Shivalingas are in four colours—white, red, yellow and black—meant to be worshipped by the Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and the Shudras respectively.

If you have seen the magnificient monuments at Elephanta, imagine something many times that scale!

India seems to have so much history, that most people seem to need to forget some of it in order to learn some more. Sometimes, it amazes me that people continue to build and rebuild so much over the past, that soon the foundation itself is forgotten! This find seems to be another fitting addition to the UNESCO world heritage list.

Read this story here.


The second story is an excellent article by former Punjab supercop, K.P.S. Gill (who sometimes writes very well). Appropriately titled “When the sacred is profane”, it is a forceful essay on how we in India are ruining our own rivers. The same rivers that are considered “sacred” to Indians, that were named as Goddesses, and which quench the thirst of what would otherwise be a parched land.

……. It is, perhaps, unique to the contemporary culture of this region that we sully, pollute, deface and defile precisely what and where we worship. The ubiquitous stench and presence of garbage, of open sewers, of ordure and dung in the public street is virtually a hallmark of some of India's 'holiest' cities - including, for instance, Varanasi and Vrindavan. Nowhere in the world does piety cohabit so intimately with unmitigated filth…….

There is more, on how Delhi is ruining the Yamuna (which, against ALL odds, is STILL a “living river”).

…… Instead of helping to restore the purity of this holy river the Swaminarayan sect has chosen to manipulate and bend processes of law, to abuse its influence over particular sections of the political leadership, and exploit its great wealth to grab a large tract of land on the river's bed and flood plain, in order to build a monument to its own unseeing arrogance. But that is only the beginning of the damage it is doing.

In the process, it has justified and set into motion a race to overrun and build on every available acre of the river's banks, with little concern for the ecological impact of such 'development'. Since one major project has already been executed - taking fullest advantage of our false piety and the general disinclination to criticise anything ostensibly connected with religion - it will now prove difficult to resist the many other and potentially disastrous projects that are being planned to consume the river front in a frenzy of so-called 'development'…….

I cannot agree with him more. And then this.

” Barely two per cent of the length of the Yamuna lies within Delhi's confines, but it is here that the river is destroyed. It is widely conceded that the floodplain area is tectonically unstable, ..(snip).., and then sell these off to hapless eventual 'consumers' who will occupy them when the floods and earthquakes come….

It has become fashionable in India to decry ANYTHING that preserves our environment as “Anti-development”, even if it is obvious that you are shooting yourself in the foot. Development does not mean you destroy the sources of your water, and clean air. These are essential for survival, and we need to do every thing we can to protect this.

There is no need for us to repeat all the mistakes of the West. London almost destroyed the Thames, and then spent millions cleaning it up. Now, it’s a thriving river once more. The same happened with the St. Louis in the US, or the Rhine in Germany. But do we really need to chop our own limb off, and then replace it with an expensive, artificial limb?

Read all about it here.

And, try to read both these stories before Outlook decides to move them to the “subscriber only/archives” section.

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Banking woes

My wife went to the bank yesterday to make a simple cash deposit of $380, in two $100 bills, and nine $20 bills. A simple and elementary task, or so you would like to believe.

She walks up to the counter, and hands the deposit slip with the cash to the cashier. She (the cashier) takes the bills, and then types furiously into the computer.

”(9*20) + (2*100)”

Apparently, the computer doesn’t spew out an answer. So she furiously types into the computer again. There seems to be a computer glitch, and she’s stumped.

She leans over to the cashier next to her (who’s twiddling his thumbs, doing nothing) and says,

”Hey John, what’s 9*20? There’s some problem with my computer.”

My wife’s standing there, and her jaw drops in shock upon hearing this question.

Meanwhile, John’s breaking into a sweat.

”Uh….I’m not sure….9 times 20 is….”

My wife’s getting impatient. She has work to do in her lab, and doesn’t have all day for this circus. So she leaps in to rescue them.

”One hundred and eighty”, she says.

John looks at her in awe, and says ”I think you’re right! You must be really good with numbers.”

This latest revelation makes my wife reel, and wonder if she’s hallucinating. Time flashes back to when she almost decided to do a BSc. in Mathematics. Then comes the icing on the cake.

”Math really isn’t my thing, I was terrible at it in school.”, says John.

It's more than my wife can bear. She mumbles something polite and leaves, staggering out under the shock of the whole thing.

9*20. No more, no less.

And these are the Cashiers in Banks whom we trust with our money?

Post script: What does one need to know to become a bank cashier? Do they really need to hire math wizards who count with their fingers and toes (and therefore can’t count beyond 20?). I’m in awe of the cashiers in little, obscure banks in India (State Bank of Mysore, anyone?) who count faster than you can key in the numbers into a calculator.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

The day my God died

Some time last year, we in Asha co-organized a film screening of ”The day my God died”, along with the UW Women’s center. This is a documentary that tells the story of children, little girls, sold into the sex trade.

The sheer scale of the issue is astounding. The UN estimates that one MILLION girls/women are forced into the sex-trade EVERY YEAR.
Even the United States is not free of this menace, with an estimated 50-60,000 girls (minors) trafficked annually.

One Million lives ruined every year.

The movie spends a lot of time in Nepal, one of the worst hit of all the countries. Little girls are taken away from their villages, and taken to India or the Middle East. They are either promised a job, or marriage, or are drugged and kidnapped. The documentary reveals that there are an estimated 350,000 Nepalese girls in India (with concentrated pockets in Bombay/Mumbai and Calcutta), and over twice that many in the rest of Asia, who have been forced into the sex trade. Little Nepalese girls, in “high demand” in a perverse world because they are fair-skinned.

