7 April 2016

Using Fire To Treat Burns

We regulate the cost of auto rides because that is a public service. It cannot be 'exorbitant', and the auto driver cannot use the advantages of 'information arbitrage' to charge 'free market' rates... We fix how much the driver can earn in a day, based on the social norm for what is a 'fair daily wage' for that work. This is justified in the interest of the Greater Good of society, since transportation is considered a public service, even if provided by private people. The same logic doesn't apply for education or health care or housing... Here we depend on capital and bow down to the norms set by capital for profit returns on their investment which decides who get access to these services and who doesn't and at what cost. That these services are also public services, and need to be affordable on par with auto rides is too much for our imagination.

Next is the idea of private profits and tax evasion. Most global corporations use the resources, people and infrastructure of developing countries, to create profits which are parked in tax havens (for reference, the top two sources of FDI into India are Mauritius and Singapore, and it's not even close beyond that)... They pay next to nothing in taxes in the host country (ironically America is also complaining about this), circumventing the spirit of taxation and it's role in human welfare.

These profits are pumped back into philanthropy, to feel good about themselves, earn a 'good name' and fame for 'benevolence'. The real problem is the idea of using capital and profit driven means to solve problems created by capital and profit driven means. 

The assumption that innovation is driven mainly by profit motive is a lie. It has no basis in truth. People invented and discovered far greater things than computers and drugs, long before ideas of capital even existed. For instance, we invented writing. People are creative because we are humans, we find solutions for things because we have minds and souls, not because we were born to crave for profits. So stop peddling lies in the name of private profits being the driver of all of human progress (money has a role in society, just not the current exaggerated version). If anything, the singular pursuit of profits is the root cause of a lot of problems, like poor health care addressed in the article below.

http://thewire.in/2016/03/23/the-gates-foundation-and-the-anatomy-of-philanthrocapitalism-25579/

Water water every... Where?

We have predictably downgraded the public discourse on water use to IPL vs Farmers.

The issue, to illustrate which IPL is cited, is the Mary Antoinette approach to allocation of public resources. 

There are neatly maintained green lawns in various parts of Delhi, including the airport. Delhi is not naturally meant to be green during any time outside of the rains. Our desire for all this green stems from a need to feed the eyes of the rich, whose eyes are granted the restricted access, so that they can remark how green and 'beautiful' the airport looks. More importantly, it stems from the  philosophy of human development being equated to conquering nature, like building ski resorts in Dubai.

There is a water fountain outside Bangalore airport. There are swimming pools and bathrooms with water guzzling showers in fancy hotels. The same hotels will have placards announcing how green and responsible they are, requesting you to avoid washing towels - that is if you can avoid it, with the promise of feeding your self-important environmental conscience. 

If you have a watered ornamental garden, that is also a tiny item on the long list of avoidable luxuries that are subsidized by drought hit farmers and parched fields. Not all subsidies are in cash. Some are paid in kind, using the lives of the poor.

At the Paris climate summit we claimed that the Indian per capita carbon emission is only 1.6 tonnes/year, so our lifestyle is sustainable and indeed a role model. Compared to the obscene 17 tonnes/year emitted by the average American. What this hides is the huge disparity between the rich and the poor in India. 

The top 10% of urban India emit 15 times as much carbon as the bottom 10%, and 27 times the bottom 10% of rural India . The emissions of the rich is camouflaged and subsidised by the poor, both between nations and between peoples of the same nation. The same principle applies to land and water as well.

We are hiding behind the poor and feeling good about ourselves. Reminds me of what a friend used to say about averages - one foot on ice and one foot on fire, on an average it feels very comfortable. 

Water is a public resource, which means it belongs equally to everyone in this country. Why then are some people deprived and some blessed with plenty? What is the philosophy of governance that results in this inequity?

The solution is not a deep dive into the economics of IPL or blaming the bureaucracy, government and lack of technology for agrarian distress. We need to face reality - we cannot conquer nature. We must respect its bounty and remember that despite the bounty, resources are not infinite. There is finite amounts of everything that we can all share and thrive as a species. This would mean giving up supply-demand free-market theories for things like water, air, land, food and nature. This would mean using only what is needed, and not maximizing exploitation and consumption. This also means we cannot continue growth and consumption at some prefixed rate of 7%.

This would mean drawing up a balance sheet for water, and building a policy on how much we can each use, who gets to use, and how we recharge the ground water table. We need this to survive as a species.

16 February 2016

Free speech

Among the people of our country there is as much ignorance as there is confidence, and both are at dangerously high levels. We are seeing what we want to see and selecting facts to suit a predetermined narrative. I suppose a lot of us are wired this way to some extent, but sometimes we need to apply our mind. We don't even agree with our spouse and children all the time, but somehow we offer this exceptional unquestioned loyalty to some people and organizations. If we read history, it led to rise of the Nazis and to Indira Gandhi and her emergency.

Ambedkar warned us of idol worship in his last address to the constituent assembly, and it's uncanny how accurate and ahead of his time he was.

For example, people here are in hysteria over insult to the nation and anti national people. From tv to social media to letters to the editor in newspapers, people are near unanimous in the need to have restrictions on free speech. Anything offensive, either religious or against government institutions or even the country is enough to put the brakes on free speech.

They fail to understand that the law works based on the Constitution and it's principles, not based on majority view, or any body's view.  For example, the majority of people might want to to hang someone, but unless it's proved as per the procedure of law and the Constitution mandates it, it cannot happen. Slowly this is being eroded away, by using mass public opinion and outrage to achieve the desired ends.

Now let's come to free speech. This sedition law was used by the British to have supreme part over its subjects. The law is so colonial in mindset that almost every popular freedom fighter in our country suffered from it.

