Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Let's become children: Where ignorance is bliss

On the eve of New Year I toyed with several topics to blog on. The decade that passed has been eventful, especially for America. The decade opened with a tragic attack on 9/11 and is passing out with a gut wrenching economic crises, two wars and a failed terror attempt. I will leave those topics for magazines to ruminate endlessly and in turn let me leave this year with a fond, probably naive too, hope.

We were visiting my brother-in-law in North Carolina for X-mas. My 4 year old and his 3.5 year old both hit it off great. It was warming to see kids play with each other. Just like kids they would hug each other tightly and be chummy for the most part and then suddenly fight over a toy. After a short tiff all would be forgiven they would then go back to chasing each other with peals of laughter. Their love has an abiding quality and meaning. The fights had meaning only in that short lived moment, not beyond. What a lovely childlike, rather Godly, impulse that gets lost in adults. Having lost such a childlike quality we seek refuge in fancy theories and books and psychologists to make sense of conflicts that tear apart relationships and souls. Probably a deeper theology underlies in celebrating Gods as children, Krishna and child Jesus being the most prominent.

Often the phrase "ignorance is bliss" is used in a negative connotation. Not many realise that T.Gray actually meant it as a compliment and said it in a wistful mode that let children have their blissful ignorance after all once they grow up this world filled with cares will rob us of our joys. (Thomas Gray's complete 'Ode on a distant prospect to Eton' http://rpo.library.utoronto.ca/poem/884.html)

Alas, regardless of their doom,
The little victims play!
No sense have they of ills to come,
Nor care beyond to-day:
Yet see how all around 'em wait
The ministers of human fate,.......
Since sorrow never comes too late,
And happiness too swiftly flies.
Thought would destroy their paradise.
No more; where ignorance is bliss,
'Tis folly to be wise.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

X-mas : A season for giving and forgiving

Two events in the backdrop of X-mas season tickled my thoughts to write this. I work for a major European investment bank in NY that recently organized an event called "toys for tots". 'Toys for tots' is a program run by US Army marine Corps. Companies partner with the Corps, they collect toys from staff and through the corps distribute it to needy children who cannot afford X-mas gifts. The Marine Corps is running this program since 1947 (http://www.toysfortots.org/about_toys_for_tots/toys_for_tots_program/origin_and_evolution.asp). This is just one aspect of charity giving that hits an all year high during X-mas. Companies partner with major non-profit organisations and announce corporate matching grants where the company puts a dollar for each dollar donated by employees. Companies consider it a prestige to exceed targets. Corporatised philanthropy has its benefits, its targeted, its reach is much wider, money is accounted for, programs are monitored and reported on. A popular charity drive is to get used winter coats for the needy, another network collects women's suits to donate to aspiring low-income professional women.

Giving is just one part X-mas, a consciously cultivated sense of forgiving is the true spirit of X-mas. MLK Jr captures this wonderfully in a sermon. Peter asks Christ "how many times shall I forgive if my brother sins against me, seven times?", the Lord answers "seventy times seven". MLK explains that when somebody can forgive a wrong doer 70 times 7 (490) then forgiveness becomes a habit. "PEACE" is the recurrent theme in New Testament. Matthew admonishes a worshipper who gives offerings while he runs a feud with his brother "leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift." Life is not a game to rebuke anybody as "too little too late in the game". When asked to be taught how to pray Christ offers the Lord's prayer which emphasises forgiveness "And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive them that trespass against us".

This X-mas season and in seasons to come let us give as much as we can and learn the art of forgiveness enough to make it a habit.

Given the recent bad press on corporations and CEO's I could not resist adding the following:

Bill Gates Foundation is the richest and best run charity organization. Gates is redefining how charity is done. Impressed by the impeccable nature of Bill & Melinda Gates' work Warren Buffet, the second richest man, bequethed his entire wealth to the Gates foundation. Barack Obama's charity contributions rarely rose above a paltry 1% of his gross income (In 2001 he donated $1470 out of $272,000) until he decided to run for President. Al Gore set the record for political doublespeak, he donated $353 in 1997 when he earned $197K.

Barack Obama Charity details: http://taxprof.typepad.com/taxprof_blog/2008/03/obama-releases.html

Friday, December 4, 2009

A few thoughts on the Economic meltdown of 2008

Reading an article on Neel Kashkari in Washington Post today I felt compelled to write on this subject. Kashkari, of Indian origin, shot to prominence when he was tasked with overseeing $700 billion in TARP (Troubled Asset Recovery Program).

By now a linear storyline has emerged in the minds of the populace that a bunch of CEO's in wall street ran the vaunted American economy tanker aground thanks to unbridled 'greed'. The line from Oliver Stone's film "Wall Street" spoken by the character Gordon Gekko, "greed is good, greed works" became oft cited. Nobody cared that the actual line was "Greed, for lack of better word, works". Big difference. St Paul did not say "money is evil", he said "love for money is evil".

Is it even remotely possible for a clique of guys in pinstripe suits to bring a $14 trillion economy, the economy of the only super power, to its knees? When Congress dithered on passing a staggering $700 billion stimulus/bailout plan Ben Bernanke, Fed Charirman, Hank Paulson, Secy of Treasury, lobbied senators behind closed doors. Hearing what they said Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said "my jaw just dropped". The bottom line message delivered was "no time to play partisan politics, if the bailout does not pass Congress come Monday morning there will be NO American economy". Apocalypse would have looked like a picnic in comparison. When the economists at the Fed looked at the data staring out of their PC screens what they saw was akin to a patient whose blood stopped flowing. The credit markets were simply frozen. Nobody, absolutely nobody, was lending to another person or bank. Credit, the blood and oxygen of an economy, that too of the worlds largest and most powerful economy was simply in a stage of a coma. Banks did not know if the collaterals offered, complex structured securities, where worth anything to be lent against. Nobody believed the credit ratings anymore, credit rating agencies themselves were in a tail spin.

To attribute all of this to simple greed is too simplistic and self serving, especially when mouthed by politicians in the heat of a campaign.

Lets take a small slice of contrarian view. There is furore amongst the Afro-American community that foreclosures have hit them the hardest. Very true. What is conveniently glossed over, if not hidden, is that banks did not dupe them, or at least most of the time. Banks have been compelled by legislation to invest in under served communities, CRA (Communities Re-investment act). Most who applied lacked documentation for income, many would not qualify for loans under normal circumstances. When banks asked for proof's of income and proof of ability to pay etc they ran into rough weather, lawsuits alleging 'discrimination' sprouted, including one by a certain community organizer named "Barack Obama". I am not for a moment suggesting that this was the only reason for the crisis. I just want to shine a light on lesser known but vital components that helped create the mess.

From consumer to politician today everyone rails against banks for 'enticing' gullible consumers with fancy projections of how properties would appreciate and how such appreciation can be tapped into in the form of more loans to finance dreams of cars or just plain re-finance the home. Give me a break. American economy, the capitalist component is based on the premise of 'personal responsibility'. When a guy, family of 5 with 2 daughters in college and gross household income $90,000 buys a home with swimming pool at $500,000 what can one say. Irrespective of any fancy enticement or math wizardry of the house appreciating in double digits the guy is facing the immutable logic of what he can afford. That too when he took a interest only loan betting that when the house appreciates he will re-finance and THEN start paying measly principal, I call it plain "nuts". Yes, the American style of consumerism encourages risk taking. But risk and recklessness are not synonyms. When a well educated young working couple buy a home stretching a bit by 20K or 30K they have a decent chance of coming clean, that's calculated risk but what the guy did was sheer recklessness. CNN once featured a forlorn single mom in Florida lamenting about how she has to foreclose. The camera goes around the home and I saw a pretty swanky well kept home, the kitchen had a Wusthof knife set (retails at $750 at discount). This woman was a realtor too. She had bought a home way beyond her earnings and bought it on a 'interest only" pay option loan.

Amongst the carnage blame can go around sufficiently to how Congressmen and senators sought to use the quasi-federal agencies of Fannie and Freddie to further their own political mileage with constituents. The easy money policies of Fed, under Alan Greenspan fuelled the housing crisis that finally brought America to its knees.

The derivatives market, short sellers, math wizards behind bundling of securities etc all had a role. To blame each and everyone with just greed and malicious intent bordering on calling them as just thieves is sheer stupidity. I've worked for one of the ratings agencies and I've my highest regard for that company as a corporate entity. Companies exist to maximise profits, to deny that is to deny them a reason to exist. Companies innovate to differentiate themselves. The innovations in capital markets were not done to swindle a gullible consumer. That they went awry and need to be reworked is part of being a resilient capital market. America will find its feet again.