3 % of the entire population of Nepal.

Hidden cameras, carried by the filmmakers or social workers often posing as “clients”, take some absolutely horrifying pictures. The stories come from people working with (or rescued by) wonderful groups like the International Justice mission, or the incredible Maiti Nepal, or Sanlaap from Calcutta. Some of the rescued girls stay back to continue to work with their rescuers to free other victims.

Pimps and brothel owners terrorize the little girls who are ruthlessly taken away from their homes and families. They are beaten mercilessly, starved, or burnt by cigarette butts. Then they are gang raped. This is their “break-in”, when these children are reduced to mere shells of human beings. Their spirit is long dead by the time they are forced to accept “clients”. Then they are paraded in a line to a client, who “chooses” his favorite girl. And rapes her.

One rescued girl, probably about 14 years old, tells you that she had been in the “business” for 6 years. She, like all others, was exposed to multiple partners every single day, and had to “work” every day without rest. The prevalence of HIV/AIDS amongst these children is huge, worsened by a prevalent myth that sex with a minor or virgin will cure you of AIDS.

You encounter some of the pimps and brothel owners, who are incredibly dedicated to their ”cause”. In one police raid (carried out due to constant pressure from the International Justice mission), a brothel owner (a “madam”) is arrested. When interrogated, she says (with a poker face) that there are no minors in the building. But a rescued former victim is with IJM and the police. She leads the cops through trapdoors and corridors to a hidden room, where there are a dozen caged children, all of whom have not yet entered their teens.

Here are the words of one rescued victim, who starts to cry as she recalls the horrors she’d been through.

“The first night they forced me to have sex. When I refused, they held me down, beat me and raped me. I was seven years old.
-- Gina, who was raped by 14 men on her first day in the brothel. She is now dying of AIDS

Which animal would do this to young girls (some as little as seven or eight years old)?

When the movie ended, the audience was silent for over five minutes before any one could find the ability to ask questions.

Sunday, June 26, 2005

The quest for a perfect dosa

America has its pancakes, France its crepes, but the pinnacle of flat, fried, batter evolution was achieved in South India, with the creation of the. The average Kannadiga calls it a dosa, elsewhere in Tamil Nadu it will be called a dosai or a thosai, “North Indians” (any one who isn’t from the southern four states) insist on calling it “dosa” (डॊस as opposed to दॊस), and eat it with “sambhur” (as opposed to sambhaar), but what's in a name? That which we call a dosa by any other word would taste as good. They come in many shapes and sizes; small and large, crisp and dark or light and soft, and with or without stuffing. Yet, ask a connoisseur of South Indian food (“tiffin” to be precise) what the king of good food is, and more often than not, “dosa” is chanted in reply.

I have been searching for the perfect dosa ever since I was a little lad, barely tall enough to reach the kitchen-counter at home. The type of dosa does not matter. The traditional popular favorites remain “plain” dosa, masala dosa and rava dosa. But destiny (in the form of my mom) has been kind enough to supply me with elusive masterpieces like the “arasi” (rice) dosa, or the “seera parupu” (Moong dal) dosa. A dosa in solitude can be plain, mundane, sometimes even boring. Yet, in the company of good chutney (with the optional sambhaar) it reaches sublime heights. The chutney should ideally be thick, cool, coconut chutney, but mint, or tomato-onion, or even “gongura” work beautifully. Sambhaar, however, sometimes tends to overwhelm the taste of the dosa, and even an average dosa passes muster when eaten with good sambhar.

Like the explorers of old, I have roamed streets and traveled to the remotest corners of southern India to find the perfect specimen. In Jayanagar 4th Block, a suburb of Bangalore, an enterprising hotel owner (Ganesh Darshan) started a “Dosa camp” some fifteen years ago. A little stall was set up outside the hotel, and the finest professionals that could be found were hired to make a dazzling range of dosas. Their traditional “Bangalore” or “Mysore” masala dosa, crisp and dark on the outside, soft in the inside, with a layer of red spice, a dollop of divine potato-onion filling and a lump of butter became an instant hit. So too did their “cauliflower” dosa, and the rava dosas. But sometimes ambition and imagination got the better of them, and they conjured up bizarre concoctions like the “Benaras paneer” dosa, or “Kashmir” dosa (how a quintessential South Indian delicacy got those names eludes me), which though palatable no longer remained a dosa. Yet, in spite of their popularity, this treat still costs just Rs. 12.

Mysore, that quiet, sleepy town (that is today what Bangalore was in the ‘80’s) has a number of little joints that would make the inventor of the dosa proud, with masala to kill for. But for dosa masterpieces, you need to (in Horace Greeley’s words) go West. Located close to the Arabian Sea, the temple town of Udupi attracts thousands of pilgrims. Yet, the town is arguably even more famous for its sons, who left the town with a prayer to Krishna, and set up “Udupi” hotels across the country, serving amongst other things, fine dosas. Obscure little food-spots in Udupi serve delectable dosas to die for.

Andhra Pradesh and Kerala both disappointed me with the dosas they provided. Across Andhra (from Chitoor in the South to Vishakapatnam further North), it was not so much the dosa itself as it was the watery chutneys that annoyed me. In Kerala, the dosa remains a simple, quick meal, and not a hallowed tradition. But things look up in Tamil Nadu. The highways leading to Madurai have plenty of roadside stalls, which supply the weary traveler with huge and wholesome dosa delights (though some of them have the annoying habit of not grilling the onions well before adding it to a rava dosai). The Chettinad region serves average dosas, but my carnivorous friends swear by the prawn or chicken curry they have with dosas there. Chennai has plenty of dosa-spots, serving excellent “dosais”. However, the dosa plunges to its lowest depth in the two infamous canteens of the Anna University main campus, the ACTech canteen and the CEG canteen. This gift from the Gods is effortlessly reduced to something akin a soggy piece of newspaper by the ruthless assassins masquerading as cooks there.