Please have a look at this illustration to understand. http://thewire.in/2016/02/16/an-illustrated-history-lesson-on-free-speech-in-india-21758/
It is quite amusing that one needs to distill things down to a cartoon, like a story in tinkle, in a desperate attempt to reach people. It's like the same thing written in a report is too difficult to read for people who spend considerable time on social media reading things which are strictly meant to not tickle the brain. After a tiring day's work, why bother with serious stuff? This I understand, and it only makes me wonder why a typical working day is so tiring in the first place.

Our country has been reduced to mindless zombies in the name of trained professionals who have little time to be aware of society, law, history... People even ask - why are students getting into politics... I want to ask them - Why should anyone get interested in politics? Its like some orwellian society here..  Unquestioned loyalty to the State, who will think for us and free us up to work hard and consume things so that the gdp can grow at a certain rate fixed by the state.

I'm really alarmed by the concoction of social assertion mixed with incredible ignorance. Like this whole pro kashmir separatist movement... People in kashmir have been saying this for decades, almost on a daily basis. People who have no idea about history or  the social and political reality of kashmir are passing judgements on nationalism and how Kashmiris should think and behave, and that comes comfortably under right to free speech, and rightly so. Whatever ones opinion is on kashmir, it's alright to ask for a separate state, and it's alright to ask otherwise, as long as it's done thru peaceful means. That's what the Constitution says.

That's the whole point- one can say anything as long as it's non violent. This is the basic principle of free speech. The Supreme Court has said that for some speech to be seditious, it has to incite violence (advocacy is fine, incitement is the crime) and there has to be proximate connection between the speech and violence, like a spark in a powder keg, as per the exact analogy used.

There is of course almost no talk on state atrocities in the name of nationalism. Like a critique of the army or the judiciary is beyond what is tolerable. Nevermind that it's legal to rape and torture and kill anyone the army pleases in certain parts of the country. You read that right - there is complete immunity for any form of violence inflicted by the army. It happens in a lot of places where it's illegal and the police and army are in violation of law, like in tribal areas of Chattisgarh, Jharkand... But imagine it's allowed by law... Meaning, I can get raped and tortured in Kashmir or certain northeast states, and if I go to the police or courts, they will ask me what is the crime you are talking about? I think people in the rest of the country don't get this. How does one expect the people subjected to this torture to feel love for the country? Would you feel affection for the army if they send electric shocks up your penis, pour petrol and Chilli powder up your anus? Does anyone talk about the fact that this was done to Afzal Guru and (countless others) long before the crime he was convicted for?

Are we allowed to feel sorry for him in the same way we feel sorry for the eight security guards and one gardener killed in the attack on parliament? Why is one violence by the army considered patriotic and the other called terrorism?

There are discrepancies in the investigation as observed by the Supreme Court, and one other sentenced to death was acquitted.... That would be SAR Geelani. When the trial was going on, it was debated that the real masterminds are still free and unknown.. The only thing we know is a name called Tariq. Of course these things happen when the police finish their investigation in two days and declare who they want to prosecute and go after them like rabid dogs... Torture, pissing on them, violence from fellow prisoners.. A custodial confession which was blasted by the Court.. The conviction and death sentence was based on circumstantial evidence, to satisfy the 'collective conscience of the nation' as per the words of the Supreme Court. A lot of people protested then.  Nevertheless, he was hanged. Now people are not allowed to even talk about him and the case? It's like there are good guys and bad guys, and the good can do no bad and the bad can do no good...  It's Iike the Ramayana or a Vijaykanth movie... I think the world is closer to the Mahabharata. There is good and evil coexisting in all of us, and we need to get out of this binary thought process.

Nobody is encouraging violence or terrorism or torture. But we need to understand and engage with people on peaceful terms when there is a chance for dialogue. It's OK if someone feels he must be hanged, and it's OK if someone says otherwise. The current government is engaging in talks with separatist groups in Nagaland. Another terrorist George Headley is now the Golden boy, whose words are taken as gospel truth and who has full immunity. Another political party who have exactly similar views on Afzal Guru is BJP's ally in J&K. The people who gunned down Indira Gandhi are celebrated as martyrs. The killers of Rajiv Gandhi are also celebrated by various political outfits. The right wing celebrates Godse, wanting to install status and release books in his praise. The point is all of this should be allowed. We condemn violence of all kinds and welcome peaceful opinion of any kind. That's what the Constitution states.

If we are in search of truth, unless we hear all arguments, how could we succeed? The majoritarian mob mentality killed people who once claimed that the earth was not flat. We must learn to listen or at least tolerate opinions no matter how offensive or opposite it is to our own. This is the only way we can seek truth.

Who gets to decide what is truth? Today it's one group in power, tomorrow it's another. How can truth be controlled by law? How can affection for the nation be enforced thru law and punishment? Are we in North Korea?

Tamil Nadu under Jayalalitha has filed hundreds of sedition charges against all kinds of opponents. People have used it consistently to stifle free speech. Including the Congress and all other political parties in power. Usually the excuse is that it's required to maintain law and order. It could cause public unrest, so the greater good is cited. Here the justification is nationalism, and people evoke Mother India.

The reason why the state is becoming fascist is much beyond this, but it's the first step - to control speech. It's the bedrock on which all other items are arranged. Like selective persecution of minorities and people with minority opinion. Like efforts to whip up emotional fire in the hearts of the majority, like in Muzaffarnagar. All of this is happening. I will reserve that discussion for another day.

