Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Harry Potter and Internet Search

I am re-reading ‘Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone’ these days and found this paragraph to be utterly amusing:

They had indeed been searching books for Flamel’s name ever since Hagrid had let it slip, because how else were they going to find out what Snape was trying to steal? The trouble was, it was very hard to know where to begin, not knowing what Flamel might have done to get himself into a book. He wasn’t in Great Wizards of the Twentieth Century, or Notable Magical Names of Our Time; he was missing, too, from Important Modern Magical Discoveries, and A Study of Recent Developments in Wizardry. And then, of course, there was the sheer size of the library; tens of thousands of books; thousands of shelves; hundreds of narrow rows.

So real life is now better than magic, eh? If they’d been muggles in 2010, all they’d need to do is type ‘Nicholas Flame’ and press enter!

Monday, November 29, 2010

Is Stargate Universe going the Battestar Galactica Way?

I must say the more I watch Stargate Universe, the more it surprises me. It did start with the basic stargate premise. The crew lands on board ‘Destiny’ and ancient ship en-route the far reaches of the galaxy. It as a stargate on it and frequently makes stops in nearby star systems. With that kind of premise, you’d have expected a standard stargate storyline – go on new worlds, meet new aliens, gather token ethnic crew members, bring democracy to oppressed aliens by miraculously killing all their overly powerful overlords and be the good guys.

However, that’s NOT what SGU did. Instead we have a motley crew stranded on this ship with limited resources, lots of enemies and nowhere to turn back. We get people strugging emotionally with all the hardship and separation of loved ones. We get a detailed development of characters who aren’t clearly good or bad. We get a slow meandering storyline in which action takes a back seat and drama reigns supreme.

It’s hard to get used to all this, having years and years of stargate expectations in your head. And at times the whole thing does feel a bit awkward – especially the sentimental musical slow motion shots just don’t feel right on a show bearing the stargate name. But as the cast and crew get more used to this kind of storytelling, the viewers also get more and more absorbed into this completely different kind of stargate.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Movie Part 1

Watched Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (1) a few days back. I liked the movie. More so than the last couple of movies, perhaps. A few observations.

1. Voldemort was positively goofy. He smiled too much and his dialog delivery wasn’t menacing at all. The make-up made you laugh, it wasn’t scary at all. Felt as if someone had duct-taped his nose to the forehead. And he should seriously take some lesson’s on how to be bullying. Snape is a lot more frightening in the scenes they do together.

2. The kids on the other hand, do seem to be taking acting lessons. Radcliffe shows a whole lot more confidence and articulation on screen as do Emma Watson and Rupert Grint seemed a whole lot better too. I enjoyed their on screen chemistry.

3. The movie wasn’t as dark as the last couple. I mean, it was dark because the last book just is so depressing. But it did well with the screenplay and had good moments of comic relief and emotionally well-being.

4. Loved the few experiments they did with the visuals. Loved the scene where the death eaters snatchers come really close to Hermione but can’t see her because of the enchantments. The thing with the viewpoints was well done. Also loved the animated story of the three brothers.

Ethiopia – First Glance

Today, in addition to our regular programming, we feature a guest post by Aneesh Dubey, who is a first year MBA student at IITD. Aneesh loves traveling, writing poetry and critiquing movies. Here he shares with us his very first impressions of Ethiopia, a country that he's had the chance to visit several times in the past two years.

The problem with the media is that it often generates prejudices which are strong, and as I discovered – unfounded.

When the Ethiopian Air plane banked to begin its descent to land at the Addis Ababa airport, I was bracing myself to witness a rundown airport with visibly impoverished staff and almost no facilities. I was scared for the safety of my luggage and also in a vague sense, my own.

The point is that is what you are made to think of Africa – poor, famine struck and criminal. One can then imagine my surprise then, when the airport turned out to be better than most airports I have seen here in India. The immigration process was smooth and people smiled effortlessly. But none of this was to prepare me for what I was to see outside.

As the taxi waded through traffic, I could hardly believe what I was seeing, a large, rich metropolis; with its tall buildings, wide roads and large SUVs. Big Coca-Cola billboards on flyovers and a huge LED screen showing advertisements on the Bank of Ethiopia building. It couldn’t have been farther from what I had imagined. To add to the staggering impact, there was a certain sense of the ‘exotic foreign land’ which Indians generally associate with smaller European countries.

The cars were on the wrong side of the road (24 years of seeing vehicles drive on the right side of the road does make the other side ‘wrong’) which was lined with small bistros and cafes. The weather was chilly by Indian standards and young men and women in typically western clothes dotted the eateries. To add to the exotic was a large number of old VW beetles and buses on the road. The land was most definitely ‘foreign’.

I had read about the communist past of the country and the genocide, but it seemed that they had forgotten it and moved on to a better today. I was later to realize that they definitely had not forgotten the past. The memorial museum had a huge wall of human skulls and the caption said ‘never ever again’.

The half an hour drive to my father’s bungalow was full of prejudice killing moments. And as I got out, the driver who I realised hadn’t spoken to me at all throughout the ride held his hand out and said ‘Welcome to Ethiopia. How did you like my country?’