Bangalore remains the Mecca for the dosa hunter. Three fine institutions continue a long history of serving the finest dosas that come out of batter. The first is the Udupi Sri Krishna Bhavan near Balepet circle, over a hundred years old. Though this restaurant (set up by some proud son of Udupi) is more famous for its masala idlis, the tradition of serving dosas supreme continues to this day. It is one of the few places where one can consume Ragi dosas. Then, there is the “Mavalli Tiffin Room”, a Bangalore institution and a landmark in itself (not to be confused with the MTR fast food joints across the city). Their dosas are very good, but not great. Yet I was sold on them because their masala has plenty of cashew nuts, and dollops of ghee. But the finest masala dosa of them all is definitely found in Vidyarthi Bhavan. Buried amidst the busy lanes of Gandhi Bazaar, near Basavanagudi, this place remains the Temple of Food. For decades, the faithful have congregated here to obtain their daily passes to gastronomic paradise.

If there is heaven on Earth, it is this.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Swatting flies

The humble fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster, can actually be quite a pesky pest. Come spring and early summer (and a little bit of rain), and the banana that was resting peacefully in your fruit basket is invaded by swarms of flies. All they need are some fruit, or a trashcan and some moist corners, to breed in and soon you have a horde of them. The Pacific Northwest, like many other places, has swarms of fruit flies in early summer (when there's a bit of rain, but also plenty of warm weather), and we are under seige. No trashcan is safe, and no fruit outside can hide. In addition, though these flies are primarily just a nuisance, they can also be disease vectors.

This is the time when people waste their hard (or otherwise) earned money on toxic bug sprays (Even some bug sprays that are "100% natural" can be harmful. Everything natural need not be toxin free). Or else they make multiple trips to the store (because they keep forgetting to buy fly paper). But that needn’t be so.

My friends have patiently waited for me to discover something spectacular, and patent some new drugs (or have some such similar delusions), so that they can buy stock in my imaginary company and become rich. Thus far, I have been singularly useless for them. But today I shall change all of that (and redeem myself) by revealing the flytrap I have made and effectively used to get rid of the pesky flies.

Fruit flies like “fruity”, fermenting smells. They practically live by smell (having 36 classes of olfactory receptor neurons, just to smell!), hunting down their food by sniffing around. So, to make the perfect flytrap, just take a glass (or a beaker, or small cup or any small container), pour a little bit of something fruity and fermenting into it (apple cider is fantastic, so too is vinegar, or some spoilt wine), and add a few drops of dishwashing soap to it. Then seal the opening with plastic wrap, and pierce a few small holes in the seal (with a fork or something small), to create openings a little larger than the fly. Now, keep this on the table (or near the trash can, or fruit basket or wherever) and go take a walk. Or, if you are sadistic, sit and watch. You'll see flies slowly being drawn to it, like iron to a magnet. They'll first alight on the glass, then make their way into the little holes, all the way down to the liquid. And then they'll drown, and….die like flies! The decreased surface tension (due to the drops of soap) is enough to ensure that they cannot escape.

Die fly, die!

So much more efficient and smarter than bug spray and flypaper, don't you think? Works for houseflies also, but less efficiently.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Graduate Journal: Geek talk

Most of my friends here at UW happen to be pursuing their PhD's in something or the other. Since most of us are in different areas of research, we talk a fair bit about what we do to each other. Unfortunately, over the years, our conversations are becoming more and more incomprehensible to everyone else. Here's a sampling of a couple of typical dinner conversations with some of my friends some weeks ago.

"The Phantom results closely resemble my MATLAB simulations, but that Turkey breast won't respond properly to the damn ultrasound....."

"ToF-SIMS is really working out to be this great technique....I'm able to analyze complex protein films on many different surfaces......"

"Predicting protein structure to totality is still impossible, but ROSETTA is doing a really good job, and have come up with some predictions for medium size polypeptides with RMSDs of 3-4 A. Their algorithm is really neat and......"

"I've come up with a new analog screen against this protein, using an ITC to obtain accurate Ki's. If something works out, we might be able to design better inhibitors to this in the long term"

I think all of us are doomed, and in a few years from now will be complete misfits in society.

At least I found someone special and got married.

And I have a BLOG!

Monday, June 20, 2005

Fresh puffs, dilpasand and a little nostalgia

What the Irani café was to Mumbaiites, the humble Iyengar’s bakery was to Bangaloreans. After a hard day at school, and a long bus ride back home, there could be no greater treat awaiting me than some warm vegetable puffs and fresh pastries from the local bakery (Maggi 2-minute noodles be damned!).

These little bakeries were omnipresent, dotting every large street in just about any Bangalore suburb, especially the older residential suburbs like Jayanagar, Malleswaram, Basavanagudi or Rajajinagar. My own haunts in Jayanagar had some of the best bakeries anywhere. The delightful aroma of fresh baking would greet the weary walker who passed one of these. Most of these bakeries were just called “Iyengar’s bakery”, or “Bangalore Iyengar’s bakery”, but some of them would make a strong statement of individuality by imaginatively calling themselves “LB Iyengar’s bakery”, “YB Iyengar’s bakery” or something on those lines.