15 February 2016

Thoughts on agriculture

I wanted to only share this link, but I suffered a bout of enthusiasm.
We feel affection for traditional architecture, music, cooking methods... Why not plants?
Plants are living things, with all the uniqueness and quirks we see and appreciate in animals. The singular pursuit of seed maximisation at all costs needs to be addressed. It's the same as breeding chicken for maximum weight in the quickest time. What about well being,  nutrition, taste, and the joy of watching nature? What's the point of life if this is sacrificed? Like Churchill retorted when someone suggested spending cuts in art during the war - what then are we fighting for?
First, we need to look at plants as living things, with a soul. They are complex beautiful things, the fact that we eat them doesn't prevent us from loving them. I'll use a couple of examples to illustrate..
Plants have roots, which can sometimes be eaten by us, or animals. Half the carbon taken in from the atmosphere by the plant is used to feed microbial life who fetch nutrients for the roots. There is as much living biomass as inorganic matter in soil...  Can you imagine how much life there is? Roots are constantly signalling and secreting food for specific microbes based on what nutrients they need and which microbes can fetch it... Microbes are constantly eating others, some breakdown food for the plant, some become food... When the plant dies naturally, it brings whatever nutrients it can into the roots to fertilise the soil. Roots decompose slowly, creating air pockets in the soil to store water and to supply air to life in the soil... In a natural farm or forest,  different plants have different root depths, and together they tap into all the water and nutrients in the soil at different times depths, loosening the soil and letting water seep in, and creating passages for air and earthworms...
In chemical farming, one consequence is the compacting of soils and killing of microbes and earthworms... Leading to forced feeding of plants. It's like having a tube up your nose and being given scientifically designed proportions of carbohydrates, proteins, vitamins and everything else. I'm not exaggerating - it's really exactly this. There is little use for the natural behavior of roots, so slowly,  the roots get rendered soulless. We do to them the same thing we do to the Labour lifting cement or coffee bags day after day just to stay alive.
The leaves are useful to feed animals. So when we propagated dwarf varieties in the green revolution, we sacrificed a useful part of the plant. And we haven't discussed the various other little life forms that depend on leaves and branches... A perch for birds which eat pests, cover for reptiles which eat rodents... Who knows what else we are missing?
This linear thinking of maximising one thing (seed size and weight) at the expense of everything else, is the kind of dangerous pursuit we must confront before it can destroy us. We are doing the same thing with money and convenience in our lives.
We are eating poisoned food because of the pursuit of lowest cost on the supermarket shelf. We are dehumanising and deskilling jobs because that way the market price of labour reduces and we can have lowest cost. Maximise yield, minimise cost, Maximise efficiency, minimise labour... The scary part is that all this is normal. We don't even think why we need to do this maximum minimum routine in our lives.
We appreciate the need for diversity in investment portfolios. We praise the diversity of our country. We learn not to put all of eggs in one basket. We like that not all places are the same, that people look different in different places... We must apply the same to our food. Why do we conserve any endangered species? One analogy is how Indian food is thought to be Punjabi food, and how people think Tamil food is idli and dosai.
When there is a disease outbreak - and disease is as normal in nature as humanity... Just one species trying to outcompete another... Variety in agriculture is the single biggest protection against disease and pests. With our perception of human driven control, we feel this is unnecessary because we can use chemicals instead.
Even disease and pest are opportunities for the market to sell something new,  for moneyed people to lend money to buy these things, to propagate the bondage of debt, dependence and demand for these products people want to sell and profit from. That's a whole discussion by itself, so getting back to the effects of these chemicals and our perception of complete knowledge and control...
We will find out in the future about the harmful things we are doing today... Like we found out about tobacco, DDT and so many other things... we look for direct causation and correlation. Nature doesn't work in linear systems. Everything is interdependent in ways we don't understand fully. And we will never understand this world fully. A little humility in acknowledging that is useful. We don't know the effects of chemicals and lab manufactured seeds and herbicides in our ecosystem. Denial to acknowledge this has caused repeated suffering in the past, and we still expect different results in the future.
If there was no alternative, like say,  a life saving drug, there is an argument for use of chemicals. But why do we do it with food, where there is a natural and safe way to produce nutritious and tasty food?
If factory farming was so successful in the West, why are farm subsidies so absurdly high in every developed economy?
Over 90% of American agriculture uses chemicals that we know harms nature... From frogs to butterflies to earthworms... This is proven and widely accepted ... What is debated and contested is the effect on humans... I have one question - do we claim to know of all the effects- direct and indirect, short and long term, on humans and nature? It's like something is broken and people have to die for the world to wake up. The same way someone has to be raped sensationally for rape to be taken seriously, and a Dalit has to die sensationally for India to wake up to caste prejudices... Why are we waiting? We are like the frog in the pot of water on the stove... Slowly getting boiled and enjoying the increasing warmth of inertia.
Do you ever think how some sidewalks in the US don't have grasses popping out of the crevices and the gaps between tiles while we have plants growing on the walls of old buildings here? How can something which is so eager to grow anywhere be kept out of sidewalks? Hello Herbicide.
The beauty is that nature is so eager to grow. Yet we are made to believe that it's a specific lab science which requires so much work and inputs from faraway chemical companies to enable life to grow.
There is a beautiful line in the movie Jurassic Park. They use genes from a frog to make up the gaps in the DNA of the fossil used to produce new dinosaurs in the lab. Jeff Goldblum is told that all the dinosaurs in the park are female, and he asks how do you know? Because they control it in the lab. They deny a certain enzyme which is essential for the foetus to become male. He says nature always finds a way... Later when they observe dinosaur eggs in the park, they figure that some frogs can be asexual and so can reproduce on their own, and that's how nature found a way. It's a profound thought in a movie famous for other things.
We cannot buy time and good health. Let's wake up now.

Here a good friend asked me about the different types of human manipulation of crops. 