During my stay there, I did find out many things about the country, and not all of them were as shiny as the city, but still it looked like a country that was walking with an assured gait. A country full of energy and possibilities, and of people with amazing tenacity and verve.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Burqas and Fashion

Recently, there was some discussion on Clarissa’s blog about clothing of (Muslim) women and whether they should be allowed to wear Islamic clothes in western countries.

I don’t really have to say anything about this issue, because I really haven’t made up my mind about it. On one hand, one can conclude that a burqa is a symptom of the oppression of women and banning its wearing brings some amount of freedom to their lives. One the other, it’s an infringement of individual liberty, and insensitivity towards a different cultural ethos.

What I’m reminded of instead is my tryst with burqas a few years back when I was staying in Hyderabad in a Muslim majority area. Almost all women in that area were always seen wearing a burqa and the men always with a beard and skullcaps.

I had always thought of burqas as an austere and simple article of clothing. I had always expected it to be a simple, black, unadorned gown designed to ‘protect’ the modesty of women. But it only took a few days for me to discover burqa fashion.

Burqas were not unadorned. They could be lined with lace, buttoned up or tied around, have frills, waves and falls. The younger women wore them tighter around the hips. Occasionally you even saw a dash of color at the sleeves, though that was rare. I even saw a burqa made totally from denim! You could also see that the whole range was present as far as what you wore beneath the burqa is concerned. You could see glimpses of saris, salwar-suits and even jeans and tops.

And now for something completely different.

I used to check emails at this cyber cafĂ© across the street every evening. One evening there was a girl sitting in the kiosk next to me. She had some problem with her computer and asked me if I knew how to fix it. Normally, I’d have just fixed her problem and not even though twice about it. But in this case I got extremely uncomfortable. I didn’t know if my talking to this girl was appropriate or not!

Friday, November 26, 2010

Should Stop Saying Indian

I guess everyone in India grows up having a soft of dual identity. At least people in my generation do. There’s part of us that’s very western, that watches Hollywood movies and listens to rock music. But at the same time loves to eat out at their favorite dhaba secretly fantasizes about their crush in a sari.

Living in the US now, I can’t help but be more and more divided.

That’s why my reactions to anything are often colored with the differences between India and the US. I often find myself saying Indians are such and such and this is the way they do it in the US. And every time I post these thoughts on my blog, I’m gently (or vehemently) reminded by my readers that, deep down, things aren’t quite all that different.

Often I have to agree with them.

Perhaps I should just stop using words like ‘Indians’, ‘Americans’, ‘western’ and ‘eastern’. Human nature is human nature, after all.

Where does stereotyping stop and characterization begin? Is such characterization any use at all?

Thursday, November 25, 2010

The New House

Lady behind me at the airport on her cell phone:

“No. No. No.”

“No. No. No. No. NO.”

“Listen, Sonu, you know it’s a sentimental thing for me. It’s a new house! Do you know how difficult it was to get it? How much we had to sacrifice?!”


“It’s a very sentimental thing for me. You could have done anything. Why did you have to …”

“No. It’s a new house. You could have done something else! You could have cooked something nice! You could have ordered pizza or something!”

“You’re the elder one, you have to set an example for your brother, na? What will he learn?”

“We spend so much effort in getting this new house and setting it up and the first thing you do is this …”

“NO! You could have done anything! It’s a new house. You should cook something nice! Why did you have to go cook meat!”

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

IITK, Internet, Academic Stress and Other Miscellany

In interview form.

Q: Is internet a problem?

A: Yes, I suffer from internet addiction all the time. As I suspect do most people who are constantly connected. Internet is new and we haven’t woven it well into our lives yet. It will take time and conscious effort. Reminds me of when TV was new in India and moms all over were worried sick about the eyes and academic performance of their kids. No one worries about those things now. We’ve learned to live with TV. We will learn to live with the internet.

Q: Is banning internet a solution?

A: Yes and no. Yes, it will give people more time to do other things. Perhaps they will study more and be under less stress. But can you guarantee that? Can you be sure that they will not spend an equal amount of time playing phatta or doing bulla? When I came to IITK (we used to get only 300 MB of internet access at that time) I was warned against not the internet, but LAN gaming and, guess what, cricket! How about playing cards and carrom? I’ve seen people waste away nights on both. Are you going to ban those as well? Where will you stop? Are you going to chain students to their desks and glue them to their books?

Q: Should academic stress at IITK be reduced?

A: I don’t know. Depends on what you mean by that. Gaining knowledge involves working hard. That’s just the way it is. Working hard causes stress. Gaining knowledge also means that at some stage you will be evaluated by someone else. This also causes stress. So unless we’re willing to give away degrees to everyone who clears JEE and grant them a 10.0 CPI, there’s no way to ‘reduce stress’. And perhaps not even then, because I’m sure someone or the other will fret over the fact that such a degree doesn’t mean anything and that their childhood friend at IITB is getting a better job than they are.