CEO's have no joy in seeing their firms get obliterated in a tsunami of crisis. One could comment wryly that the hundreds of millions lost by Lehman CEO Richard Fuld really does not change his life style unlike the thousands who lost their jobs when Lehman went down. Agreed. But to characterise Fuld as some swindler is gross injustice. Thousands of Lehman employees have made a fortune working for Lehman. Also beyond a point its not only about money, imagine the humiliation that Fuld had to endure with jeering crowds carrying placards when he appeared for Congressional hearings. One can only imagine how his ego might have hurt. In the final moments of his company going under he pleaded with all and sundry to save his employees by buying Lehman.

Then there are the conspiracy theorists of how Goldman Sachs alumni control US government. Hank Paulson, ex-CEO of Goldman, had to forgo hundreds of millions in selling his Goldman stocks prior to joining Bush administration. Show me a politician who does that. John Thain who took over Merrill after Stan O'Neil was ousted was excoriated for spending $100,000 decorating his office while company was going down the tube. Note that the crisis which finally engulfed Merrill had nothing to do with John Thain. In fact Thain helped avert a catastrophic event by orchestrating the merger with Bank of America. Contrast that with how Barack Obama behaved. He too inherited a crisis, he too inherited deficits yet he had no problem in taking Air Force one and the presidential entourage to make good on his promise to Michelle for a date night in NYC if they won. Wow....Nero anybody.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Obama and Afghanistan imbroglio

I'd like to state one thing at the outset, Obama is my president too, as an American citizen I'd like to see my President succeed for then America succeeds. A registered republican appearing on CNN said the same and David Broder, Washington Post's columnist, captured that correctly when he wrote "the average American wants his President to succeed".

I winced when, of all the press, the European press lectured Obama to decide soon enough on his strategy. The "Telegraph" from UK and "Der Spiegel" both ran less than flattering editorials. At home many in his own camp were uncomfortably wringing their hands as Obama took 90 days to decide. Republican commentators had a field day on his "dithering". Michael Moore who famously caricatured Bush for sitting quiet for 5 minutes after learning of the 9/11 attacks went incognito.

There were leaks and surmises. When General McChrystal went public with his request for troops there was animated discussion on whether Obama should fire him for violating the chain of command a la Truman firing MacArthur. His own cabinet was divided between non-escalation (Joe Biden et al) Vs escalation of troop levels (Secy of Defense Robert Gates and Hillary). Obama was unperturbed by the outside chatter, he coolly asked his team to evaluate, re-evaluate, go back to the drawing the board for more options etc.

Finally he gave a speech at West Point, America's most hallowed military academy. His left wing devotees winced at the very Bush like venue. The speech was a good one and as usual a tad longer. Obama addressed most concerns head on.

Obama gave McChrystal less than what he wanted, 30,000 troops versus 40000+ requested. This is public gamble. If the gambit pays off then Obama would have proved the wisdom behind civilian control over army. Else he would pay dearly for second guessing his own general. This is a risky gambit that every American President has had to contend with Truman upwards.

The sickening question of deadlines was addressed too but with some political wiggle room. An open ended commitment, like Bush, would have warmed the hearts of republicans but sent his left wing flock scurrying home to look for another messiah. I disagree with commentators parsing his commitment for withdrawal in summer 2011 provided ground conditions meet certain benchmarks. Many say this is contradiction. Some commentators point out that once we announce a date all that the Taliban have to do is just lie in wait for that date and then wreck havoc. Then they proceed to ridicule the wiggle room of "ground conditions permitting" after committing to a date. This is nothing to ridicule about. Obama is attempting a very tough sell here to an American public that, thanks to the increased security today, has become a little too complacent about threats and more importantly is concerned about job loss than another attack. The health care reform impact on an economy reeling from record deficits, not entirely of Obama's making, the unemployment and the costs of this escalation are valid concerns. Obama paraphrased Thomas Friedman when he said that America's economic prosperity is the cornerstone of its power status. Shoring up the dollar is as important as shoring up Iraq and Afghanistan.

The best part of the speech was when Obama put a stop to the Vietnam comparison. Very sharply worded he differentiated the Vietnam imbroglio with Afghanistan. Afghanistan is not seeing any populist surge. Afghans would still like to see Taliban wiped out, more schools built, women able to walk freely in the streets etc. There are challenges in the form of war lords etc but that is NOT populist insurrection.

Let us note that when Obama took office Afghanistan had less than 30,000 troops compared to 150,000 in Iraq. Afghanistan has the reputation of being the graveyard of empires, the Soviets left Afghanistan when their empire crumbled. Karl Rove is peeved that Obama did not credit Bush in his speech for the Iraq surge strategy which is being copied now in Afghanistan. Mr Rove should be happy that Obama did not justifiably excoriate Bush and his team for the Afghan mess.

All that apart here are some inconvenient truths. Most of the world took umbrage at the Iraq war as US imperialism, many wanted to impeach Bush for War crimes, many opined confidently that Iraq war was illegal, Michael Moore had a field day ridiculing Bush's claim of many allies in Iraq war front. Now lets look at Afghanistan, a war that was unanimously agreed to as 'justifiable and legal response', NATO had signed on, UN security council endorsed it. CNN's John King put up a map of troop deployments and made a telling point. NATO, non-US, troops were in regions which had almost zero conflicts while US troops were the ones mostly taking heat in Taliban infested regions. A fellow commentator ominously chimed in "this is America's war". A sad truth. Also Bush was often cited as a factor for other countries not stepping up their role in Afghanistan. Yet with Obama at the helm its no different. Its unfortunate that the world at large think of Afghanistan and Iraq as America's problems, especially Afghanistan.

Thomas Friedman's latest column beautifully stated one thing "Many big bad things happen in the world without America, but not a lot of big good things. If we become weak and enfeebled by economic decline and debt, as we slowly are, America may not be able to play its historic stabilizing role in the world. If you did'nt like a world of too-strong-America, you will really not like a world of too-weak-America — where China, Russia and Iran set more of the rules."

Friedman opposes Obama's strategy and chimes "Iraq was about “the war on terrorism.” The Afghanistan invasion, for me, was about the “war on terrorists.” To me, it was about getting bin Laden and depriving Al Qaeda of a sanctuary — period. I never thought we could make Afghanistan into Norway — and even if we did, it would not resonate beyond its borders the way". This from Friedman who consistently admonished Bush for Iraq and pouring so much resource into it.

For the sake of America and the world lets hope Obama succeeds in both Iraq and Afghanistan. To the American soldier who heads out to the front we say "Godspeed and God bless you all"

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Ayn Rand: Enduring allure and enigma

This month could easily be called the Ayn Rand month. Two biographies, critically acclaimed, and a Harvard symposium all had Ayn Rand as theme. Ayn Rand is now the most cited author by those wary of Obama administrations policies. Her name now echoes across vital issues that are whipsawing the country. From bank bailouts to taxing millionaires to including a government run public option in health care it is Ayn Rand who is evoked consistently. Harvard university organised a seminar titled "From Ayn Rand to Ken Feinberg", the speaker was, very curiously, Elliot Spitzer who had quit his governorship for having frequented "escort girls". [Ken Feinberg is the 'pay czar' who now decides on the pay and more importantly bonus structure in banks like Citi and Bank of America, two of the biggest recipients of US aid to stay afloat].

Ayn Rand is principally known for "Fountainhead" (1943) and "Atlas Shrugged" (1957). "Fountainhead" is probably read more than "Atlas". "Atlas" is a tome at 1000+ pages, one speech alone runs for 50+ pages, of course it is a tedious novel and made more tedious with philosophical expositions on 'meaning of money', 'meaning of sex', a parody on 'from each according to his ability to each according to his need' and more. 'Atlas' was Rand's last fiction. Both novels were panned by critics, then and now, her ideologies were ridiculed, her writing style was mocked, she was mocked as a person, none of her books garnered ANY prize major or minor. Yet Ayn Rand remains a phenomenon.

Rand's biographer Anne Heller reports "in a poll in the early ’90s, sponsored by the Library of Congress and the Book of the Month Club, “Americans named ‘Atlas Shrugged’ the book that had most influenced their lives,” second only to the Bible." Both novels continue to sell by the thousands, almost 50 years after publication. No adoloscent who fashioned himself/herself as a discerning intellectual has passed through the academic portals without reading Rand, this despite the fact that Rand's book are rarely included in academic curriculum across the world.

Rand's books have been assailed by critics for a certain lack of 'greyness' in the way she portrays her characters. Everything is black and white. In fact the villains in her novels are mostly crucibles of everything that is undesirable in her eyes, she would not even bestow physical attractiveness to them. Her heroes and heroines are perfect, a Nietzche-an super human. Well what can one expect from a novelist who titles her chapters as "A is A: Non-Contradiction". If one looks for Dostoyevsky or Tolstoy in her then its not her fault, her chief pride is that she is NOT a Tolstoy.