Traditionally how did agriculture start? In the wild, the grass which produces rice has rice enclosed in husk, just like our agricultural rice. It's naturally designed to burst so that the seeds inside (the rice we cook and eat) are spread in the act of bursting of the pod. This is the means of propagation of the species. Some mutations had pods which didn't burst. These grasses couldn't reproduce. The equivalent phenomenon in humans is infertility. However if they didn't busy we could harvest them. If they burst we had no access to the seeds because it was scattered all over and we could not forage the floor for tiny seeds. So what was desirable for agriculture was actually a defective mutation in nature. We picked those seeds which didn't burst and propagated them so that we could grow grasses which didn't have pods bursting so that we can harvest them from the plant and use it as food. Like this, we selected seeds and propagated characteristics which are desirable for humans. This was a modification of characteristics which occurred in nature. There are mutants in every species. There are some trees which had more fruits than others, so we picked them to propagate. There are fruits which were sweeter than others, or any other desirable character, and we selected them to propagate. This is in some ways like how the strongest lion or man gets to mate the most. Similarly with women,  some had more chances to mate than others... ignoring morality, there were reasons why the propagation of a species was selective in which members got to mate and have children. In the case of agriculture, humans chose to propagate the plants with traits which were considered beneficial to us. Typically every farmer selected the seeds from their best crops and sowed them. This was a decentralised, farm level decision. So when millions of farmers did this, it created millions of variations. Also, there is free breeding between the plants in farms owned by different farmers. Whatever nature did we selected a few naturally occurring seeds to propagate. We didn't create the seeds, but selected which ones from the naturally occurring set got to propagate.
In seeds made in labs, we have traditional hybrids (like crossing two varieties of coffee) and now GM seeds. These are two very different things, and both are different from traditional farm level selection of a few seeds from the harvest for sowing.
The hybrids are the cross breeding of different varieties of the same species. You select coconuts from one place which has high yield and coconuts from another place which are short and hence easy to harvest. Naturally these are independently adapted to their own natural environments, and would not make contact with each other to be able to breed. Like one might be in Kerala and one in Vietnam. There is a slow process of nature where over thousands of years they might slowly migrate and meet each other, but mostly humans bring them together to breed them to get the best characteristics of both. The hybrid rice in green revolution was engineered in such a way that it's short, which enabled more of the grass' energies to go into seed making, and less into growing the plant, and because it was short, it was safe in heavy winds which led to losses when the grasses were tall... and they also responded to chemical inputs better. Like this we created hybrids of all kinds, which replaced native seeds propagated by farmers. It could be sweeter fruits or shorter crops or responsiveness to fertilizers... And we gave these seeds out to farmers and also gave them fertilizers and pesticides (majority of which were terribly toxic and since banned in most parts of the world,  like DDT,  which is banned and Endosulfan, which is still legal in our country)...  Fertilizers also require heavy water use to be effective, so we moved from traditional varieties which were adapted to the local environment to hybrids which were crosses between two or more diverse  varieties with little adaptation to the local conditions... The result is that they needed heavy inputs, irrigation and attention (disease, pest) to give high yields. This was the first stage of commercialization of agriculture in the 1960s... This replaced thousands and thousands of native varieties which were naturally suited for different environments developed by decentralized selection of seeds to propagate by farmers. For example, most of India has rainfed dryland agriculture...  More than half of Indian agriculture depends on rains... There are varieties of grains which are suited for that. But now the entire country eats rice, and a narrow range of varieties of rice. We moved from native grains which required less water, less or no inputs and care, highly resistant to local pests and diseases, and nutritious...  This includes various varieties of rice, and mainly millets whose yields were lower than hybrids but they were super hardy and nutritious and no matter what happened,  the farmer had food to eat,  did not have to loan any money to buy any farm input and was self reliant to feed his family. So we have replaced all of these with one thing called white polished rice, which requires heavy investments in inputs to get higher yields of significantly less nutrition per gram of grain.
Now let's look at GM. Here we are playing God in a way that God would be shocked. It's like engineering babies, controlling their DNA, to produce fairer taller babies because that is desirable. In the case of the most popular varieties of GM, specific enzymes are controlled to get desired characteristics. I will give you two examples. BT cotton and brinjal produced enzymes which were toxic to pests. So they were natural self protected from pests. There were other characters as well, but this was the primary goal. In the US, there is a chemical called Glyphosphate, which is the most widely used herbicide in the world. So they engineered crops which are resistant to this chemical, which is poisonous to all other plants including weeds and other life forms which are considered pests. So farmers plant these seeds and spray this chemical Glyphosphate (common name is Round Up) which kills everything else, allowing your plants to grow without any life form around it to compete or co-operate or anything else. This has resulted in a dramatic increase in pesticide use across the world. This is incredibly more harmful than hybrid seeds, which are harmful for biodiversity and nutrition security to start with... Monsanto designed GM seeds that they called Terminator seeds which couldn't propagate on their own, so the farmers had to go to Monsanto every year for their seeds, creating dependence. This kind of thoughtless propagation leads to decrease in diversity, making it more prone to superbugs (nature mutates constantly and now there are pests which are immune to Glyphosphate... Like microbes immune to antibiotics)...  Heavy input cost in both chemicals and water, which is a scarce resource in most parts of the world and our country...  Leading to debt and dependence and suicides. The entire system is designed to create market dependence and reduce self reliance. Only in the case of GM, we don't know of the effects of human consumption of these human engineered foods. They don't exist in nature, it's man made... The enzymes, the DNA, the fundamental contents of the rice or brinjal or corn is made by man...  We don't know what effects it has on our body, on other life forms when consumed... But that's not the end of the problem... We are wiping out other species, so if this propagates, all of us will be left with one kind of rice, which is under the control of Monsanto or Syngenta or someone else, and we are dependent on them,  and indirectly on the chemical companies... Also, there is a difference in nutrition content between native crops and GM...  We don't even understand how this thing works, what complex Web of interconnected consequences this has in nature...  For example, the dodo went extinct, and a tree in Mauritius stopped reproducing... It required it's seed to go thru the gut of the dodo to be able to sprout... There are thousands of species of bees, each one has specific dependence with plants, and this is what we know, there could be other forms which are dependent on these bees, or these crops, and the diversity of these crops... By wiping out varieties we are wiping out a wide range of interdependent life forms not all of which we understand. We know for a fact that many life forms are directly affected by the chemicals which are sprayed for growing these crops, and this is undisputed fact I'm talking about, not some debatable correlation... Why do we take this risk? What benefit do we gain? Because it has left the world's farmers poor and dependent on government dole subsidies... So it has really failed humanity. The only people it has benefited are the Monsantos of the world and indirectly the Olams and Walmart and ITC...  It has served no other purpose. India is simultaneously suffering from malnutrition and obesity. Please Google endosulfan and read about it. Please visit one chicken farm and see what they are fed. Please visit one conventional farm of rice and see how much chemicals and water is used. Please see how cabbage or cauliflower or grapes are grown and the amount of pesticides used. Because there are no natural balancing elements like birds or reptiles to eat the pests, we need to use high dosages of pesticides... We are taking all this risk without knowing the consequences, but for what benefit? Why don't we accept that we don't understand chemicals and modified genes and their effects, and stick to naturally healthy, tasty and nutritious food? Why this eagerness to push solutions designed to keep farmers poor and dependant and profit corporations?
I've written too much