The solution is to empower the students. Put in better exit strategies – perhaps get out with a minor degree if you don’t want to do the whole thing. More choice in coursework. Support for getting therapy and medication for depression, stress and anxiety. An awareness that you don’t have to feel that bad, that you can get out of that place and be happier.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

What IITK Actually Needs to do About the Suicides

In the wake of another suicide at IITK, the internet is again ablaze with a lot of discussion, thinking and soul searching about what’s going wrong. This I’m sure is also reflected much more strongly among the student community on campus which is deeply sensitive about this issue. In stark contrast is this ridiculous report which says that IITK administration is blaming the internet and mobile phones for a rise in depression, stress and suicides.

I mean, really?! The whole argument is so stupid that I’m not even going to dignify it with a comment. Instead I offer two humble suggestions, in case anyone is listening.

1. Hire some trained psychologists and therapists. Why are depression, anxiety, stress and suicidal tendencies being talked about like some supernatural occurrence that leaves us totally baffled?! They are relatively well studied phenomenon with established therapies and medications to help people overcome their problems. So hire some therapists and put them to work!

The counseling service does a great job and having personally benefited from it, I can vouch for its effectiveness. However, the fact remains that none of these people are trained psychologists and therapists and ill-equipped to deal with every situation.

2. Second, there will be a whole lot of taboo against going to these therapists and psychologists. So we need increase awareness in the students about the issues surrounding stress, addiction (internet and otherwise) and depression. We need to make people aware that it’s OKAY to seek out help and that counseling for depression isn’t the same as being ‘crazy’.

I’m not suggesting that this will solve all our problems. But these are simple, effective, tried and tested ways of dealing with depression in all modern communities. Why the administration can’t see this simple fact, is beyond me. Perhaps if they manage to thinking beyond childishly blaming internet and mobiles phones they’d be able to get it.

Update: Just as I was writing this, I got an email from the Alumni Association with this report that makes the same recommendation. The email says that it has been acted upon. This is good news. If anyone knows the details, please leave a comment.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Sanskritisation of Tattoos and Piercings

I’m constantly amazed by how everything does exist in the subcontinent, but has been what I like to call, ‘sanskritised’. That is, no idea or practice is really rejected. It’s just tamed, brought into the tradition and made okay to follow as long as you stick to the official template.

Take tattooing and piercing for example. The kind of tattooing and piercing that’s practiced by young people today freaks my mother out. And yet, these things are nothing alien to her. Although tattooing isn’t very popular in mainstream India today, it was very much part of everyday life fifty or so years ago. In a recent conversation my mother recalls how her grandmothers and aunts had tattoos. But they couldn’t get tattoos according to their whims and fancies. So no full body skull angels allowed. You could only get certain set patterns. Often the names of gods or little motifs. It was apparently believed that tattoos go with you even after you die.

Same with piercings. Most Hindu women at least get their ears and nose pierced. But that’s all that’s allowed. Anything else and they start freaking out. No personal freedom allowed here either.

I can think of other forms of sanskritisation. The use of ganja by many sadhu traditions and the rumors of necrophilia among the trantic sects are two such.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Dharma Punx by Noah Levine

Dharma Punx by Noah Levine is an autobiographic work detailing his early teenage life rife with drugs and punk rock and then his growing up search for spiritual meaning in life. It is both and interesting and a disappointing book.

The first half of the book is devoted to his life as a troubled teenager. He got into the punk scene at an early age and pretty soon into drugs. What was most interesting to me was the existence of these ‘scenes’. I don’t think I still quite ‘get’ why teenagers would build their identities around what sort of music they listened to and what kind of clothes they wore. I get the jocks vs. geeks divide, but I don’t get this one.

The second interesting thing was how each kind of music had certain ethos and ideologies. Punk, for example, was all about rebellion and anarchy. But then these ethos are completely without any context. Rebellion against what? Anarchy to achieve what? No wonder these kids felt completely lost and succumbed to drugs and alcohol.

The third interesting thing was the easy availability of drugs for these kids. Almost every adult around then seemed to be using drugs. Weed, acid, heroin, crack, all seemed to be just lying around the house. This is coupled with a nearly non-existent family structure. The author’s parents were divorced. His mother seemed to move from one bad boyfriend to another. His father was more stable. But the way the author as a kid kept moving places, I’m sure there was no place he could really call home.

All of this was a very interesting insight into a life and society that was completely alien to me.

But from there, the book starts getting disappointing. The author discovers as a late teen that he’s destroying his life with drugs and alcohol. Spirituality comes to his rescue and he gradually learns to find meaning in humility, service and gratitude. Which is all fine, until he starts having one spiritual experience after another. He gets involved with some megalomaniac cult guru and gets bitten. He then launches a several month long journey to the east where he continues to have more of these so called spiritual experiences.

And where does he keep getting the money to do all these crazy things?! He admits to stealing a lot but that still doesn’t account for the way he keeps flying around south East Asia on whim.

Given that the author identifies with Buddhism as his primary faith, he seems oblivious of the fact that several Buddhist traditions warn you against exactly these kinds of false spiritual experiences. In the Buddhist view, they are nothing but more thoughts, no more or less real than your desire to eat that lovely ice cream or your wish to own a hundred cars.