Also curiously most readers fall in love with Ayn Rand in their 20's and mellow their ardour by the time they reach 40's. When you are 20 and when you are subjected to standard academic diet of preaching it is inevitable to find inspiration in Hank Rearden who finds a new metal. Who can deny the rush of adrenaline when Dagny Taggart's train crosses a vital bridge built with Rearden steel. Any 20 year old would be conjuring images of their own "revolutionary crossing", complete with a comely Dagny or Hank Reareden at their side, depending on the gender. It is expected of teenagers (and adoloscents) to be intoxicated with having unlocked the puzzle of the philosophy of sex reading Francisco's speech (who cares if the author's own personal life was a self destructive). Every teeming capitalist out to shape the world thinks they have understood Adam Smith reading the speech on "meaning of money". Also it is helpful that Alan Greenspan, the much adored Fed Reserve chairman, was part of the Ayn Rand circle. Above all Ayn Rand bestows on her readers a sense of 'elitism' overlooking the fact that the reader is part of a multi-million commune of Ayn Rand worshippers.

It is a pride for Ayn Rand lovers that she was not honored by the literary establishment. Its a badge of honor for her readers. That literary critics despise her books is a stamp of approval in a perverse manner.

What is it with so called lovers of "rationalism" that they act in the most craven manner of idol-worshippers. Here is what is common between lovers of Ayn Rand and EVR, both have legions of worshippers who sing praises of rationalism and reason as long as that mirror is not held up to question their own idols. When Ayn Rand and her paramour Nathaniel Branden fell out, the members of Ayn Rand's collective debated whether it would be a rational response to kill Nathaniel Branden who refused to be enthralled by an aging Ayn Rand and instead opted for a nubile woman. The Ayn Rand insitute today more jealously guards any portrayal of Ayn Rand in any light that is less than flattering.

I love her books. Anyday when I need to buck myself up I do continue to pick up Atlas Shrugged. However I'd never rate her anywhere close to Orwell in opposing totalitarianism. What Orwell achieved in less than 100 pages in Animal Farm Ayn Rand could only remotely achieve in 1000+ pages. Thats why 'Animal Farm' remains a classic and 'Atlas Shrugged' remains a bestseller. In English the word "Orwellian" connotes fear of totalitarianism but Ayn Rand has not entered the lexicon.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

CIT Harmony 92: Window into Cultural festivals and a big win

Cultural festivals are often seen as 'rowdy, skirt chasing, bunking classes and everything that is not for an honorable Indian student. As often in life that is generalized, too generalized and completely disregards so many other nice aspects of these culturals.

I've seen astounding creativity in cultural festivals, boys and girls whom we could not even imagine doing something would surprise you with talent. A shy and withdrawn girl would surprise by her poetry. An unassuming guy could write a poignant story in no time. One guy could populate an entire hall with carvings in soap. A photographer capturing the beauty of a girl's eyes. A girl as next-door looking as they come could take the breath away singing zoom-zoom-baba leaving you searching for her the next day amongst hundreds. A teenager with Beethoven in his name would play a multi-tiered keyboard catapulting his orchestra to a bumper win and mesmerising the crowd. Talent shows were fertile ground for mediocrity and soaring creativity too.

Of course the adolescent streak is dominant, to pretend otherwise is to insult the reader. A bunch of girls from Bangalore dancing in mini skirts on a raised stage would be a crowd puller in Coimbatore. The topics for most events like Poetry writing or painting or photography would have something to do with romance or girls or something titillating. When our team from Shanmugha (SCE in short) was prepping for those events my college lecturer, our team supervisor, asked for topics that we can kind of get prepared for. I gave a few, he replied "one track mind". I was on target though. A college cultural festival is not an academic festival and it is organised by teenagers for teenagers. Lets get that straight.

CIT (Coimbatore Institute of Technology) used to organize one of the biggest cultural festivals in TN. Well over 60 colleges would participate drawing the cream of participants. PSG Tech, PSG CAS (PSG College of Arts and sciences), Anna Uni, IIT's, REC's all would come. CIT's festival was called "Harmony". My first sojourn to Harmony in 1991 was a non-event, I fell sick and returned the second day, the only grace was I had bought Francis Bacon's "Essays" from a Higginbothams at Kovai. Hhmm does not saying Kovai sound so much better than anglicised Coimbatore. I marked out the Essays that Will Durant in his "Story of Philosophy" had specified as must read. The "Everyman" edition was elegant with the essays incorporating Latin proverbs and a neat glossary to explain each proverb.

I was back at Harmony in 1992. My team mate for debate contest was my good friend Raajesh Ganesan (he loves the extra 'a' in Raajesh). A very fine gentleman who later was the first guy in SCE to write GRE scoring 2100. He respected my skills a lot and we were a good team. He was no pushover either. Drawing lots the topic assigned to us was "Brain Drain". One member had to argue for and another against. Raajesh told me "Aravinda you make the pick where you can be the most forceful and eloquent". This topic was close to me heart. Having suffered the barbs of reservation and yearning to get out of India, which then was a very intellectually stifling country, I jumped at arguing for those who left the country.

We also decided that Raajesh would go first and speak against those who left India. He, incidentally a Brahmin who wanted to go to USA, despite his convictions, played his part. I took the stage next. To say I sizzled was an understatement. Thanks to my father I never subscribed to the typical craven way of opening speeches by addressing all and sundry, it was always "Good evening everybody". I opened by taking the audience to 1940's. Scientists, primarily Jews, were fleeing Nazi Europe to America, the land of liberty. The tide of scientific supremacy turned. Germany the cradle of Quantum physics fell behind while America, at the urging of Einstein and immigrant scientists raced to discover the atom bomb. The world was never the same again. I ended with a punch line "let the brains drain out of this country lest they go down the drain". We sailed into the finals.

Here came a quandary. The team we were up against had an IIT'ian and another guy. We were approached by the organisers that the IIT team was illegal because the competitors came from different colleges. Practically two guys had teamed up. If we lodged a protest they would be disqualified and we would compete against another team. The IIT'ian came up to me and said "hey lets compete, we are here only for the prize money, you can keep the certificate I'll arrange it". Now this IIT guy had just created a rave in a previous competition called JAM (Just a minute). In JAM a contestant has to talk fast with no big pauses in grammatically correct English. If anybody in the audience finds a mistake he/she would be stopped. Nobody could stop this guy. He was on a roll, he was nicely ribald too. Many girls loved the ribald part. [In fact that year CIT had a competition called 'latent talk' purely double entendre talk, it was a hit with girls. Girls love Harold Robbins or Mills & Boon while guys go for the unvarnished stuff]. I felt if my win had any meaning it would be to beat this guy. I said lets go for it.

The topic was "Foreign investment boon or bane". We drew lots and our team had to speak against investment. A sure loser side given the winds of change in 1992 and the dire economic climate of the country. I knew if we won it would not be based on arguments or evidence so the speech itself was lackluster. The question and answer round was where we had to play it. One of the panelists, a girl student, tried to push Raajesh into a corner by forcing him to say 'yes' or 'no' to an inconvenient question that could really trap us. Raajesh was hemming and hawing, the girl kept badgering "say yes or no". I took the podium and with an imperious wave of hand and a baritone voice that needed no microphone boomed "life is not always a yes or no, let him explain". More than the repartee the manner it was delivered brought cheers from the audience, the girl backed down. Meantime my college team that was scattered across competitions all flowed into the auditorium. This was new experience. SCE in the final round, about to win a big competition, lot of points at stake. Sheer satire and sarcasm flowed thereafter. We won in a thunderclap of applause and adulation. We had won big in a 60 college competition beating all other elite colleges. The college itself did not win any other big event, that too in first place.

When we came home to Tanjore we were feted. The college Secretary, now chancellor of SASTRA, brought out a press release to highlight the achievement.

Before I wind up here is a very interesting tit bit. In June 1991 I was selected, in the first place, to be part of Bharathidasan University's cultural team for debates/elocution. It was a first such win for SCE, it created a splash, that too was reported in the press. One day after all that hullabaloo the first year exam results came. Aravindan had failed in English. One one hand the university said I have to represent it for English elocution competitions and on another hand I was declared a failure to pass the exam. Of course we appealed for re-evaluation. My English professor as subject teacher gave a strong recommendation in the justification. Finally I was cleared with a 30 mark increase. I went on to be selected for Bharathidasan University for three years in a row. Unbeaten record till today.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Prof.TRR, KGS, a literary forum and standing ovation

After my +2 exams I went to Karunya Engineering college enticed by the brochure that highlighted "Siruvani rivulets". Given the "incurable romantic" I was I imagined strolling by Siruvani with some lass. After joining the college I beat a hasty retreat, part home sick, part disgusted with suffocating religiosity, part scared of hostel food. I joined Shanmugha College (SCE) in 1990.

At Karunya, I and my dad were offered a seat for completing the formalities. So naturally I sat in the chair opposite to the Principal. Prof T.R.Rajagopalan (TRR), a frail looking, sternly gazing behind a glass, seated in front of a Gandhi portrait, erupted in anger, "how dare you sit in front of the principal". I meekly stood up. My dad was amused and impressed by TRR. Just before we had gone in we witnessed a spectacle. TRR was dressing down a dad, the son/student standing. The dad feebly defended "his friends are not good". TRR hit the roof "what about his brains, why do you give him pocket money, give him money just enough for bus ticket.."