21 March 2010

Scenes from a wedding

‘Mon weds Kohima’ glittered on a red velvet board outside the venue, as the sun set on their single lives. Mon wore a shining suit and tie, smoking secretly in the balcony in his changing room. He didn’t wish to get married, but this was the best catch. He was 26, educated and overpaid due to the trap called potential, his stock at its peak – it was time to sell. He wanted to roll the weed in his pocket and join his friends, who were pulling outside with religious fervor. He had also wanted to marry one of the girls pulling outside… they were new age liberated women, with opinions and second names they wouldn’t surrender to his masculine whims… “Girlfriend material… good to fuck, but cannot live with them” his best friend Dim had told him a month back when he was having second thoughts. Mon wanted a pure girl, untouched by the evil world outside, of which he was a part. He dreamed of undressing Kohima, watching her blush with the shyness of untouched purity, which tugged at his pants already. He lit another cigarette and slipped into a dream… piping hot food awaiting him every evening, freedom from household chores, obedient sex whenever he pleased… he liked dominating, and wondered if Kohima would complain to her parents if he tied her up.

Around the same time Kohima sat with Ahmed and drank vodka. Rum was her thing, but vodka didn’t smell. She guzzled her third drink and licked her bee-stung lips. Alcohol made her horny, and Ahmed sensed this and walked around her and held her throat from behind and kissed her… a farewell kiss, she thought as she felt his arms slip under her dress… he clumsily lifted her to the dressing table while she struggled to suppress her moan… things clattered, bottles fell and broke, the room was filled with the smell of perfume… in her drunken disbelief she felt him inside her, reminding her of everything she had tried washing down with the vodka… for the next few moments she lived in another world, where they were birds, free from the infinites strings of real life. The serendipity of her unwed life she now bid farewell to, as he stroked her violently. One Last Time, she thought.

Ahmed was from another religion, and didn’t have a regular job. His most regular income came from copying assignments for rich college kids… sometimes his phone would ring and he would rush off to fix someone’s broken bike or car… he ran errands for households, paid their bills and dropped their kids to school, fixed the leaking pipe and listened to wives pouring out their woes (he was their free shrink)… by night he arranged all things illegal except children and violence… he was the man who could fix things for you that you couldn’t fix yourself – because money breeds ignorance. Why do something when you can buy it off the shelf? Ahmed owned the shelf. He could get things for you that you couldn’t get yourself –because with fame and wealth comes a disease called self-respect. Like the whorehouses which you crave to visit but cannot be spotted visiting. Ahmed never said no (except for children and violence) – why say no when you can put a price on something?

But Ahmed had younger siblings whose future sat on his shoulders… running away was not an option. Their communities didn’t get along, and convincing them was impractical. Not all stories have happy endings. Some die under the weight of the one constant in our evolving race – convenience. Ahmed and Kohima decided to not fight society and its infinite strings that pull them in directions they didn’t choose.

So they made love as a farewell to their unfulfilled unspeakable love – the hazy potential of which made it more alluring. They held each other tight for a few minutes when senses of time and space were warped and flushed down the pot. The dramatic weight of the moment was knocked out by a knock on the door. Luckily, it was Simal – Kohima’s best friend and co-conspirer, who warned them of the hordes of relatives arriving to fetch her. Ahmed kissed her quickly and made a quick escape. Kohima’s eyes were (also) wet as she quickly arranged her dress and sat on the dressing table, pretending to be busy looking pretty.

Mon’s father Billu was a nervous wreck, running the most challenging management assignment since he graduated from business school three decades back. He wished education were of greater help than earning a sweet salary as he attended to the countless relatives and in-laws. His education and dedication had lifted the family to prosperity, which was under public scrutiny tonight..

Billu’s mother Mary was 75, grey-haired and wrinkled like she just walked out of a washing machine, living with the mad confidence of someone who knew 76 is unlikely to happen… she disliked her son’s wife Billi because of Billu’s limited love that they had to share. Despite the tablets, age had its benefits – respect and reverence, and the illusion of wisdom that everyone found in her words. When she fell down in the loo and broke her hip, she stayed in bed for 3 months, during which time Billi took care of her like her son couldn’t. She took leave from work and, amongst other things, helped her shit into a pan and wiped her ass clean. Still, the hatred ran deeper than the hole that Billi cleaned.