The author seems as lost as an adult as he was as a teenager. His personal philosophy is a comical potpourri of beliefs ranging from Christianity to Sufism to Buddhism to Hinduism – whatever he thought was cool. It’s utterly devoid of any context except that his life work is now focused on teaching meditation and helping others get out of addictions.

I can’t help but compare with ‘Sit Down and Shut Up’ by Brad Warner that I read before this. That book, while explaining the Shobogenjo by Dogen, got into real deep discussion about the nature of our mind and meditation. It warned repeatedly against the so called spiritual experiences. It was a learned book, knowing its place within the tradition and having a proper context. Incidentally, Brad Warner is a punk rock guitarist too.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Science in the Village

Much of my family still lives in a small village in central India. Although I haven’t been there in several years, I used to make yearly visits with my parents when I was a kid. I have fond memories of those trips because, believe it or not, that’s when I did much of hands on science.

Life in the city was tightly regimented. We had a small house, with literally no privacy at all. I was under my mother’s eye all the time and she wasn’t exactly happy with me playing around with stuff. I couldn’t go out much because it wasn’t exactly safe with all the traffic on the streets. And apart from school, I didn’t have many friends in the neighborhood.

But these things changed in the village. We had a large house where I could disappear into corners where my mother could not see me. I had kids my age to play with and, believe it or not, resources.

My grandfather had this huge stack of issues of this magazine called ‘Chakmak’. ‘Chakmak’ was supposed to be a science magazine for kids. It was full of interesting experiments kids could do. I spend countless hours reading the magazine and then trying out the experiments.

My favorite was the rainbow. Part of the house had a kuchha roof. Sunlight used to stream in through tiny holes in the roof into a very dark room. Not only could we see dust particles in that thin pencil of light, we could then reflect it off a mirror dipped in a wide dish full of water to create a rainbow on the wall. You could disturb the water a little bit and watch the colors dance. We spent hours mesmerized by this spectacle.

The second favorite thing was making a ‘projector’. One of the kids of the neighborhood lived in a house that had a long hall with a door at one end. The wooden door had a hole in it. We could place a mirror outside the house and reflect it onto the door, creating a light beam inside. We could then place a convex lens in the hole and make a primitive projector. The kids had small films of movie starts and film scenes that we could then project onto the wall.

Things were available! Lenses, small DC motors, films, plastic toy propellers, magnets etc. etc. Things that my mother would never let me go buy in the city. I didn’t even know where to get them in the city. We made primitive telescopes with the lenses and rolls of cardboard. We attached tiny propellers to DC motors and hoped they would fly. And when they didn’t we could open them up to see how they worked. We spent afternoons rubbing magnets on nails to magnetize them. And then the evening winding copper wire on the same nail to turn it into a electromagnet. We could cut out the star charts from the science magazine and identify all the constellations in the night. Starts were visible here, unlike the hazy and bright skyline of the city! The only time I’ve seen the milky way with naked eyes was in the village.

I find it ironical that I did more science with these improvised and cobbled together experiments in the village rather than in the relatively well equipped labs and classes at my school in the city. But well, such is life.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Proud to be a Hindu

After having spent much time thinking about religious matters, I’ve finally settled on being an atheist. However, being an atheist for me does not mean that I have rejected my cultural Hindu heritage. I celebrate all my festivals with gusto because for me they have ritual significance, much like a convocation ceremony at a university. I also delve deeply into Hindu mythology and philosophy because they fascinate me and give me a sense of where the contemporary Indian society is coming from.

There are aspects of the Hindu culture that I’m very proud of.

(Before I begin, I’d like to point out that there are aspects that I absolutely abhor. Two specific things come to mind. One is the idea that the coincidence of a person’s birth completely determines his destiny, incorporated in the varna/caste system. The second is the deep misogyny inherent in modern Hinduism.)

Vedic Skepticism
I strongly identify with the skepticism shown in the Rigved. The Rigved reads like a genuine and honest inquiry about the nature of the universe we inhabit and our place in it. This discussion gives excellent account of skepticism in Vedic India. There were not only strong skeptics within the mainstream but also alternate schools of philosophy that we seldom identify as ‘Hindu’. Charvak’s materialist school is an excellent example.

Polytheism for me embodies not a belief in a large number of deities but a belief that there are multiple truths and multiple explanations possible. It means looking at the world we inhabit from different perspectives. The Vaishnavites say that the world was born through the navel of Vishnu. The Shaivaites say the world came into being as a pillar of light that was the primordial shiv-linga. The Hindu mind simultaneously holds these multiple truths within itself without seeing a contradiction.

Enshrined in the Hindu practice of worshipping everything in the world around us is the idea that we are part of this world and our existence is meaningless without it. From this I draw the inspiration to protect the environment, our rivers and our jungles and our extraordinarily diverse flora and fauna.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Bhagvadgita and Mindfulness Practice

Hinduism and Buddhism have common roots. It is not surprising that the origins of mindfulness practice can possibly be traced back to early Hinduism. I am reminded of a couple of shlokas from the Bhagvadgita that show such a relationship.

Asanshayam mahabaho mano durnigraham chalam,
Abhyasena tu Kaunteya vairagyena cha grihyate.
-- Gita 6:35
[O mighty armed, the mind is undoubtedly restless and hard to control, but by practice and non-attachment, O son of Kunti, it can be controlled.]