One day I was in the chemistry lab when a lecturer asked who was willing to speak in the literary forum, named Athaneum, I instinctively lifted my hand. I am a child of the stage, having gone on stage since my 6th standard. The topic was about Man Vs Machine. A 3rd year student did a cheap trick when he opened his speech, he addressed the audience as "Friends, Romans and country men lend me your years", feigned apology for calling the audience as Romans, his thrust was to follow, "they say Rome was not built in a day, well with the power of modern technology and Robots we can". I followed him, a first year student, my opening lines were a stiletto repartee slicing into him "With all the power of artificial intelligence you cannot 'create' ONE single painting of Michaelangelo in the St. Peter's Basilica". The roof came down. A star was born. The language, the diction, the posture, the wit, the scholarship was refreshing to a sleepy temple town. The same guy and I sparred on Gandhi. P.V.Karthik, thats his name, completely demolished Gandhi, ridiculed Gandhi's Brahmacharya experiments etc. I came next. I had summoned Nehru, Shaw, C.E.M. Joad, S.Radhakrishnan, Shelley and more, fired back volley for volley. The symposiarch of the day exulted "Aravindan spoke like a young vivekananda".

Prof TRR started taking notice. After a symposium on Nehru when I scaled the heights of rhetoric he warmly commended me as "you speak like my erstwhile classmate Jaavar Seetharaman". Jaavar, many Tamilians know as the painted English General in Veerapandiya Kattabomman. Jaavar was supposed to be an eloquent speaker in the heydays of Trichy St.Josephs.

By now Prof.K.G.Seshadri (KGS) began treating me like a protege. We talked books endlessly. We both exalted in re-reading "Atlas Shrugged", enjoyed discovering Fritjof Capra, studied Will Durant, savored Bacon and some ribald limericks. Year after year for 3 years I won the annual oratorical contest he held. Awarding me the first prize for my essay "Book I love most:Story of Philosophy", he said "Aravindan wonderful essay, it needed a judge like me".

I had won every major competition there was to win in Tamil Nadu. University contests, College culturals, you name it I had won it. Most were first prizes. Over 3 years I had opined on the fall of communism, Gandhi, Nehru, Women, education, non-violence, 50th anniversary of Quit India and even Gardening.

I had not missed a single meeting of Athaneum. I was its face, a permanent fixture, its identity and its prestige. I was always the last speaker, I had the last word.

I was able to function freely with a wide latitude of intellectual freedom. The best episode was when I questioned the central tenet of the Bhagvad Gita, "do your duty without expecting rewards". I posed Spinoza's aphorism, "passion without reason is blind, reason without passion is dead". TRR a respected sanskrit scholar steeped in Gita attempted to answer me. He respected my questioning. TRR always made it a point to read every student achievement in his annual report on College Day, a good chunk would be my list of prizes. Once the secretary actually arranged a press release to celebrate my university prize.

TRR was the toast of the college. He was a true Gandhian. A very meticulous person, honest to a fault, fearless, punctual, spartan, in short he was a model Principal. He would break a strike by slapping a final year student. His slapping would not be like a rough henchman like but it was like a 70 year old avuncular man steeped in a medieval era concept of student-teacher relationship. The best part would be seeing the hefty taller student walk away meekly from a man whom he could have snapped in two easily. TRR always respected my forthright views and my integrity in voicing them. Often my friends would kid me that the guy on stage was mature beyond years, weighing opposing views and voicing support in a scholarly framework. Off stage I was a typical student. I felt I had a responsiblity when I spoke from the stage.

I brougt home laurels undreamt of by Shanmugha. The biggest upset victory was winning the debate in CIT Harmony 92. I won against 60 colleges including a very talented speaker from IIT. By the time we reached finals our entire team came into the hall to see a headline victory. Verbal volleys, satire, sarcasm, sharp wit were in full flow we won handily. It was quite a sight to see an audience of 1000 erupt in applause and celebrate the victory of a student from what was a non-descript college then.The hallmark of my career was consistent winning. I repeated the feat in 93 Harmony. In 1993 it was a jackpot event. I had bet that I would win in first place. If I had failed our college would lose points heavily. It is said that when Arjuna entered a battlefield and strung his bow Kandeepam, the echo would send shivers down the spine of his foes. One contestant once said "well Aravindan is here, lets just set aside the first prize". A girl once asked me to help her and my two friends objected "oh well he is helping us already", she said "well he can think for 10 people and still beat us all", not to be immodest but I did win the first prize then too. Coming back to CIT 93, I won the jackpot catapulting my college to second place win the culturals. We had made history in SCE.

By now it was 1994 my dominance raised hackles. Judges tried to cut me to size "oh we need to allow others to win". Also I and KGS began feeling that I had outgrown the ability of most judges to judge my speeches. Well not many knew Bronowski or Joad or Hawking or broadly read so I had withdrew. I continued to speak only at the Athaneum.

In the last meeting in my final year I finished my speech and overcome with emotion I said "I'd like to take one last look at the audience, this auditorium and my fellow speakers, thanks to all of you for my rich experiences over 4 years". I stepped down, heavy at heart. Suddenly TRR called me back on stage, he stood up and asked the audience, including many Professors, to stand up and give a standing ovation. I was barely 21.

I owe a lot to my beloved father who groomed me for many years and to Prof KGS who came to treat me as an alter-ego. Of course to Prof TRR who had the largeness of heart to honor a student he had refused to allow to sit barely 3 years back.

I had kept handwritten copies of all my speeches since 6th standard, many with my father's corrections until 10th standard. I had spoken such a veritable number of topics that they were a treasure trove of an adoloscent intellectual. One summer June in 1996 feeling frustrated at lack of progress in life I just bundled it up and threw it into a dustbin. Thats the way the world ends, not with a bang but with a wimper.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Fall of Berlin Wall: An accident?

There is history and then there is arcana. Ask any American schoolboy who caused the fall of the Berlin Wall, he would say "Ronald Reagan", a well informed student might even cite, with justifiable pride, Reagan's exhortation to Gorbachev, "Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall". The same question is Europe would get various answers and various emotional coloring depending on personal political leanings and whether they gained or lost.

A recent Wall Street Journal highlighted a little known arcane information in its series of article leading up to the 20th anniversary of the fall of Berlin Wall on 9th November. I shall intersperse Wikipedia and WSJ article for a contiguous narrative. Wiki article is http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Berlin_Wall#The_fall.2C_1989

"the politburo led by Krenz decided on November 9, to allow refugees to exit directly through crossing points between East Germany and West Germany, including West Berlin. On the same day, the ministerial administration modified the proposal to include private travel. The new regulations were to take effect on November 17, 1989.
Günter Schabowski, the Party Secretary for Propaganda, had the task of announcing this; however he had been on vacation prior to this decision and had not been fully updated. Shortly before a press conference on November 9, he was handed a note that said that East Berliners would be allowed to cross the border with proper permission but given no further instructions on how to handle the information. These regulations had only been completed a few hours earlier and were to take effect the following day, so as to allow time to inform the border guards. However, nobody had informed Schabowski. He read the note out loud at the end of the conference and when asked when the regulations would come into effect, he assumed it would be the same day based on the wording of the note and replied "As far as I know effective immediately, without delay". After further questions from journalists he confirmed that the regulations included the border crossings towards West Berlin, which he had not mentioned until then.

Tens of thousands of East Berliners heard Schabowski's statement live on East German television and flooded the checkpoints in the Wall demanding entry into West Berlin. The surprised and overwhelmed border guards made many hectic telephone calls to their superiors, but it became clear that there was no one among the East German authorities who would dare to take personal responsibility for issuing orders to use lethal force, so there was no way for the vastly outnumbered soldiers to hold back the huge crowd of East German citizens. In face of the growing crowd, the guards finally yielded, opening the checkpoints and allowing people through with little or no identity checking. Ecstatic East Berliners were soon greeted by West Berliners on the other side in a celebratory atmosphere. November 9 is thus considered the date the Wall fell. In the days and weeks that followed, people came to the wall with sledgehammers to chip off souvenirs, demolishing lengthy parts of it in the process. These people were nicknamed "Mauerspechte" (wall woodpeckers)."

The fateful slip was in the sentence "As far as I know effective immediately, without delay". That was in response to a reporters question as to when the new policy of allowing people to cross over would come into effect. The haughty or beleaguered bureaucrat replied off the cuff setting off an avalanche of events that drove the proverbial last nail into the coffin of communism.

Now controversy surrounds over the reporter who is said to have asked that fateful question. This is where WSJ steps in. "Riccardo Ehrman, a veteran Italian foreign correspondent, and Peter Brinkmann, a combative German tabloid reporter, both claim they asked the crucial questions at a news conference on Nov. 9, 1989, that led East German Politburo member Günter Schabowski to make one of the biggest fumbles in modern history....