The variety of products, so to speak, would largely be identical in every Iyengar bakery in town. The sweet tooth would be treated to orange, sticky honey cakes, or just plain old super-sweet cream pastries, or “butter biscuits” or novel treats like their own invention, the “Japanese cake”. And then there was the magnificent dilpasand, and the sublime dilkush. Many people were never sure which was which (since they look somewhat similar), but to the cognoscenti the dilpasand always has sweet stuffing with coconut, while the dilkush was more mundane with reddish-brown stuffing, and never had coconut. For savories, you had the dazzling choice of fresh vegetable puffs (unlike their Hyderabadi baker counterparts, the Iyengar bakers would never serve egg puffs), salt and “khara” potato chips, khara (spicy) buns, “palya” (vegetable) buns, and a little something modestly called “toast”. This “toast” had little to do with its namesake, a slice of bread browned by a toaster. Here, bread was taken to sublime heights, by topping it with a “patented” recipe that was yellowish, had lots of onions, some tomatoes, and LOTS of spice. It often made your eyes water (while its smell made you drool), and just like Lays; you couldn’t stop with just one.

My own patronage was split between two bakeries. There was one, right by my house in Jayanagar 9th block, and another, less than a kilometer away, in 4th T Block. This second bakery was run by a friendly Iyengar baker we secretly and uncharitably nicknamed “goondan” (Tamil for fatty). That wasn’t saying much, since every single Iyengar baker worth his salt was plump, with a well-rounded paunch, clean-shaven, and with slick, oiled-back hair. Goondan fit the description perfectly, but also wore spectacles. The first bakery in 9th block was run by Goondan’s younger brother, Goondan Jr. (little fatty). Together, they were trying to squeeze out another Iyengar baker, who was located exactly halfway between their bakeries. To their advantage was the fact that they were both right by the 9th block or 4th T block bus stands. I preferred Jr. since his bakery was just a block from our apartment, but B and K would make me get off the bus a stop earlier and drag me to Goondan, claiming his puffs were vastly superior to his brother’s (just because THEY lived closer to Goondan’s bakery). I (naturally preferring the company of good friends) would sulkily follow. Their theory was shattered when we once saw Goondan Jr. running his brother’s bakery in 4th T Block, and we found out that they often baked their goods together in the mornings, and sold them at the two separate stores. But B would still stubbornly continue to insist on Goondan’s superiority (experience, he said).

I paid Goondan Jr.’s bakery a visit this March. I hadn’t been there in over a decade. A warm smile still greeted me, but the hair was graying, and wrinkles lined his face. He didn’t recognize me. As I was polishing off my third palya bun, I asked him how business was.

”Paravailla Sir, atharu munthe thara illa” (Not too bad, but not like it used to be).

He said he was selling half as many loaves of bread as he did ten years ago. His son and daughter are both in Engineering College, and they don’t care much about the bakery.

Bangalore has changed tremendously, and the sleepy, laid back suburbs are a distant memory. There’s a Café Coffee Day or Barristas in every corner, or an upscale bakery, where people can sit in (often air-conditioned) comfort, chat and munch their 50 rupee pastries. The joy of spending that soiled five-rupee note on a scrumptious treat, and indulging in friendly local gossip is also becoming part of that distant memory.

Saturday, June 18, 2005

On Open Source

This recent post of mine was read out on radio Open Source, in a program called "blogsday". This is an hour long program where actors read out bits from blogs of all kinds, written over the course of a single day.

It's an hour long program, and my bit gets less than a minute, so it took a while to hear my bit, but some of the other posts read out are fascinating. Makes a good weekend hearing.

You can listen to the entire post here.

And, I'll also make a pitch for Open Source. Their blog is fantastic, and fun to browse through!

Thursday, June 16, 2005

When paranoia prevailed

The incident of a couple of nights ago left me a little shaken. Especially since I've never been abused while alone (but a couple of times when with small groups of Indian friends). I will add that Seattle in particular is largely extremely liberal, and very, very tolerant. And most Americans are largely very friendly, and tolerant. A couple of freaks does not a country make.

However, this reminded me of an incident that happend to four of my very good Indian friends here. When they told me what had happened, I was more scared than I have ever been.

Late last summer, these four (who are/were PhD students here at the University of Washington) decided to go on a small road trip and explore a bit of Eastern Washington, and Idaho. Thorougly enjoying the spectacular scenery of mountains, canyons and rivers, they reach the heart of Idaho, and are near this tiny town of Twin Falls, Idaho (population probably 30000). This is miles from the nearest city (if you can call it that), Boyse, and is really in the midst of vast, empty, beautiful landscape. The claim to fame of the town are the twin waterfalls that fall over cliffs just outside the town. My friends pull over at a scenic view point, to admire the view. One of them is the best photographer I know, and he busily tries to get the best angles of the sunset over a bridge spanning the small canyon. Meanwhile, a car with an elderly white couple in it starts pulling into the view point, suddenly stops, and then rapidly reverses and is drives off.

My friends, satisfied with their excellent photography, move on to the visitor center. There they find out that the river is bone dry, and there isn't even a trickle of water in the waterfall. So they decide to head off and explore some nearby cliffs. They hop into their car, and start munching some Doritos (yuck!). As they are about to start their car, suddenly a couple of police cars pull up, sirens blazing, and a cop announces over his loudspeaker that they need to stay where they are, with their hands visible. My friend freezes with the Dorito half way into his mouth. The cop walks up, with another standing behind as "back up". My friends are questioned. "Where are you from", "What are you doing here", "Are you carrying any firearms"!

Apparently, some couple had called the cops, and said that they had seen some Arabs standing near the bridge taking pictures, and had overheard them talking of blowing up the bridge! Yes, in Twin Falls, Idaho, of all places! I can only imagine how dumbstruck my friends must have been when they heard this.