In this shloka we see the fundamental understanding of the nature of the mind – it wanders. We also see the how we can ‘control’ it – by practice and non-attachment. That’s what mindfulness practice is. You practice letting go (non attachment).

Here’s another shloka from chapter 6 of the Bhagvadgita.

The yogi should sit on a firm seat
That is neither too high nor too low,
Covered with sacred Kusha grass,
A deerskin, and a cloth,
One over the other, in a clean spot.

Sitting and concentrating the mind
On a single object,
Controlling the thoughts
And the activities of the senses,
Let the yogi practice meditation for self-purification.

Hold the waist, spine, chest, neck, and head erect,
Motionless and steady, fix the eyes and the mind
Steadily between the eye brows,
and do not look around.

Uncannily similar to the instructions for Zazen practice! Zen teachers instruct us to sit on a soft cushion. Much importance is placed on maintaining an alert posture and keeping the spine straight, eyes open and fixed on an unremarkable spot on the floor. Although it is possible that the practiced detailed in the Bhagvadgita is about concentrating on a particular thought, rather than just observing your thoughts as in Zazen.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Taxi Driver and Foreigners

AKA: The Perception of Foreigners in India

The journey to India this time was extra-long for me. After landing in the evening at IGI, New Delhi, I had to take a train early morning to Jhansi from where I then had to take a taxi to Chhatarpur where I was supposed to meet my family for Diwali.

After landing in Jhansi a little after noon, I hired a taxi for Chhatarpur. The driver was a 22 old boy named Rahul (name changed). Rahul was reticent at first but I soon got him talking.

Rahul told me that he was illiterate.

“But I don’t let that show,” he said, “I am always able to get by without reading. For example, I can’t read the sign boards on the road. But, say you want to go to Chhatarpur. I just take note of the beginning ‘Chh’ and using that as a guide, I’m able to go all the way.”

“If you’re smart, it doesn’t matter how educated you are,” he added.

I nodded in agreement.

“I’ve lived a short life,” he continued, “but I’ve seen a lot. I’ve met people from all over the country. I’ve even met people from foreign.”

“Do a lot of foreigners come here?” I asked him.

“They come to Khajuraho,” he said, “They often land at Jhansi and take a taxi to Khajuraho.”

Then he chuckles.

“The kind of things I’ve seen …”

“Like what?” I ask him, curious now.

“One there was this gori who rented my taxi. She wanted to go to Khajuraho. Just as we started to exit Jhansi she taps me on the shoulder and says, ‘I don’t have any money on me. You can do whatever you want with me but take me to Khajuraho.’ “

“What did she mean, ‘whatever you want’?” I asked him.

“You know …” he said and then added, “These foreigners, they are weird. Who knows what kind of stuff they are into. Maybe it was a trap to loot me or something.”

“So what did you do?” I asked.

“Nothing! I just turned my car around and dropped her back at the railway station.”

He paused as he tried to negotiate around a huge bus approaching from the other side.

“Maybe she really was in trouble,” he continued, “Or maybe she had been away from home a long time and really wanted ‘it’. These foreigners need ‘it’ regularly. If it had been someone else he could have taken advantage of her. Have you ever been to Orchha?”

“No,” I said, caught by surprise at the sudden question.

“There’s this five star hotel there where my friend works. We used to go there to watch the foreigners by the pool. They keep rolling about nearly naked all day. If it were up to them, they’d be walking the streets buck naked. They have no morals.”

“Hmm,” I said, not knowing how to react.

“It’s not safe for them to go out like that. Did you hear about the gora who was murdered a few months ago?”


“In Khajuraho. He was walking with his girlfriend. Some boys must have asked her for a kiss. She refused. They got into a fight over it and the guy was murdered. There was a huge uproar about it.”

“Of course,” I said.

“I really like my job,” he concluded, “I get to go a lot of places and meet a lot of people.”

I am sure that was the case.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Last Names and Choices

A few days ago, there was some discussion on this blog about how to choose last names for new born children. An intriguing suggestion came along

How about asking the child himself or herself to select his or her surname?

That is, whether the child would prefer to use his / her father's surname, or his / her mother's?

Let's give them a choice too.

At times, we simply impose our ideologies, and what-we-want-tos on them, without even realizing the fact that the surname that the new-to-the-family-individual is going to get will be a matter of his/ her identification for his / her lifetime.

This is an interesting possibility. Perhaps we could have a system where a children could have the name their parents gave them at birth till they become adults. After that, they could change it to anything that they wished. (Of course, in most countries you can legally change your name to anything you want at any stage of your life. I’m talking about social customs here.)

However, this line made me go on a completely different thought tangent.

At times, we simply impose our ideologies, and what-we-want-tos on them,

When is something an ‘influence’ and when is it an imposition? For example, even if the parents didn’t choose the last name for their kids, in contemporary society, most kids would likely just go for the father’s name anyway because that’s the norm. So where does the choice lie? After all, whatever we do, we are deeply influenced by our upbringing. What is the meaning of choice in such a situation.