As the anniversary of that tumultuous night nears, a dispute is heating up over who flummoxed Mr. Schabowski.
Among those who are aware of the incident, Mr. Ehrman generally gets credit. In 2008, Germany's president awarded Mr. Ehrman the country's highest honor, the Federal Cross of Merit. "His persistence at the press conference finally elicited the crucial statement" that brought down the Wall, the citation said: "His name stands for...German unity..."

What can one say but that the juggernaut of history was already rolling and all it needed was one fatal push. An evil empire that imprisoned and killed tens of millions across a continent finally tottered and plunged into a deserving abyss thanks to characteristic bureaucratic fumbling. What a fitting finale.

Here is WSJ's excerpt from that fateful interview:

Excerpt: Asking the Hard Questions
Gunter Schabowski was supposed to announce eased travel restrictions for East Germans. Instead, his answers left reporters with the impression the Berlin Wall had fallen. Here's an excerpt from the Nov. 9, 1989, news conference:
Riccardo Ehrman (reporter, ANSA): Don't you think it was a big mistake, this draft law on travel that you presented a few days ago?
Gunter Schabowski (East German Politburo official): No, I don't think so. Ah... [talks for three minutes] And therefore, ah, we have decided on a new regulation today that makes it possible for every citizen of the GDR, ah, to exit via border crossing points of the, ah, GDR.
Ehrman: Without a passport?
Krzysztof Janowski (reporter, Voice of America): From when does that apply?
Schabowski: What?
Peter Brinkmann (reporter, Bild): At once? At...?
Schabowski: [Scratches head] Well, comrades, I was informed today …[puts on his glasses, reads out press release on visa authorization procedure]
Ehrman: With a passport?
Schabowski: [Reads out rest of press release, says he doesn't know the answer on passports]
Second East German official: The substance of the announcement is the important thing...
Schabowski: ...is the...
Fourth reporter: When does that go into effect?
Schabowski: [Rustles through his papers] That goes, to my knowledge, that is...immediately. Without delay.
Sources: DDR1 archive footage, WSJ research

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Nobel, Nationality and Venky Ramakrishnan

A very interesting news appeared in "The Hindu" http://beta.thehindu.com/sci-tech/article33379.ece?homepage=true . Given that Venky was born in Chidambaram every Tamilian now wants to say hello, in the internet age its easy and Venky's email id is listed too. Apparently Venky is not amused, "All sorts of people from India have been writing to me, clogging up my email box. It takes me an hour or two to just remove their mails. Do these people have no consideration? It is OK to take pride in the event, but why bother me....There are also people who have never bothered to be in touch with me for decades who suddenly feel the urge to connect. I find this strange..People I don’t know, for example a Mr. Govindrajan, claim that they were my teachers at Annamalai University which I never attended".

The cream goes to his remark, "I, personally, am not important. The fact that I am of Indian origin is even less important. We are all human beings, and our nationality is simply an accident of birth".

The enthusiasm of Indians is understandable given that only two Indians have won Nobel as Indian citizens for work done in India (Tagore and C.V.Raman). Amartya Sen got it as Indian citizen but his work was mainly outside India, Theresa's work was in Indian but she was only a naturalized citizen. In a nation starved for global achievers Venky, Rahman, Tendulkar etc are being loaded with expectations and good will.

Was Venky being churlish in his reaction? Not in the least bit. Other than his official biography listing where he studied or where he works we know little of the man, why he left India etc. For a scientist who forsook his adopted homeland, USA, to go to Cambridge for the sake of academic climate, that too with a pay cut, nationalities matter little. National pride, linguistic pride, chaunistic pride in ones own ethnic culture are all very important only for those who have little else to be proud about.

What does Venky owe India, intellectually? I guess nothing and thats the most important aspect. I've often been asked about my lack of pride in my mother-tongue and ethnicity. What can I say except that much of what I respect and love is not in Tamil or in Tamil Nadu. Like Johnson said, patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.

I appreciate Venky's honesty. S.Chandrasekhar, nobel in astrophysics for defining the death of a star (Chandrasekhar limit), was hypocritical on this score. Chandra was sent to UK, to study under none other than Eddington, on Indian tax payer money. The scholarship stipulated that he return back and work in India. Chandra returned back and was asked to work in some lowly position in some government observatory. Chandra petitioned Nehru that he should be released from the obligation as India could not offer him anything commensurate to his abilities. Being Nehru he was obliged. Chandra, promptly left for US and did his research on the death of stars. Much later in an interview with his biographer he objected to brain drain.

Commenting on the rumor that he was offered the top most job in India's premier lab, Venky replied, "Nobody has approached me about an offer to work in India. However, I can categorically state that if they did so, I would refuse immediately".

Contrary to India, USA recognizes that most Nobels this year, though awarded to Americans, went mostly to immigrants. While it is comforting that US is still a magnet for scientific talent America is deeply concerned at the disproportionate number of immigrants as PhD's and the fact that Americans themselves are not pursuing higher education seriously. In fact America has to do more on the green card and visa front to attract talent more vigorously. In a globalised world America cannot afford to "assume" that talent will flock here. Venky himself now works in Cambridge UK than here in US. He prefers Cambridge, for many academic reasons despite the fact that he had to take pay cut.

Einstein lived for many years with no nationality. The entire world is home to genius.Let us celebrate achievements, let us celebrate genius and not get into parochial claims of nationalities.

Friday, October 9, 2009

A nobel for utopia and empty speeches.

The Nobel Peace prize has shamed itself into ignominy today by awarding a fatuous speaker who belts out rhetoric blather. The prize for Barack Obama evoked worldwide surprise and shock depending on who heard it. Surprise for his flock of devotees, shock for his detractors. Anyway the world dropped a collective jaw. We hear that the press hearing the committee announcement gasped. Barack took office on Jan 21st 2009, the nominations for the prize ended on Feb 1st 2009. He surely now ranks as an outlandish case of winning Nobel for 15 days of work.

Barack is the third sitting president to win the peace prize. Woodrow Wilson won it for creating the League of Nations, Teddy Roosevelt won for negotiating the end of Russo-Japanese war and Barack won for.....ah well nobody knows. Carter won it in more as a slap for Bush, Al Gore won for some scaremongering on Climate. Even with dubious merits both Carter and Gore had done some work.

Then there is Gorbachev who tore down an empire, AAng San Suu Kyi living a life of imprisonment, Anwar Sadat & Menachem Begin won for an audacious peace making, Shimon Peres And Arafat too got for peacemaking, Theresa got for a lifetime of service, Martin Luther King for lifetime service...

The Nobel citation says the award was for reaching out and proving negotiations help solve problem. Americans are scratching their heads to find out which problem got solved. The Cairo speech was wonderful rhetoric. Many muslims who listened inside the hall where happy to see a non-white male US president talk to them but many underscored that they would wait and judge based on what further actions Obama took. Apparently the Nobel committee felt no need to wait. He reached out yes and what did US get in return. Pakistan is in flames over US aid. Iran is still gesticulating. Iraqis want America to get out. Afhganistan is imploding.

On national security issue for fear of being seen as a weakling Obama actually has toed the Bush line much to the chagrin of his beloved left wing supporters. Guantanomo will be shut down but nobody knows when. CIA interrogation tapes are to be a secret. FISA bill, authorizing wire taps was voted with then Senator Obama's vote.

On Iran and negotiation its an abysmal record. Today US is threatening Iran with more stringent sanctions. Ah yes in that process US president was lectured by, of all people, a French President on the need to be resolute.

The Nobel prize is usually a capstone, a recognition of a lifetime achievement not an encuragement bromide for utopian lotus eaters.

Today the Nobel Prize has become like a "Kalaimamani" award in Tamil Nadu. Thankfully I wrote my blog on Nobel's before this and the reason I outlined, politicisation of the Peace andLiterature awards, has been proven to be valid.

Given that many a deserving soul lives outside media glare I cannot judge who else is suitable. But how about Bill Gates. The man has not only donated his entire, hard earned fortune, he has completely redesigned how philanthropy is done. How about Bill Clinton whose stellar work in Africa, getting AIDS medicines cheaper by negotiating with drug companies, has saved thousands of lives? How about Garry Kasparov who is waging a struggle against a repressive regime?

Thanks to Bush, hatred of Bush I mean, Obama won the presidency. Now Carter, Gore and Obama all need to collectively thank Bush for their Nobels.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

2009 Nobel Prizes: Stellar year for Women and Diversity

The 2009 Nobel Prizes for Physics, Chemistry and Medicine were announced this week. We still await the prizes for literature, Peace and Economics. Of those the prize on Economics is not really a Nobel. The literature and peace prizes, especially the latter, are politicized. Hence this is a suitable juncture to blog on something wonderful this year. 3 women have won the prize this year. The other winners are an Indian (Tamilian), an Israeli (a woman), British, Canadian etc. Most of the prizes have been awarded to US citizens as most winners hold a US passport. Several, though hold dual citizenship. As a country US has garnered the most but its mostly thanks to immigrants.