The cop took their IDs, left for a few minutes, and came back after having verified that they were indeed PhD students of impeccable standing at the UW. He was very polite, and apologized for the trouble caused. The cops pulled out, and these four started the car and drove off. They found four other police cars parked at strategic points, in case they tried to "get away".

They didn't stop driving until they reached Seattle, 500 miles away.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

And then there's this

It was about 11 pm last night, and I was walking back home from a friend’s
place. It’s dark, and the street is not crowded. I cross the street and continue
to walk. I hear a voice.


Against my will I turn back.

”Yeah, you BOY!” he yells from his rusty Ford pickup truck, stopped at the traffic signal.

”This is for you, you fucking jihadi.”

The beer bottle lands 6 feet from where I stand, somewhat paralyzed.
I turn back, and walk away briskly.

This has happened to me many, many times. And each and every time, I have the same feelings of fear (terror?), contempt, confusion and anger.

Monday, June 13, 2005

Affirmative action: Take 1, 2, 3

Anand’s pithy post prompted me to complete this post, which has been incomplete for a while now.

Many people ask “Why can’t we have a caste free meritocracy? Why should we support affirmative action/reservations when we don’t believe in it?” Well, that is a hard question to answer, but in order to create a level playing field, empowerment of ALL is necessary, and affirmative action (when implemented properly) will result in that. It will take time, cannot happen overnight, and a painless transition is difficult. If you want to take a karmic view about it, we need to pay for the sins of our forefathers (or our past lives). There is no way around it.

But here are three specific, separate instances, where reservations have lead to markedly different outcomes. Think about them.

Take 1: This was about 10 years ago. In school, I had tons of friends, and I didn’t know what caste most of them belonged to. Even if I did, it was just a bit of trivia, and the four varanas themselves were something we came across in the history books. We took our 12th standard exams, and suddenly, we had to apply to colleges across the country, and take different entrance exams. The application forms confounded us with lists of a few thousand sub-castes, listed under OC, BC, MBC, SC, ST and whatever else. Our results came out, and we were discussing our likely futures. A very good friend of mine didn’t seem bothered by his not-so-stellar performance. ”I’m MBC, I’ll get into REC Suratkal computer science without any problem,” he declared. Now, his family was extremely affluent, and his garden was bigger than my apartment. His family employed one cook, one housekeeper, one driver, one gardener and one watchman. He came to school in his own Kinetic Honda, at a time when my cycle was my most prized possession. How was he “most backward”?, I wondered. Social empowerment through reservations?

Take 2: I’ve been involved with some projects working with dalit/SC communities in a certain district in a state in India. The region this is based in has primarily two dalit sub-castes (yes, there are dalit sub-castes), let us call them A and B. Sub-caste A actually did not traditionally do the most menial of tasks. They were predominantly landless daily-wage workers. In the 1992 census, the community was largely illiterate, poor, and had little social empowerment. Mandal happened, and much else. The community, though poor, was quite assertive and aggressive. They also became politically very active. Due to this, they made full use of every available opportunity due to reservations, starting from educational institutions, to village governing bodies, local government, legislature and assembly, and posts in government bodies. Their economic status improved slowly, but their social status improved rapidly. They soon moved into the main village (leaving the dalit houses that usually are OUTSIDE the main village). Today, their literacy rate is on par with the state average, and is even more promising when one looks at children in primary schools. Social empowerment through reservations?

Take 3: In this same district, there is also dalit sub-caste B. These dalits are amongst the lowest of the low castes, with their traditional occupations being leather working or manual scavenging. They are extremely poor, and the 1992 census revealed a literacy rate of 11% for men, and 0% for women (things are better now, with the community rate being around 20%). They were socially and economically at the absolute bottom of the heap. In addition, they are a rather timid community, terrified to raise their voices (unlike A). They have (till date) not been able to use ANY of the reservations available in education, local government, or government institutions. They are politically leaderless. All the reservations available to dalits in the district are used up by sub-caste A. Today, B continue to live in dalit hamlets outside the main village. What is far worse is that they are considered untouchables by sub-caste A, who will actually not allow sub-caste B to use their (A’s) water hand pumps. Invariably, through some perverse fate, B’s graveyards are always on the other side of the main village, but they are not allowed to take their dead through the village. Instead, they have to take detours (in some villages, up to 10 km), to reach their burial grounds (they bury their dead). Social empowerment through reservations?

Here you have it. Take 1,2 and 3. Think about it. Also think of political will to enforce change (and the need for new classifications of sub-castes), and present day reinforcing of caste barriers. And how we ourselves contribute to it.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Plagiarism lows

Sunday morning trivia, and I google for leopards in Bannerghatta national park (a small but remarkable National park of scrub-deciduous forest near Bangalore). The first hit takes me to the official Karnataka tourism website, and this is what it said about the national park.

“Bannerghatta National Park
For a walk on the wild side, look no further than the southern outskirts of Bangalore city, where you can find everything from avifauna to panthers in the Bannerghatta National Park. The 25,000 acre park is home to panthers, lions, tigers and a large variety of birds. Indulge your sense of adventure with a lion and tiger safari for a tête-à-tête with the big cats. You could also wander through the Zoological Garden, with its canopy of shady and sturdy trees, find a quiet resting spot beside a pond and watch waterfowl frolic. The zoo boasts an amazing reptile collection; a snake park lets you get up close and personal with the scaly, slithery creatures. A children’s corner provides an added attraction. Trekking enthusiasts will enjoy Uddigebande (3.5 kms.) a natural rock formation called Hajjamana Kallu (3 kms.) and Mirza Hill (1.5 kms.).”