To begin with, having a choice implies having multiple possibilities. Unless multiple possibilities exist, choice is non-existent. Second, choice also needs the power to make a choice. If the individual is not empowered to make the choice, the choice is non-existent again.

In real life, multiple possibilities are easy to find. The power to make these choices isn’t. To get back to the chosen example, you could choose any name you want to. But legal frameworks and social norms and conventions sap away your power to do so.

Monday, November 15, 2010

What is a University?

There has been some debate on this blog about how to improve higher education in India. From the comments it seems that different people have different ideas about what a university is or should be. This is alright as long as we have a diverse set of institutions catering to these diverse needs and viewpoints.

What is a university in my own, personal view? To me, a university is an institution that does the following three jobs.

1. Curation of knowledge: a university should act as a storehouse of knowledge. It does so through libraries (perhaps outdated in the computer age), conservatories, centers etc. For example, Sanskrit or Latin are dead languages but it is certainly or value to keep a classical languages department in a university where there are experts who can read and write fluently in these languages.

2. Dissemination of knowledge: universities should teach vocational skills so that people can find employment. But universities should also engage in raising public awareness, finding effective means to disseminate knowledge (online coursework, effective pedagogy etc.) and finally increasing access to the underprivileged in the society.

3. Generation of knowledge: universities should generate new knowledge though research and development.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

More Cell Phones Than Toilets

Read this report recently on how India has more cell phones than toilets. Really makes me wonder why. Why is it that we desire cell phones more than toilets?

Is it because when we open our TVs, what we see are colorful ads of people using cell phones. People looking blissfully happy as they talk to their loved ones. People even in small villages and dilapidated slums stuck to this magical device at their ears.

Rarely do we see a person enter a clean and well maintained toilet and coming out with a beatific look once he’s done.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Absence of Colonial Elements in Sherlock Holmes by Guy Ritchie

Got the chance to see the new Sherlock Holmes movie by Guy Ritchie a few days ago. It was pretty much what I expected – not my cup of tea. Part of the allure of reading or watching Sherlock Holmes is to relieve that prim and proper world of the British Raj. I know it annoys some people. But I enjoy it. So there.

But I was quite surprised to see the complete absence of any colonial elements in Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes. This is doubly surprising that much has been made of a post-colonial reading of the canon. The only ‘colony’ mentioned in the film is America and while there is some talk of rebuilding the British Empire, it’s amusing that the way to do it is to conquer the new world.

So is Ritchie staying away from the colonies to keep the movie in that comfortable territory where no one can accuse him of being a racist etc. (cf. reactions to Frank Miller’s 300)?

Or is he completely trying to deny that the colonies existed and that they had a role to play in the establishment of the British Empire?

Friday, November 12, 2010

Reality in Buddhism

Different philosophical schools define reality in different ways. Let’s take a look at how Buddhism defines reality. (Based largely on the reading of ‘Sit Down and Shut Up’ by Brad Warner.)

Materialism seeks to explain the universe entirely in terms of material phenomenon. In the modern world the materialist would appeal to the physical measurable universe and the laws of nature. For a materialist, everything is composed of elementary particles obeying the laws of nature. Even the human mind is merely a collection of atoms in a certain state. Emotions and feelings are just chemicals bouncing around in the cranium. For a materialist, that’s it. That’s the reality.

Idealism says that everything is a mental construct. This is a difficult idea to understand for some. The idea is that the only thing you really know is what’s in your head. The senses perceive the material world but we make sense of those perceptions only according to what’s in the mind. Thus, in one sense, we have no real knowledge of what’s out there. Only of what the mind thinks is out there.

This distinction becomes even more real when we start talking about things which aren’t really measurable. You see a woman in a bikini. Is that obscene? Depends on your cultural leanings. The obscenity is in your head, not out there in what you see. Beauty lies in the eye of the beholder etc. etc.

Buddhism recognizes another kind of reality which is called ‘action’ but is best described as intent. When you intend to buy that new car, it isn’t sensory perception. It is a mental construct but of a special kind. It is different from the desire you might feel to buy the car or the dread you might feel at having to spend all that much money. Intent is a special kind of thought often resulting in action of some sort. Sometimes this action is merely more thoughts.

So in Buddhism, reality is neither of these three. It is an inseparable trio of all three. There is no reality without a material world to sense, or mental constructs to understand it. Finally if there is no intent (for example, the intent to know reality itself) there is no reality.

Zazen practice is all about bringing these three things together in one practice to better understand reality. In Zazen you sit and perceive whatever arises, whether it be sensory perception, sight or sounds or your own thoughts. You examine the nature of your mental constructs. Finally you bring with you the intent to do Zazen and observe what’s happening in the moment and your reactions to it. In the process you hope to better understand reality.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Women and Indian Mythology

(Yes, I’m going to state the obvious in this one. A lot.)

I’m in India these days on a Diwali vacation. I had the chance to see my nani, which was lovely.

Every elder had a greatest fear for the young ones in their family. My mummy’s greatest fear is that I’d fall prey to some sort of addiction, alcohol or something else. My nani’s greatest fear is that I’d fall prey to a woman.