For those who often question the practical applicability of the prize winning researches this year's topics are a resounding answer. The Chemistry winners research in RNA had spawned many a life saving antibiotic, the Physics winners in fiber optics made todays communication technologies a reality and for a device (CCD-Charge Couple Device) that is found on every digital camera or camcorder today, the Medicine winners have tapped into an area that can change how we treat cancer. The Medicine Prize and the Chemistry prizes have interesting angles to them.

The Medicine prize was awarded to three researchers, two wome, for their theories concerning "telomerase" an enzyme that is essential to protect 'telomeres' (the tips of DNA strands). NYT helpully served an analogy for telomeres. Telomeres are like the ends of shoe laces that are 'holding the strands together'. But for the telomeres when a chromosome divides the DNA strand would become unravelled. The enzyme 'telomerase' governs the function of telomeres. As we age the 'telomeres', the tip of a chromosome, becomes thinner and thinner during divisions and at one point the cell stops dividing. On the other hand cancer cells multiply because their telomeres are strong. Controlling telomeres could help medical researchers in their holy grail, defeating cancer.

How did 2 women, Elizabeth H. Blackburn of the University of California, San Francisco; Carol W. Greider of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, come about in the same field and win in the same year. "Dr. Greider said she ascribed this to a “founder effect,” the founder being Joseph Gall of Yale University. Dr. Gall trained Dr. Blackburn and other women, and they recruited others to the field “because there is a slight tendency for women to work with other women,” Dr. Greider said. She herself trained with Dr. Blackburn."

Also it is now noted that the paucity of women laureates has less to do with relative merits of the intelligence of women but more to do with the fact that researches are often awarded a prize decades after. The researches in telomeres dates back to early eighties just when women started breaking many a glass barrier. In the coming years we will hope to see more and I fondly hope my daughter would join their ranks too.

The Chemistry prize winner Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, other than his humble origin, is interesting for the fact that he is a PHYSICIST. HIs undergrad, postgrad, PhD were all in Physics. Right after that he started work in the Chemistry department of Yale. Yet again we are reminded of how Chemistry skates close to Physics (http://www.mrc-lmb.cam.ac.uk/ribo/homepage/ramak/education.html) . The Nobel citation also noted another fact, the three chemists who are sharing the prize did not collaborate but were more like competitors unusual for a shared citation. Often the preponderance of Jews is cited in unfavorable light. The Israeli chemist to win,Ada E. Yonath, is a woman.

When I was reading Marie Curie's biography I was struck by her upbringing. While she is rare genius (won both the Physics and Chemistry prize) her childhood had all the marks of a very scientifically literate upbringing thanks to her dad. NYT article on the medicine winners notes "All three of the prize winners seem to have had science in their genes, and certainly in their home environment. Dr. Greider is the daughter of two scientists with doctorates from the University of California, Berkeley, and she, too, has a Ph.D. from there. Dr. Szostak’s father was an engineer. Both of Dr. Blackburn’s parents were physicians". Malcolm Gladwell would play havoc with this info.

"Though Americans have again made a clean sweep of the Nobel medicine prize, two of the three winners are immigrants. Dr. Blackburn was born in Tasmania, Australia, and has dual citizenship; Dr. Szostak was born in London" (NYT). Amongst the Physics winners "All three of the winning scientists hold American citizenship. Dr. Kao, 75, was born in Shanghai and is also a British citizen, and Dr. Boyle, 85, is also a Canadian citizen". The Chemistry team is diverse with an American (of Indian origin) currently working in Cambridge-UK, an Israeli and an American.

One parting thought though. This is the second year in a row where the Physics prize is awared to theories that have had direct consumer impact. Last years prize went to the theories behind what made Ipods and other electronic devices possible. Is the Nobel committee straying from its adherence of awarding mostly to "theoretical physicists". Experimental physicists, most notably Edison, are usually given the cold shoulder by Nobel committees.

A wonderful year for diversity and science. Three cheers.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Thunai Yezhuthu - Vignettes of life by a literary wayfarer.

I always wanted to write book reviews but never imagined I'd start with a Tamil book. I've had my share of Tamil literature as part of school work and later readings of Mu.Vaa, T.Janakiraman, Sujatha and the biggest draw was Jeyakanthan. My reading habit is heavily stilted towards non-fiction so even in English I am not a big follower of literary trends or fiction reader. Since I complain once too often about lack of good writing in Tamil as reason for being alienated from Tamil my cousin lent me a book by S.Ramakrishnan."Thunai Yezhuthu" (a bad transliteration of a wonderful tamil word) actually denotes an accompanying letter that extends a consonant. SR wrote a series of anecdotes laced with reflections in Ananda Vikatan. Reading the anecdotes the cliche "Life is stranger than fiction" rings very true. The collection of anecdotes is very interesting because SR, with a keen literary sense, meets various people and has made a narrative out of many a commonplace occurence. Some observations made in the passing are very cutting. In places where he tries to state the obvious the literary merit suffers. I guess he was conscious about writing for a public not very literary minded.

Apart from the anecdote on Puthumaipithan everything else is about ordinary people their struggles and disappointments. Some anecdotes, by virtue of the sadness involved become very gripping. The story about a girl who borrows from her neighbors on behalf of her father, promising to repay, portrays a vivid picture of a strata of society that lives by middle class codes but could ill afford that. They are in purgatory neither too poor to bother about niceties nor rich enough to keep up. When the home owner suspects the famil had comitted suicide the father remarks "I've no money to buy poison". When they vacate the home SR goes inside and sees that the girl had made meticulous notes of who lent how much money on the walls.

A simple trader in Tanjore (!!!) had spent almost 50% of his income on books. Each book is marked with date, a slip with notes. His son is angry that his father squandered money and wants to sell of the books. SR felt it would be an injustice to buy those books. Later he sees them strewn on the street with a used book vendor.

Having read SR's book "Uba Paandavan" based on Mahabharatha a simple cook at a local eatery sends him a letter asking if SR knew about "Krishna's cook". Intrigued, SR pays him a visit. This is SR's strength, he reaches out to ordinary people. No he does not reach out to all and sundry just to those who interest him. SR goes and spends an evening with the cook, as he is about to leave the cook changes his dress and SR sees a lengthy scar on his body. The cook nonchalantly says "my employer felt I did not add enough salt in the sambar and poured the boiling sambar on me". SR mentions it as just recollection of a diologue but it is a telling comment on socio-economic exploitation that is common in India. Another hotel owner refuses to charge for children, "how much can they eat, let them eat free".

One man writes an angry letter in response to Ubapaandavam and SR feels he should visit that guy. The angry letter writer turns out to be a cycle shop owner taken aback by SR visit. SR and his angry writer spend the day together at the end of which the guy confesses that his father used to beat him up as a boy for reading books and he developed an aversion to books.

A very little known drama troupe lives around Tanjore. They put up plays on Narasimha avatar. Each character is uniquely portrayed with 2 players. The artist who played the demon king "Hiranyan" was famous. Out of two players who played Hiranyan, SR took fancy for one. He narrates how his family was not doing well etc. His wife and daughter come to watch the play and it affects Hiranyan. On the last day the climax takes place, seeing her dad being torn asunder falls sick. Hiranyan later narrates this to SR. SR visits the hospital, government hospital. He sees this actor, who held in thrall a village with his voice and performance, is worried about his daughter and in a very humble manner, with folded hands, asks the doctor "will my daughter be ok". The doctor ignores him and passes by without replying.

SR takes a train ride one day and the compartment is beseiged by buzzing girls thrilled with their win in a hockey game. Suddenly SR sees that their coach is a girl he knew. That girl wanted to excel in hockey in her school days. Her father hates her ambition and breaks her hockey stick. The girl eventually walks out of the home. SR avoids seeing her lest she feels humiliated.

An interesting anecdote is about a pair of lovers. The lovers used to meet in SR's room. They would talk for hours and while talking exchange notes. This went on for a while. One fine day they broke up. The girl gives SR a bag full of corresondence asking him to hand it over to her lover. The guy does it vice versa. Eventually they both get married to different spouses. The bags remain with SR.

A family squabble brings an ornate home to destruction. The home is very ornate and decorous with expensive woodwork. The owner has a strange habit of collecting the keys of the home. The family goes for a out of court settlement and the home is torn down. The owner tracks down SR and requests SR to come and see his dying father. The father wants SR to take a key from his collection. SR has the key till today.

The preponderance of violence in daily life agonises SR. A distraught wife with her son comes to her husband's work place to plead with her husband's manager to give her a portion of her husband's salary. The husband had left the family destitute. The irritated man, feels humiliated and slaps the woman in front of the entire office. Nobody intervenes on her behalf. SR wonders if we as parents sow the seeds for such violence when seemingly innocent violence like killing insects is committed in front of children.