This was Mary’s last chance to get drunk on power, and she drank hard, compensating for a youth spent dancing for the pleasures of people much older and now long dead. She could barely walk, ate finely mashed food that required almost no digestion, fought a dozen ailments that cling to old age like flies on fresh shit. To her credit, during the pre-education days, she had toiled hard to raise a family with the little nothings her husband managed to earn. Her husband could’ve been mute and people might not have noticed, but he was tired after a lifetime of obeying his wife. If only feminists knew all this they’d be incredibly proud.

Mary’s husband managed to retain a name of his own – Johnny, and had his own share of old-age friends. He ate even more finely mashed food, without salt or sugar or anything that tickled the tongue or altered his blood, and pissed into a tube that ran from his penis to a bottle that proudly showed off the color of his piss. Johnny was deeply embarrassed to walk around carrying his pee, so he hid the bottle beneath the seat and crossed his legs so people couldn’t see. Through all the painful weekly trips to the hospital, a Mary who turned more Antoinette by the day, the nightly spasms in his chest, and grandchildren who mercilessly made fun of his pee… he pulled on, driven only by the urge to live on for life’s sake. There was no purpose, no hope for a better future, and certainly no happiness in life… but any pain can be weathered by the strongest force in mankind - fear of death. He could hear whispers of his eight sons forming early alliances in the fight for his wealth, and when he closed his eyes his sons morphed into vultures and hovered over him.

Sitting at the wedding, staring at the countless grandchildren that he indirectly helped spawn, he remembered his eldest grandson asking him quizzically how he had the strength to have eight of his own. He remembered his youth when there was no television or internet or movies… there was one clear vent for boredom. His grandson didn’t know that Johnny had really fathered 12 kids – 3 of whom died in child birth and one died of diarrhea at the age of 3. Yes, the next time your shit turns loose, remember that people die of it. Before you accuse Johnny of obsolete nostalgia, you may want to know that children still die of diarrhea in certain dark patches on our map – 3 per minute, if you wish precision.

Around the same time, Johnny’s fat grandchildren walked around like advertisements of the prosperity that now besotted their large family. Some of the kids were so obese that their chins ate up the neck and merged with their shoulders. They sat at the dining hall and ate like pigs (no offence to our porcine friends). Skinny men served food cooked in the huge cauldron they called kitchen. The cooks were muscular and dark and wore thin vests soaked in their sweat, which dripped into the food, adding much needed salt. The old guy stirring the soup scratched his itching armpits, freeing curly strands of white hair, which flew without a care, landing where it pleased.

While the curly hair was garnishing the soup of the day (and more elegantly – the coconut rice)… Kohima was bathed in gold that her father bought with a loan. If the chains were not made of some shiny metal she could’ve been a prisoner. She felt no different for the shine, and walked out carrying 2 kgs of metal and the self-esteem of elders. Her mother wore half a kg of shine herself, while Supong wore rings on all 10 fingers. People who shook his hand felt more cold metal than warm hand. The next-generation photographer – Humbal, who left his corporate job and now clicked colourful pictures, whose inexperience came at a discount (distrustful, they also hired the traditional guy), clicked the girl’s every move and every breath. He also spun stories around them – which gave an aura of romance to the marriage of convenience. Humbal preserved as much shine into one frame as is optically possible, and later enhanced it using photoshop, knowing it would massage the fragile egos that paid him. He knew what normal photographers didn’t – people liked bokeh and black & white. So as he clicked, you could listen to an inner voice (of Nagesh Kukunoor in Bollywood Calling?) that screamed “I wan’t more bokeh! Put more bokeh!! NOW!”

While Humbal spun a sympathy story on the poor bride’s 2 kg burden while she waited for the groom, unseen old skinny women and men carried sacks of rice and vegetables into the kitchen. Two men sat at the back slitting the throats of ducks as they quackquacked, while two others worked on the chicken. In a nearby construction site, women carried bricks and cement, while their husbands smoked beedis and built a wall. 6 year old Amu, whose father was busy chewing weed to forget the pain of building a wall – the pain of building so many walls yet never having one for his own family - had her yettobenamed 1 year old brother strapped onto her back as she foraged the waste that the wedding produced. The food that couldn’t fit into old Johnny’s fat grandchildren’s fat-chins-that-threatened-to-swallow-necks made its way to the dark pile of waste piled up outside the kitchen. Amu squatted and gathered food into a plastic cover she had picked off the road, to take back to her parents and their wall-building-cement-carrying friends. She had to fight off dogs carefully, for she couldn’t afford to get bitten. The dogs could sense her fear and inched closer. She threw picked up 3 stones and threw one at the dog, screaming in her 6 year old voice. When she turned back, the food mine had been taken over by rats – which are braver than house-rats, like Amu is braver than the fat kids who helped create the food mine. She kicked the pile violently, and one rat flew and fell on another pile of human gluttony. She watched two of them run into the kitchen, and felt envy fill her heart. She got up to leave when an older kid from the neighborhood snatched her plastic bag and ran away. She sulked in dejection, and looked around for another plastic bag and another pile. She was still happy that there was so much food to scavenge; so long as buildings were built next to wedding halls, it was a almost a dream… life’s other problems are so much simpler with a full stomach, she thought, and looked forward to each wedding with more eagerness than the Mons and Kohimas of that night.

Not far from Amu, Ahmed squatted against the wall, making oral love to the bottle of rum, as he broke into fits of crying. His customers heard no for the first time that night.