Every time I see her, I get strong admonition against women who are out there to ‘trap’ me. Don’t make such a ‘mistake’, nani says sternly every time we say good bye.

So why is it that nani thinks that all women are somehow wile and that having a romantic relationship is something of a crime, almost bordering on sin.
The sociological causes of such thinking are well known. But particularly I’d like to draw attention to our myths which perpetuate such thinking.

A common theme in Indian mythology is that of a sage or a rishi who is doing his tapasya and then a woman is sent to break his concentration, thus preventing him from gaining great power. A second common theme is when a demoness somehow manages to wed a sage in order to bear children who are demons but have all the power of the sage too. (Ravan from the Ramayan is a classic example.)

No wonder nani thinks that women attract men for personal benefit or to cause their downfall.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

About This Blog

Blogs are of different kinds

There are opinion blogs where people share their opinions about particular issues, often restricted to a niche topic.

There are informative blogs where new and upcoming information or news is shared. Celebrity gossip blogs like PerezHilton.com or Ubuntu blog omgubuntu.co.uk are among these.

There are ‘guru’ blogs where in people teach others how to live or work. Seth Godin’s blog or Leo Babauta’s ‘Zen Habits’ are among such blogs.

However, this blog is none of the above. This blog is more of an inquiry. The thoughts presented here are often unformed. They are questions more than they are statements. Sometimes I might even be playing the devil’s advocate and what I’m saying might not even reflect my ideology at all.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Belief in a Collective Destiny

When faced with a problem in the public sphere, people usually resort to two ways to solve it.

The first is to solve it on their own. They call upon their own resources, their money, their talent, their contacts and influence to solve it.

The other is to appeal to a higher authority. They often appeal to politicians or leaders to solve it for them.

People seldom realize that there’s a third way to solve problems. It is to find people with similar problems, organize yourself and then solve it through your collective resources.

It is this belief in a collective destiny that separates a healthy democracy from and unhealthy one.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Use a Notebook to Focus Yourself at Work

I often use writing in a notebook to focus myself at work. It works as follows. I always keep a notebook alongside me as I work. To begin, I write down what I need to do next. Then, any possibly thoughts that come to my mind. Perhaps breaking down the problem into smaller steps. Perhaps resources that I need to gather in order to complete the task. Then I begin doing it. Even as I am doing the job, I keep writing what is getting done and what needs to be done next. Like a mind-map. Even random thoughts and distractions go into the notebook.

I find this method brings me to focus very quickly. There is something about seeing your thoughts written out in solid ink on paper that makes them very concrete and imperative. It also helps you organise your thoughts and eliminates the need to mentally keep track of everything. It frees up the mind to do the task at hand.

There is a possibly pit fall to this method though. If you become too obsessed with the notebook, it’s going to become a distraction in its own right. I often let go of the notebook altogether once I find my ‘flow’ or my ‘zone’. Do not be attached to you notebook!

Friday, November 05, 2010

Ignore All Distraction (Except, Of Course, Pole-Dancing)

Today we're featuring a guest post by Aditya Dubey.
Aditya is currently a CA student and constantly juggles exams, article-ship and a menagerie of strange interests (he's known to have read the printed copies of Encyclopedia Brittanica cover to cover). Here he share a few tips on managing distractions.

The best way to manage distractions is to ignore them. Distractions often cut down our productive time by a significant margin and have us attempting myriad ways to negate their effect. I find trying to tackle the actual distraction futile if not actually counter-productive. The issue usually lies with whatever it is that you’re supposed to be doing when you’re distracted, not the thing which actually distracts you. So when you think about how not to be distracted you actually end up wasting more time.

Most of us tend to come down with varying degrees of OCD when there’s work/study to be done which we really don’t fancy. From e-mail notification software to stationery, everything needs to be perfect lest we get distracted. When you need to do something, the best thing to do is focus on it. To quote Nike: Just Do It. It sounds simple and not particularly helpful, but if you think about it, the major problem when you’re distracted is that you’re not thinking about work. Work becomes this almost abstract entity which needs to be done, but is not happening because you’re too busy getting tab-jacked on Wikipedia (or writing guest blogs for friends). Focusing on what you’re doing entails thinking about it at the most basic level, the level at which you will execute it. For e.g. while studying, you need to think of it in terms of the particular concept you need to study and not the subject in general. The mental picture should be as granular as possible.

I find that once you’re thinking about it in those terms you’ve already begun your work. To avoid getting distracted once you’re on your way, ignore everything else. Even if you have a moment of weakness and end up on facebook, just close the browser and get back to work. Often we end up making schedules work against us. If I’ve slotted 2 hours for a session of study and I get distracted after one, there’s a tendency to let the entire time remaining go to waste. Or wait for the hour (or half-hour) before starting on something. If you’re worried about something distracting you, chances are it will; even if you fix it. If you keep on thinking about work, especially in a systematic and detailed manner, your productivity will go up.

So, as long as there is nothing blatantly distracting, like blaring music (or your significant other practising pole-dancing), don’t try to do anything about it and focus on the task at hand instead.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Mindfulness and Internet Addiction

As you keep up your mindful practice, you will notice that you’re becoming mindful even with daily activities. You will become more aware of what’s going on in your mind as you struggle through your day to day chores. This awareness is of immense value as it helps us change behaviors that we could like to change.