The most poignant story with philosophical overtones is about a Gujarati woman with children. One night a destitute woman with children tagging behind begs for food. Her life and family were torn asunder in the Gujarat earthquake. AT SR's home the woman and children appear to curiously look at a child Krishna picture. Apparently her home in Gujarat had a similar picture, probably a torrent of memory presses on her. An inquisitive SR finds out the details and gifts her the picture. He wonders about the love the woman has for Krishna after living through hell and with her life in shambles.

What can one make of the author and society at large from this collection of essays. SR, as per his blog and an autobiographical essay, was born in a family of deep literary roots. He is a student of English literature, very widely read too. His anecdotes portray a vivid sense of the travails in what passes for 'ordinary' day to day life. His interest in people is evident and his literary sense provides a sensitivity that enriches his perspective. The real author remains elusive though. We understand his concerns and agonies but we know little of his own philosophical predilections. Coming from a deeply political family that considers modern Dravidian politics as the harbinger of equality he shows no analysis of any political ideologies. Probably he considers, somewhat rightfully, that many of these problems cross patry ideologies. On another branch of his family is a devotional streak and we know very little of the author's own religious ideas. Given that these are all autobiographical essays that’s a little disappointing. Though very erudite and a voracious reader himself he does not names drop willy nilly unlike his other compatriots Charu Nivedita or Jeyamohan. I was surprised to read that he had to struggle to get a copy of Tolstoy's 'War and Peace' every book store in US carries a cheap edition of it. This shows how difficult it is to be a well read man in India. As I write this review it also occurs to me that he does not talk much of his college days, professors, mentors, intellectual godfathers.

On a side note it is a curious fact that a student of English literature should become a Tamil literary author. I surmise that the richness of his writings owes a lot to his English literature coursework and his knowledge of English itself opened many a literary door. A student of Dostoyevsky, Borges, Foucoult, Tolstoy, Thomas Mann etc certainly has a wider vision of the world than an English illiterate Tamil medium only student on Tamil literature would. For SR his English knowledge brings the world to his doorstep, no civilisation is beyond reach, be it Greek Tragedy or Franch drama or Russian stories or Latin American novels everything fertilises his world and takes his own understanding of Tamil literature to levels beyond a normal academic student of Tamil literature.

This is a book to be read and re-read. The best way to read it would be story by story with pauses in between. Do not race through them for this is not a Dan Brown puzzle to be solved in the climactic few pages. These are lives. Do not look for any capsule of wisdom or any overarching philosophy that can circumscribe all the stories. There is no single philosophy in the world that can answer adequately all the myriad problems thrown up. Also it would do well to remember that SR wrote this is in a Tamil weekly as nuggets buried in news about film stars, gossips and other pedestrian stuff. He remembers that and we would do well to remember too.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Dan Brown J.K.Rowling and Ponniyin Selvan

Dan Brown's latest book sold one million copies (hardcover+ ebook) in ONE DAY in US+UK+Canada. The publishers are rushing to print 600,000 more. After J.K.Rowling's last Harry Potter book this is the book that publishers and the world in large waited with bated breath for. Literary critics panned Brown's blockbuster "Da Vinci Code". Discerning readers considered it inferior to Umberto Eco's scholarly "Foucault's Pendulum". All that not withstanding Brown made history. Then Hollywood swept in.

J.K.Rowling has a more compelling story. A typical rags to riches story. Legend has it that with her personal life in shambles a penniless Rowling wrote her first installment of Potter sitting in Starbucks cafe. A publisher holidaying in England picks up her little noticed book and gets the rights for USA. The rest is history. But its not as simple as that. What she achieved is of gargantuan proportions. When the last Potter book released across continents and countries far removed from England, kids in Delhi, Chennai, China, Europe, Latin America thronged by the thousands to get their copy of a 800+ page book. If any author is said to have created a world and tapped into an universal conscience it was Rowling. Kids across cultures and worlds apart felt drawn to a wizarding boy battling an unimaginable evil. Eventually Rowling earned more than the Queen, importantly she 'earned' it and also paid taxes.

Hollywood came calling to Rowling too. The Potter films have so far garnered several billions. Here one has to pause and appreciate the vertically integrated model of Hollywood. A book gets published, a production company makes a movie, author's get millions in fees, screen play writers get royalty for DVD bought in addition to fees during the making of the movie, with Blu Ray many buy Potter movies all over again, so repeat consumers. Given the stature of Rowling and Brown they draw up contracts giving them portions of the movies revenues right up to DVD sales.

Before anybody trashes Hollywood for commercialisation and going for lightweight novels let it be noted that Hollywood also made a movie of Umberto Eco's symbolism laden "The name of the Rose", that too starring Sean Connery.

Brown and Rowling are phenomenons re-defining the idea of 'convergence'. There is news now of a Harry Potter theme park in Orlando. Tour operators are busy planning Dan Brown tours in Washington DC based on his latest book. Already Paris has a 'Da Vinci code' tour. If this is commercialisation lets have more of it. Brown's 'Da Vinci' may lack literary merit but he made millions look up "Da Vinci, Knights Templar, Medici, Bernini, etc" in search engines. Those topics became the widely searched ones in search engines. Theological debates on Christ and Church history abounded.

I am often accused of being unfair to Tamil heritage. Here is a thought to mull. Kalki's opus "Ponniyin Selvan" has literary merits far exceeding Dan Brown. For a minute lets close our eyes and see a Dan Brown like transformation for Ponniyin Selvan. A publisher comes out with a nice paperback, artfully illustrated. An offshooot publication for children as comics. A movie deal starring Kamal (its his passion) as Vandhiathevan. Ponniyin Selvan tours in and around Tanjore. Big Temple, Gangai konda chola puram all become hot spots. A corollary industry of books analysing the chola period. Documentaries (how many Da Vinci related documentaries sprouted recently), museums resurrected, cruises on Kaveri with stops along dramatic spots, tourists with multi-lingual head sets....Its a good dream.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Presidential reading list and Ben Stein on Evolution

I have huge differences with a certain personality in Tamil Nadu (DK, supporter of Eelam etc) and when he visited US he stayed with a cousin of mine. I requested my cousin to ask him just one question "What do you read beyond Tamil literature and local news papers?". The answer, as I guessed, was nothing. My cousin later took up with me asking "is that a relevant criterion to judge a person or his views". It is very much relevant. We are what we read, to a great extent.

A pivotal moment portrayed in the movie "Thirteen Days", about the Cuban missile crisis, is how JFK castigates Dean Acheson's fantasy ideas. When most suggest invading Cuba and characterise as if it would be smooth sailing, JFK demurs. He then cites Barbara Tuchman's Pulitzer winning "Guns of August" as to how, in battle, well laid plans and optimistic projections crumble. His reading gave him a perspicacity to see through a smoke screen. Recently when Barack Obama vacationed his reading list made news. It was an ecletic collection that include fiction and as well Thomas Friedman's thought provoking "Hot, Flat and Crowded" about climate change. Bill Clinton before he came to India bought books on India. As incredulous as it may seem George Bush is a voracious reader. Karl Rove and he had a race to see who read more. Of course Rove, the prodigious reader, won but Rove cuts his boss some slack as his boss was "the leader of the free world".

When Rove wrote a column on Bush's reading habits a Washington Post columnist pointed out something important. As impressive as the list was it had books that only conformed to Bush's predisposition nothing that was in the least bit challenging to his outlook. A very good insight.

While not reading something that would challenge what we believe choosing to read from unauhoritative sources just because they pander to our beliefs is even worse. Many a Christian, especially in USA, struggles with accepting 'Theory of evolution'. When Ben Stein, an economist who writes for business magazines, came out with a scathing video ridiculing the academia for not teaching "Intelligent Design" (creationism that passes for science) many latched onto it. Nobody questioned his credentials. Many a conservative writer, Ann Coulter etc, have waded into this topic with no credentials whatsoever. Even Thomas Friedman is now falling under 'dubious authority'. Friedman started out as NYT's Foreign affairs correspondent earning Pulitzer for his stellar reporting from Lebanon. When there was no accessible book to understand globalisation his "Lexus and the Olive tree" was a god send. Then Friedman, who wrote that book based largely as a journalist with a keen eye witnessing a new phenomenon during his wide travels, began fancying himself as an economist+foreign affairs+globalisation+business expert. His subsquent book on India and globalisation, a bestseller, was rated poorly by critics and the knowledgeable.

Reading is important, choose to read variously and choose carefully. When somebody espouses an idea look for what he/she read, you may need not look further. Lets ask our leaders what they read.