I then check the second link, from an eco-tourism company called Indian Wildlife Resorts, and my eyes nearly popped out when I read THIS on their website.

“Bannerghatta National Park
For a walk on the wild side, look no further than the southern outskirts of Bangalore city, where you can find everything from avifauna to panthers in the Bannerghatta National Park. The 25,000 acre park is home to panthers, lions, tigers and a large variety of birds. Indulge your sense of adventure with a lion and tiger safari. You could also wander through the Zoological Garden, with its canopy of shady and sturdy trees, find a quiet resting spot beside a pond and watch waterfowl frolic. The zoo boasts an amazing reptile collection; a snake park lets you get up close and personal with the scaly, slithery creatures. A children’s corner provides an added attraction. Trekking enthusiasts will enjoy Uddigebande (3.5 kms.) a natural rock formation called Hajjamana Kallu (3 kms.) and Mirza Hill (1.5 kms.)”

I’m a little shocked, since they hadn’t even bothered to change some adjectives of the description (or was it the Karnataka tourism site that plagiarized?). So, I go on to check the NEXT link on google, from ANOTHER eco-tourism company, the very well-known Jungle Lodges. And, guess what THEIR SITE says?

“For a walk on the wild side, look no further than the southern outskirts of Bangalore city, where you can find everything from avifauna to panthers in the Bannerghatta National Park. The 25,000 acre park is home to panthers, lions, tigers and a large variety of birds. Indulge your sense of adventure with a lion and tiger safari ……(snip)………amazing reptile collection; a snake park lets you get up close and personal with the scaly, slithery creatures. A children’s corner provides an added attraction. Trekking enthusiasts will enjoy Uddigebande (3.5 kms.) a natural rock formation called Hajjamana Kallu (3 kms.) and Mirza Hill (1.5 kms.).”

Three different websites/companies, all describe one of India’s lesser-known National parks (most Bangaloreans themselves only know of the zoo next to the national park), and ALL THREE have identical descriptions, to the punctuation marks. Who copied from whom? I don’t know, and frankly, that is not the issue at hand.

The plagiarism rot has set in very deep within the Indian society, and the problem really starts in our schools and colleges. In school, students do science or social studies projects on various topics, come up with beautiful charts or models, and do not bother to cite their sources. In colleges, students don’t blink twice before copying the record notebooks of the “class fruits” (“pazhams” in Tamil), the one or two conscientious students in class who take the pains of doing their assignments. The plagiarizing students don’t even bother to change typos and spelling mistakes. Citations and references? Forget about it.

When you do something wrong for a long time, you no longer feel you are doing wrong. Especially if everyone around you is doing the same thing.

Post script
Nitin Pai of the Acorn had his blog plagarized recently (as Michael points out), and was justifiably mad. I think this post (where even a humble and obscure National Park's website was plagarized) just shows how deep the malaise has set in.

Friday, June 10, 2005

Song of the Redwood

190 BCE Rome was a little village on the Tiber, and I was a young.

5 CE Christ was a little lad somewhere, but I was a giant.

400 CE Kalidasa wrote poetry and plays, while I sang with the clouds.

1220 CE Genghis’ shadow darkens Europe, while mine heals those below.

1600 CE Birds tell me strange white men walk where red feet ran.

1789 CE Who is this George Washington? My eyes grow weak.

1864 CE Now the black man is free, but where are my red friends?

1906 CE The earth trembles, and I see fair Francisco in flames!

1933 CE Men! Cruel men! No, not the axe!

Something I wrote, when I saw the trunk of the giant redwood tree in the Redwood national park, CA.

The tree was 2,200 years old when some men, perhaps 22 years old, had cut it down in1933. A slice of the tree trunk has been preserved for posterity, for us to see, with dated inscriptions on it.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Role reversal

Like many of us, I grew up in a city (Bangalore), received my education in English (the snooty Convent types), and went on to college. I happened to go to Anna University in Chennai (then only CEG, ACTech and MIT), considered to be one of the top technical universities in India, where the medium of instruction continued to be English. A majority of the students there were from cities. Students from other states (perhaps 5-10% of the student population) were always urban, from Bangalore, Mumbai, Pondicherry, Delhi, Cochin, Hyderabad and the like, while most of the Tamil Nadu students were from cities like Chennai itself, Coimbatore, Madurai, and sometimes Salem or Tirunenvelli. Most students were either comfortable in English, or fluent and articulate in English, wrote well in and (in all probability) thought in English.

But since it was a state government institution, it was obviously open to all TN state board students, irrespective of language of instruction. This meant that students from rural or underprivileged backgrounds, with Tamil being the medium of instruction were also admitted. Many of them were first generation learners, and they were meritorious students, who had obtained State ranks. They had done their best in the education they had been provided with, and had scored outstandingly in their 12th board exams. And now, they were suddenly in a world that operated in English.

The thoughts for this post came from a conversation at Charu’s blog. These students often took a while to adjust to the college surroundings. In the first semester, they looked lost. Not only did they have to adapt quickly to the big city, but they had to adopt a language they were not comfortable with as well. Earlier, their classes would all be in Tamil, but suddenly, it was all in English, which was (at best) a second language for them at school. They were extremely uncomfortable in their surroundings, intimidated by more confident urban English-medium students, and reticent. For some of them, it became extremely hard to cope with coursework. Their grades dipped, and going from class toppers (in their old schools) to strugglers probably resulted in a huge loss of self-esteem. Yet, a majority of them took up the challenge with determination. They worked far harder than most of us did, and prepared meticulously for their exams. Most of them stuck it through, and by the end of the fourth year of college, they were different people. Confident and composed, with vastly improved written English, and sometimes even excellent spoken English, many of them are now employed in India’s blue chip companies, Infosys, TCS, Reliance, Bata, Wipro, you name it.