Take internet addiction for example. After several hours of mindless surfing, you finally close the browser window, clean out your desk, open your notes and textbook and sit down for a couple of hours of honest work. But barely five minutes into the first assignment, you find your email notifier popping up. Some one has messaged you on Facebook. Minutes later, you find yourself deeply engrossed in that hilarious facebook conversation as the homework wilts and rots on your table.

Mindfulness can help you modify this habit. There are two keys to modifying this behavior – becoming aware and letting go.

First of all, you must become aware of your feelings and actions. Often, we are not even aware that we are surfing the net again. One event (mail notification) can trigger a whole series of practiced behavior. We go on auto pilot. Mindfulness can help us become aware of these automatic behaviors.

Second, once you do become aware, learn to let go. Of course you have that intense desire to check email or log on to facebook or tweet about that awesome website you just saw. Become aware of this desire and let it be. You don’t need to do anything about it. Don’t even judge yourself for it. Gently and compassionately, let it go. Close that browser window and get back to what you intend to do at the moment.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Audio Visual Muting in Film Language

Audio/Visual language in film is constantly changing. Often, just by looking at a scene of two we are able to tell what era the film belongs to. Camera technology has changed, bringing changes to colours and hues and lighting. Special effects technology has change – what they can make you believe on screen these days is incredible. But also, the styles of film making have changed. Films used to be slow and languid in times gone past. But now they are fast and pacey, perhaps reflecting the changes in our own real lives.

The Matrix was a defining movie in terms of visual language. The most iconic scene from the Matrix is when the agent is fired at and starts dodging bullets. Perhaps for the first time, speed was shown in slow motion.

The second technique that is becoming more and more popular is the muting of explosions. Instead of explosions getting louder and louder, we now have explosions which are muted, as if we’re hearing them through ear muffs.

I like to call them examples of muting in film language, where, to depict a certain audio visual quality, you show exactly the opposite of that.

Both of the above examples work because media has made us realise the limits of human perception. Moreover, it has made these limits commonplace. There’s only so much speed that you can perceive. You can probably get a great sense of exhilaration when the camera shows you the interior of an F1 race car. But if you’re going at mach 3 in a fighter jet, the human senses saturate out. Same with sound. Once the decibel levels are beyond a certain point, we are no longer able to hear anything at all.

These sensation are so much beyond human experience that the only way to see them is to slow them down or to mute them. This muting too is done with the aid of technology. The very same technology that made these sensation accessible in the first place. This complete immersion in a sensory world that’s completely created by technology is cinemas gift to us modern viewers.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

India Needs Real Universities

A few days ago we have some discussion on this blog regarding a few problems with higher education in India and how to fix it.

One solution suggested was privatisation. I have mixed views about this. Just because the model works for the US doesn’t mean it will work for India too. Corporate philanthropy has a weak history in India. It might, it might not. Also, I don’t see why the govt. cannot open more good universities. After all, they are running the IITs, aren’t they?

The second point was that there’s a huge mismatch between industry expectation and education. In short, the industry doesn’t expect much of the students. It is not surprising then that universities don’t even bother to deliver. Unless something changes about how businesses operate in India, I don’t see why the universities would want to change. On the other hand, it’s also a chicken and egg problem. Who is going to bring about this change in the industry? The very same university graduates that we’re talking about!

I strongly believe that what India needs are real universities. On one hand we have the so called ‘Institutes of National Importance’ (e.g. IITs) which are tiny islands of so called excellence. A huge amount of resources are spent in keeping these running and the corresponding number of students taught is minuscule. On the other hand are ‘hub and spoke’ state universities. The last I knew, there were more than 40 engineering colleges in Indore. Most of them are affiliated to something called the Rajeev Gandhi Prodyogiki Vishwavidyala (RGPV). The only purpose of this RGPV is to set up question papers and award degrees. None of the tasks of a real university – research and innovation and curation of knowledge – are talked about.

The model is not much different from how schools are affiliated to CBSE or various state boards. Such colleges and universities are nothing but glorified high-schools.

Monday, November 01, 2010

Mindfulness and Non-Judgemental Attitude

When we do mindful meditation we need to maintain a non-judgemental attitude. We need to suspend judgement about the thoughts and ideas arising in our minds and if we do find ourselves judging them, we need to suspend judgement about this judgement itself.

This is the part of meditation that I find most difficult to stick to. And indeed, this is the part that is the most difficult. More often than not we are unusually harsh on ourselves and tell ourselves stories that are too negative or pessimistic – that we are not worthy of anything or that we can’t make it. Often we go the other way and are unrealistically optimistic – that things will be okay (in the sense of material circumstances) or that thing will happen even without us working for them.

When you meditate suspend all judgement and take things as they are. Things are what they are. Do not colour them with stories that you tell yourself.

(Aargh! My browser is apparently set to a UK English dictionary and my MS Word is set to a US English one. I always end up getting squiggly red lines in at least one of them. :( cf. 'colour', 'judgement' )