Monday, August 24, 2009

LBJ's epochal moment and Obama's lowpoint

Seeing her supposed coronation vanish into thin air courtesy a freshman Senator with more supposedly silver tongue, Hillary railed "you campaign in poetry but you govern in prose". She then cited LBJ's achievement of enacting the Civil Rights bill in '64 and voting rights bill in'65. LBJ succeeded the uber-charismatic JFK under a very tragic circumstance. The country was a sheer cauldron of seething emotions tearing at the seams. A peaceful march was torn asunder by police dogs and water cannon as a nation watched in horror on live national TV. A president was killed. The country which won two world wars was being challenged by bicycle-riders in a hitherto unknown patch of land. LBJ was very unlike JFK, no charisma, avuncular looks, no soaring oratory, no Pulitzer prize. What did LBJ bring to the table other than the fact that he could deliver the 'south' in the election? [Many think Bush V Gore was a nail biter, check out JFK V Nixon and the allegations of rigging that swirl even today].

LBJ, as his biographer Robert Caro brings out in 3 volumes, brought to the table invaluable expertise in negotiating with the Congress. One volume of Caro's biography is aptly titled "Master of the Senate". The long years of forging relationships in the US Senate helped LBJ hone his negotiating skills. Harvard Business Review (HBR) once interviewed Caro to glean management techniques of LBJ that could be applied to corporate world.

The shock and trauma of Kennedy's death, the crescendo of Civil Rights movement both did provide an invaluable impetus in shepherding the landmark Civil Rights bills. However one should appreciate how an almost entirely White congress voted to overcome one of humanity's worst prejudices, that too ingrained over centuries of bias. Signing the bill LBJ is supposed to have said "we have signed away the south for a generation". That signing marked the end of democratic party's hold on southern states. LBJ was a democrat, he moved a bill that virtually killed his and his party chances in the South for generations to come.

When Hillary cited the above the Kennedy clan was peeved. They excoriated her for not mentioning JFK, whose brother RFK had MLK Jr taped by the FBI. Carrying their petulance forward they endorsed Obama in a much publicised event. For her share Maria Shriver Kennedy came straight from her 'daughters horse riding class' to ask the common Californian to vote for 'change' and for 'Barack Obama'. Hillary trounced Obama in the MA and CA primaries.

When Obama got elected duly, his enablers in the press (masquerading as journalists) predicted a new era of bipartisanship unlike the days of Bill Clinton and George Bush. Obama had ripped apart Hillary and Bill (by then they were pejoratively called 'Billary') as having failed to deliver health care reform because of their secretive ways and of course their having 'created' enemies. Bill Clinton retorted "yes we made enemies because we fought the fights that had to be fought like health care, Children's health insurance, FMLA etc". A populace swooning under Utopian ideas floated as virtues bought into Obama and he sailed into the presidency.

Obama came into office with unprecedented love and admiration. Clinton came into office despite 'bimbo eruptions', Bush came into office under a cloud, to put it mildly. Obama came into office riding on the cusp of history, a 'dream' come true, America's moment of redemption, America's repent for its original sin. His approval rating was in the stratosphere.

Then came reality. Unlike Bill Clinton in 92, all Presidential candidates in 2008 campaigned on the promise of reforming health care, cut health care costs, provide insurance for all etc. In 2008 America pleaded for health care to be tackled unlike in 1992. This was his moment to lose. Obama looks all ready to lose this. His legion of internet worshippers are nowhere to be seen. Opinionators predicted Obama redefining the Presidency with his netroots, they thought his legion would be his army of volunteers compelling every congressman to oblige the President for his bills. All of this came crashing down. The biggest let down was seeing the supposedly eloquent candidate hold prime time news conferences on health care only to confuse the viewer further.

All those who shrieked that Hillary will bring back old style politics, too many recriminations, too much politicking are now aghast at seeing Obama being hijacked by his own party. The man who was, conveniently, everything to everybody on the stump, now has his reckoning. He cannot satisfy the fiscal conservative because the reforms he supports are wrecking US deficit (projected at 9 trillion dollars), his liberal supporters are livid at the compromises made.

What is worse, for a candidate whose organizational skills, fund raising abilities, on-message discipline, ad-war abilities, none of that was in display as the health care debate unravelled. Scaremongers had a field day with rumors of 'death panels', 'rationed care' etc. The vaunted Obama operation team just watched. My guess is they were simply shocked that the sheen came off of "the One". I suspect that the shock of seeing their idol questioned put them in a comatose state.

Obama's approval rating continues to plummet and is now on par with G.W.Bush at this point in Bush's presidency. What a fall my countrymen.

If only we had had an LBJ...oops Hillary.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Cow Bells on Titlis and Airport troubles

When I read Naipaul's "Among Believers" based on his travels in Iran/Pakistan etc what struck me most was his detailed descriptions of people, their faces, the dresses, intricate descriptions of places, even the soil, graphic descriptions of rooms, the setting etc. Remember this was before the age of digital cameras, IPhone, voice recorders etc. He probably took notes but reading some passages it made me wonder how did he capture so much detail. I've not read much of real good authors in the 'travelogue' genre. Paul Theroux, Naipaul's one time friend, is famous for that. The other guy who many Tamilians would recommend is Manian, editor of now defunct "Idhayam Pesugiradhu". Manian's travelogues had two persistent features, telling where we can find Idli+Sambar in some foreign country and the next was to get himself photographed with girls in swimsuits. The latter was god send in a starved 70's Tamil Nadu. The info on idlis, which I used to ridicule once, I find quite essential if vegetarians are in the entourage.

Coming to the women. New York, in summer time, is famous for skimpily clad women. I could see some of it in Zurich but Zurich women, especially the ones I saw at Bahnhofstrasse, were classier, the New York kind of 'in your face' skimpiness was not there. Of course I am comparing plebeian Times Square with ultra rich Bahnhofstrasse. I did not see the proverbial American obesity in Zurich or Paris.

I did not maintain notes and wrote from memory mostly, also not in very focused manner. I had forgotten to mention a very wonderful experience en-route to Titlis. As we were ascending towards Titlis in our cable car, with sliding window, over lush green pastures, we saw well fed cows grazing by. "Pastoral" is the one word to describe it. We were hearing nicely tinkling bells and I looked for a church in the horizon. Only after few minutes later did I realise that the cows had bells tied to them. After finishing our trip I sauntered into a souvenir shop I found cow bells at different prices and sizes. Its their national symbol. I bought two very small ones for our curio case.

I had briefly mentioned how Terminal 5 in Heathrow and Zurich airport are ages ahead of JFK and Newark airports (both arterial airports in NY). However what I found in common in all airports is that they have to do lot more for the aged and disabled. Many terminals are far flung and transportation is not seamless. Help is not readily available. Wheel chairs are not easily accessible and when the chairs are around no one is there to push them. We often tell our parents to just hop on a flight and come over. "Its just a flight, its a breeze, its air travel, easier than traveling by train etc etc". Walking from Virgin Atlantic vestibule to baggage collection was quite a hike, luckily our 4 year old was happy to walk. While we wait for immigration clearance baggage are often strewn about. The amenities around immigration clearance is pathetic irrespective of how swanky an airport is. The queues are long and one cannot go to toilets while waiting for clearance.

Airlines are on a league of their own when providing food. Their schedule has no relation to timing for dinner or breakfast. A flight taking off at 9 PM in Newark gives dinner at 12:00 AM. Given that taking food past security etc is prohibited such things pose serious hazards for patients with diabetes or kids. Newark departure terminal is really bad. There was no restaurant to get anything worthwhile to eat. I had had a harrowing experience at Philadelphia airport where , after dumping our food stuff at security check, we had to go without food for 5 hours as the flight was delayed.

Its amazing that in this age of technology airlines screw up on advising if a flight is on time or in giving info on gates. At Heathrow some gates need 20 minutes walk time and gates are announced 40 before boarding. Imagine the plight of aged and those with children or just sick themselves. Once South west royally screwed me in Philly. At check in counter we were told flight was delayed by 5 hours but right above the person checking us in TV display showed that flight was on schedule. I disregarded the attendant and checked in. On reaching the gate we were told of the 5 hour delay again, yet again the overhead TV showed flight was on schedule. When I asked about that the answer amazed me. The TV display is by airport and airline cannot control it. Apparently the airport had wrong info while the airline which had the info did not do anything to correct it.

Travels are good, they expand our understanding, help us get some perspective, we appreciate some comforts we enjoy better seeing others, we also compare and yearn if something could be made better back home. Its an art to go with the flow on travel especially to international destination where we have almost no control. Going to North Carolina in an Acura SUV fitted with GPS is any day much easier than landing in Zurich and wondering if your child can eat something that does not contain nuts or if your parents can have something that's ok. Not being frequent travelers is a problem too one does not know what to expect or one is to scared of not being able to meet ones needs. Traveling light is another art form. No use lugging 5 books, choose one or two good books. No need to take a camcorder, an SLR and a point-and-shoot. If photography is your hubby learn to smile lugging the various lenses. We have decided to make the next trip with as little paraphernalia as possible. Until then Adios!!!