I look at myself, with my English education. Suppose fate had so desired that I had ended up in a college where the medium of instruction was Kannada, or Tamil or Hindi, what would I have done? I can “read” Kannada (the billboards, or the headlines in Prajavani), I can “read” Tamil (the bus numbers and destinations). I can read Hindi (a newspaper or novel perhaps). But would I understand Thermodynamics in any of these languages? Or Unit Operations? Or Laplace Transforms? Or Immunology? Or Bioorganic Chemistry? I think not (do they even teach these subjects in regional languages?). Would I even pass the courses, leave alone maintain a high GPA? Where would my own self-esteem be? Would Infosys ever employ me? Would I have even survived college?

It was commonplace for the students from English medium backgrounds to make fun of these students. It was common for those students from Tamil medium backgrounds to feel lost and a little alone. Yet, where the far greater effort was, and where the greater strength is, is obvious.

Monday, June 06, 2005

The Scavenger's Son

Forty-six years after India’s independence, the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act was passed in 1993. This meant that finally manual scavenging of human excreta and the operation of dry latrines would end, and finally the Dalits who had spent lifetimes carrying out this reprehensible task would be free. Yet (as this article shows) the number of manual scavengers have not decreased, but increased. There are nearly 800,000 such scavengers still in India.

In an Utopian world, an Act would be enforced by the State. But we know that India is far from Utopian, some states farther than others. Many states have not even begun to enforce the act, and politicians continue to pretend that the issue does not exist (since there are neither votes nor money in it), while night soil scavengers continue to suffer in silence.

I knew next to nothing about manual scavenging of dry latrines. Like most of us, all I had to do was flush, and presto, the toilet was spotless. On other occasions, while out on NCC camps, we would answer this call of the wild in the wild, mug and torch in hand. But once, I visited a small town where the latrine drained into a mini-septic tank. The tank happened to be horribly clogged, and a scavenger was summoned. He staggered in, drunk on cheap Indian toddy. He HAD to be intoxicated, because it was the only possible way a human being could survive the noxious and putrid tank. He had no gloves, no masks, and no protective clothing. All he had was a stick, a shovel, a mug and a bucket, with which to extract the muck. I must have been around fourteen years old then, and I ran away in disgust and shame, wanting to puke. I could not bear to watch.

A year ago, I chanced upon an English translation of Malayalam writer Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai’s story “Thottiyute Makan” (Scavenger’s son) for 50 c in an used bookstore (ISBN 0-435-95085-7, Amazon link). This is the story of the scavenger Chudalamuttu. Born into a family of scavengers, he swears not to become one. Yet, upon his father’s death, he has no choice but to become one, because he is not allowed to change his profession. He struggles through life, striving to break free, and finally becomes an undertaker at a graveyard. That, to him, becomes a huge step up.

The writing is moving, even in translation.

"…..Yet deep down there was a touch of uneasiness, which showed when he asked, “Aren’t they men too? Don’t they have children and infants, Keshava Pillai”?

With an expression of amazement, Keshava Pillai asked, “Are they men too? Fine!........."

Chudalamuttu strives to keep his own beloved son away from his profession. He sends his son to school, names him Mohanan (and the people laugh when they find out that a scavenger’s son has a fancy upper caste name like Mohanan). It seems as if his son might grow up to become something else. But tragedy strikes in the form of a cholera epidemic. The inevitable happens while you fervently hope it doesn’t.

Read it if you can.

Saturday, June 04, 2005

Memorable bumper stickers

Quotable quotes I’ve seen on car bumper stickers (which were so good that I ACTUALLY REMEMBER WHERE I saw them).

“Everyone who is a wanderer is not lost” (my apartment parking lot).

“Boys are stupid. Throw rocks at them” (College Station, Texas).

“Gun control is not about guns, it’s about control”
(Washington State, on I-5).

“We are Microsoft Resistance is Futile. You will be assimilated” (Redmond, Washington, right near Microsoft building 32).

“My other car bumper sticker is funny”
(University of Washington, Seattle C-10 parking lot).

“My karma ran over your dogma” (College Station, Texas).

“There are two kinds of pedestrians….the quick and the dead”
(Manhattan, New York City).

“Computer literacy? You mean my computer can read?” (Urbana, Illinois).

“I may be slow, but I’m ahead of you” (seen on I-5, SR520 (both in Washington State), in Texas, AND in Illinois. This one is clearly a bestseller, and rightly so).

Do you remember any (do not google for them :-))?

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Book tag!!

Gasp! I've been Shanghaied, and Chocolates and Gold coins have swamped me. I’ve been tagged by Michael Higgins. I was also book tagged by the inimitable Uma of Indian writing.

Unfortunately for my wife (it used to be my parents) I’m an inveterate bibliophile, and have groaning bookshelves with too many books (not all of which I’ve read). There are books on the floor, books on my bed, books on my desk, books on top of the television, books on the couch… get the picture.

The last book I bought:
(whispering softly and shifting my feet) “A Sanskrit grammar for students”, Arthur A. Macdonell.

The last book I read:
William Buck’s “The Ramayana” and Pico Iyer’s “Video Nights at Katmandu” (I usually read two books at a time).

Five books that mean a lot to me: Five is too small a number, but I’ll try anyway. There may be better books, but these are five amongst my favorites.