Back inside the wedding hall, flashlights went off a thousand times, wedding albums were created with people smiling fake-smiles, stories were spun and history written. Mon wed Kohima, on a red carpet that hid untold secrets, secret fears and frightening truths.Mon suppressed his eagerness to cut to the chase that night… Kohima shed tears that people mistook for joy and the pain of separation from family… Ahmed lay on the road outside, staring at the sky and choking on his own puke (he didn’t die, so no rockstar ending!)… Johnny watched his pee drip into the bottle, holding onto life nervously… Mary picked on irregularities in the ceremony and expressed her disapproval, despite which she was the most content person in the entire crowd… Amu returned home with so much food that the builders had a small party that night under the same stars they shared with Ahmed.

The next day, the wedding album came out on a CD titled “Happily Ever After – Mon & Kohima”

3 March 2010

the story of pleiku

Pleiku was born at 11 pm on a night with no moon and no power. People said it was a bad omen. Starting with the immeasurable pain he caused his mother while coming out, anything that went wrong was blamed on this. Alternatively, they could’ve blamed the cat sitting on the bed or the blue shirt that his father was wearing, but they didn’t. For the first few years everyone found Pleiku cute. But all babies are cute, no? Slowly Darwin drew out of Pleiku differences that make us different. He grew up into a slow, shy kid, not notably good at anything. He watched movies where the main guy appears useless yet has a talent hidden. Pleiku searched everyday in the mirror and found nothing. Through adolescence he got picked on by boys who couldn’t pick on anybody else. He personified purposeless existence; floating through life like nothing separated yesterday from today. The only thing he looked forward to was the next morning’s newspaper, which he loved reading over an hour long dump. Teachers with frustrating lives took it out on kids who misbehaved (as kids must). But Pleiku had no friends and didn’t say much, so it was morally challenging for the teachers to beat him. Still his teachers yelled at him for his stupidity. Back home, his parents fought silently, and the times they went too far apart Pleiku was the invisible cord that pulled them together. Wedded in a loveless relationship, their purpose in life was to educate Pleiku, keep him away from vices, and marry him to an obedient girl of their choice, who will then take care of them in old age and make babies (nothing satisfied them like seeing the baby’s penis) who can then be educated, kept off vices and married off.

Higher education took him to a college far away from home and parents, who he unfailingly called everyday. He never understood why his mother asked him what he ate in that shithole of a mess in college. Far from home, where nobody knew of his silent past, Pleiku reinvented himself. He loved the fact that he could be anybody he wanted to be; people simply assumed that he’d been like that all his life. He got ragged, made friends, drank and smoked... by now he’d learnt to score enough to get by, and thus drifted thru 4 years without a scratch. Some nights when he drank rum by the lake bordering his college, he wondered why he couldn’t live here forever. Why graduate and become like his parents?

Pleiku made so many friends that he forgot his forgettable time in school. Looking back, it seemed like somebody else lived in this body of his. His mum still called to enquire what he ate, which he found increasingly silly and irritable. He barely spoke to his father, who paid his fees unfailingly, who made sure he had smart clothes to wear, who trusted him implicitly - out of love, not confidence.

Towards the end, Pleiku found a girl who thought just like him. Next to his reinvention it was the best thing in his life. It was so unbelievable that it kept him in disbelief for a good year. By the time he believed (which promptly made it less sweet) he was sitting in a cubicle with bright white lighting for maximum efficiency, punching mindlessly into a computer like everyone else in the room. He had moved to another city, and his girl had moved on. His friends were all scattered like dots on the map, getting hitched with someone or the other. His life went back to school, where it felt like the day never ended, each sunrise merging seamlessly into the next.

Pleiku’s parents looked for a suitable girl for their kid, who they felt was calm and soft-spoken. Pleiku was sniffing 30 and had no fight left in him to find a girl for himself. He liked plump women, and picked one from the first list of 13 pictures that were given to him. Her name was Dalat. Much later Pleiku wondered how his life would’ve been if he had been as decisive all his life. He only saw Dalat once before she became his wife, when she prostrated in front of him and sought his blessings while he approved the match. Even though Pleiku had agreed to everything the rival parents had said, he still had to watch them fight in his wedding over things he didn’t care about. After such prolonged starvation, he was merely hungry to dip his beak. The girl loved the spotlight and all the pampering. Never had so many people worked so hard to make her look pretty. What she didn’t know was how her whitewashed face contrasted against her brown arms, despite which she had now achieved the pinnacle of her pretty existence… and how things would go downhill from here.

They spent the first 2 weeks welded in bed. For the sake of their families and facebook (and thanks to the digital revolution) they took 800 pictures, going out once a day so they didn’t appear too obsessed. When they got back they painfully realised that life existed outside of bed… that there were dishes to be done, clothes to be washed and chores to be completed… Pleiku hated it even more that he was now responsible for another person. Dalat went to the temple every morning and prayed that a little penis was growing somewhere inside her… when the doctor spotted the penis on the hideous scan, Pleiku’s parents opened the sweet box and fed Dalat until she threw up. They took such good care of Dalat that even in her dreamy eyes she knew it wouldn’t last after the baby came out.

As Dalat grew bigger with Hue, Pleiku cursed the baby for killing his sex life. With Dalat due in one month, Pleiku lost his head and picked up a whore on a business trip to the far-east. He liked how he could have the girl without being responsible for feeding her tomorrow. He resumed his love for alcohol and smoke which he’d shelved thanks to sober colleagues and the excitement of baby-making. On weekends he started snorting with his old pals from school, bonded by the common purpose of escaping the purposeless present.

After the initial excitement of the new baby, Pleiku couldn’t wait to see his little Hue grow up and learn to pee and crap by himself. Every Monday Pleiku cursed reality for being such a bitch. During this time he sought frequent trips to the far-east while Dalat was tormented by her in-laws. Dalat knew that the only way out was to have another penis inside her, but Pleiku – no longer hungry – steadfastly refused to be responsible for another mouth.