1) Ernest Hemmingway’s “The old man and the Sea”: It’s a travesty to just call this book “the longest short story ever written.” It was written when Hemmingway was at his lowest ebb (after “Across the river, and into the trees” was panned by critics). He came out with the story of Santiago, and to me, Hemmingway had reached a lofty summit with this book. It may be narcissistic, it may be excessively sentimental, it may be simplistic, but when I read it, the hair on my skin rose. The last chapter, when the boat makes it back, but the mako was just bone…….literature doesn’t get much better in a 100 pages.

2) P.G. Wodehouse’s “Leave it to Psmith”: To me, this will remain Plum’s best book. It also ended the illustrious career of one of Plum’s most memorable characters, the sophisticated, monocle wearing, smooth-talking Psmith. It brought out the best of Psmith literature, as well as the entire menagerie of Blandings Castle. And Plum’s language is sheer descriptive poetry.

3) Terry Pratchett’s “Small Gods”: No one would classify this Discworld classic as high literature. Pratchett writes funny, smart stories. That’s it. But in this novel I found satire and parody of the highest order.
“…………Like Brutha, a simple lad who only wants to tend his melon patch. Until one day he hears the voice of a god calling his name. A small god, to be sure. But bossy as Hell.” (From the paperback. Note the capital letters.)

4) Gary Larson’s “The far side”: If you haven’t read it, get it now, and keep it in your restroom. The morning job never was happier than while reading Larson. Especially if you like science.

5) George Orwell’s “Animal farm”: I read it for the first time fifteen years ago. I did not sleep that night. When Boxer was loaded on to a glue truck, I wanted to cry. Every time I have re-read it, I have put it down a little shaken.

I ruthlessly tag these excellent bloggers, and look forward to what they come up with.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Of languages and tongues

Many of us know that Sanskrit is one of India’s two Classical languages (the other being Classical Tamil). It was also the language of Indic religions, with a substantial chunk of Hindu, Buddhist and Jain scripture written in Sanskrit or languages directly derived from it. In classical language terms, it is part of the “Big seven” (the others being Latin, Greek, Arabic, Chinese, Hebrew and Tamil) that had a tremendous cultural influence that far exceeded their “official” territorial boundaries. But this post is not about that. Rather it is about Sanskrit’s relatives and evolution of tongues.

Languages are dynamic, growing rapidly and evolving with their surroundings and interaction with other languages. However, Sanskrit is almost unique in that it was artificially preserved for posterity, and its rules do now allow further evolution. “Sanskrit”, or more correctly “Samskrita” approximately means ornamented, improved, and “perfected.” It was the language of the elite, the learned, and scholars alone. The common man spoke a “Prakrita”, that which was natural, common and ordinary. These were languages like Pali and Gandhari, tongues that were close brothers of Sanskrit, but not bound by code, and continued to evolve. This artificial preservation of Sanskrit became complete with Panini’s masterwork of Sanskrit grammar, the Ashtadhyayi, composed in about 500 B.C. Subsequent generations adhered absolutely to this work, and the language remains preserved almost intact to this day.

Sanskrit belongs to the “Indo-European” group of languages, and that means it is in fact related to some languages of modern Europe, and Central Asia. But how can one say that these languages are really related? Remarkably, language evolution can be mapped just like genetic evolution. The Sanskrit root Asti becomes Esti in ancient Greek, est in Latin and modern Romance languages, ist in German and, you said it, is in English. The Sanskrit nama becomes onama in Greek, nomen in Latin, and name in English. But are similar words enough to show language relations? No, because similar words could also be “loan words” (which will come a little later in this post). Relationships are also subtler, with shared grammatical forms not obvious at first glance. The singular form of Sanskrit asmi (I am) is sum in Latin, asi (you are) is es in Latin, and asti (s/he is) is est. This relationship is maintained with the plural. Sanskrit pashyamaha (we se) is Latin specimus, pashyatha (you see) is specitis, and pashyanti (they see) is speciant. But here the pashya sound is speci in Latin. The Sanskrit verb root pash means “see”, but this is actually a later Sanskrit root. The older root had an s (as seen with words like spashta, clear), changed (yes) over time. More amazingly, every Sh sound in Sanskrit becomes a C or K in Latin. Importantly, script cannot be used to compare language relationships. Script/writing evolved after language, and often one language just “borrowed” the entire script of another language. So yes, English is indeed distantly related to Sanskrit. But if some cultural chauvinist insists that English is derived from Sanskrit, it is not true. Given current historical evidence, all that can be said is that Ancient Greek (and Latin), Persian and Sanskrit share a common ancestor. That is all.

But we know that all languages constantly evolve. Change is the only thing that is permanent. So did Sanskrit absolutely avoid change? No, because that is scientifically impossible. Change can be minimized, but not avoided. For example, Sanskrit was in constant contact with Dravidian tongues for three thousand years. The Dravidian tongues, being rapidly evolving tongues, assimilated Sanskrit extensively, and Sanskrit words are common in these languages. This is what is meant by “loan words”, words borrowed from another language, but assimilated completely. The extent can be little (like Tamil, which has only about 10% Sanskrit words) or extensive (like Kannada, with over 50% of its words from Sanskrit). But Sanskrit did not avoid change completely, in spite of its best efforts. Words like nagara (town) or mayura (peacock) are, incredibly, loan words from Classical Tamil. English has happily always accepted “loan words”, and has taken in words cheerfully from Greek, Gaelic tongues, Indic languages (and not just words like guru and pundit), African languages, Malay, Chinese, Russian and even Native American languages. Could it be one reason why it is so successful as a global language? I don’t know, but it’s fun to speculate.

Postscript: Also read Srikanth's excellent article on the Sanskrit grantha script. I also would like to acknowledge Prof. Richard Salomon, a magnificient Sanskritologist.