Dalat could smell other women on Pleiku, but by now she didn’t care enough to reform Pleiku. She quietly waited for his end, which came on a Sunday morning. They found him by the lake in his college, smelling of rum, nose white without cotton, with a filmy streak of red and bile dripping down.

Dalat took the money and Hue, and left for some place far away. Before leaving she spat blood-red betel juice on the pictures of the Gods worshipped by her in-laws. Pleiku’s nameless faceless friends had absconded, fearing questions about the white in Pleiku’s nose. His parents stood crying alone at the mortuary, watching their flesh and blood burn in the oven, wondering what they did wrong.

26 October 2009

one step forward, two steps backward

There are two kinds – the oppressors and the oppressed. Sometimes the oppressed hit back, like when the Maoists decide to screw the Bengal government, or when they get the politicians to reserve seats for the lower castes in universities. The Forward Ones cry in protest. The Backward Ones know that a rule once made is hard to shake. Ask Ambedkar no?

The Forwards argue that we should focus on primary education, and uplift the masses instead of lowering the bar. Fair enough. In an ideal world, we could use primary education to liberate The Oppressed – oppressed since we began recording history. The oppression of The Forward Ones has just begun, and they’re weeping already.

In my Brahmin school called P.S. Senior in Mylapore, Madras, I recollect seeing 2 lower caste students in my 15 years holed up in that school. Now that I think of it, perhaps there were a few more, bunched up and banished from the rest. Then I looked up Wikipedia, which generously put my school as one of the top 5 schools in Madras, along with similar schools with purely elite or forward children.

Some 3 year old kid is taken to my school’s Principal, who then passes judgment on whether the kid is suitable for this school. It’s no coincidence that the Principals always pick one way. Essentially, The Forward Ones impose near 100% reservation right at the start, and then go on to celebrate their success and crib about reservations in higher education.

This kind of unwritten social reservation is infinitely more crushing than a 50% hurdle the Forward Ones face higher up… there is no number fixed, no explanations required… and nobody finds it odd. There is pride in sending kids to these schools. There is pride in oppression.

For the sake of the Principals who judge 3 year olds, and their kind, I hope hell exists, with 50% reservation for The Forwards.

2 September 2009

rain


another storm in pleiku. a swim in the lake. rain is cold, lake is warm. a few feet below cold current grips feet. rain bounces off lake's skin like baby bulbs flickering. infinite baby bulbs. lungs are tired, feet tickled by slush and grass. floating alone to the sound of thunder and rain.

29 August 2009

Skin




In a land of silky hair and smooth skin, where people were white thanks to the Chinese whose sperm and eggs spread like the dingo in a large island, lived a group of brown skinned natives in conflict with the outside world. That they survived the attack from the most voracious breeders in the world is credit to their will and discipline.

While the rest of the country thrives on vices, the natives are a peculiar, sober bunch. Contradict : The entire community wipes out 3 days on toddy when someone dies. Like celebrating the life more than mourning the death.

They live in houses not too different from before the Chinese sperm and eggs first arrived over a thousand years ago, unaffected by changes elsewhere is education, healthcare, farming methods… entering the village is like visiting a live museum.

The man invites us into his wooden house on stilts, spreads a mattress and we sit down. There is one room with a small partition for his eldest son and his young wife. He has a little farm full of coffee, grown and sold at whatever price the only middleman visiting the village offers. Lack of choice makes life simpler. Fewer things to decide. Fewer decisions to regret.

The rain came like an angry ghost. Water sprinkled on us from top, and he apologized. He also apologized for not having drinking water to serve at that time. His little children sat next to the burning wood as dinner was being cooked and played with corn in the fire.

One of the Chinese descendents in our group of three is encouraged to light up even though nobody in that house smoked. No ashtray is necessary since the wooden flooring has gaps providing a large tray for the ash.

The different skins live in close proximity, share the same society. The rest of the country finds no use for the dark-skinned. They’re primitive and uneducated, and treated like the American government would treat an aspiring egalitarian society in a cave rich with oil.

The white-skinned shower contempt and hatred is rarely not reciprocated. They fought and spilled blood and bullets some years back. Contradict: In my factory the white-skinned refuse to work with the dark-skinned, not vice versa. Elitist behaviour and caste struggles don’t die in the face of socialism. It’s in our sperm and eggs.

Back to our farmer, who goes to work on a farm pulling out weed for less than a dollar a day. He has seven kids to feed, clothe and raise. Death is not uncommon, so they learn quickly and well to deal with it. There is so much uncertainty in life that they truly live in the moment. The warmth was genuine, the happiness honest and overwhelming. Truly, happiness is poorly correlated to things outside our mind.

Before we left I wondered what he thought of us. My capitalist roots won’t have much interest in his town for they don’t have any resources that can be plundered and passed on so you can drink and piss out.

Maybe the outside world isn’t a happier place.

22 August 2009

Fast Runner

As kids, Fast Runner and Joker were inseparable. Joker envied Fast Runner for how fast he could run. In Joker’s eyes it gave Fast Runner unmatched power in this world. Like a caste system. How fast one could run was determined at birth, and stuck like caste.

During competitions in school, Joker would cheer madly for Fast Runner, even if the bigger boys often outran his friend. Fast Runner couldn’t charm the teachers or the girls. Running was his thing.

Joker, Fast Runner and their gang of kids would eagerly await the end of the day in school. The shoes slowed them down, so they were kept in a heap and played China Town - an exotic chasing game with rules nobody outside the kids knew. Till dusk they ran. Chasing and being chased. Like a video game, Chinatown had traps like railings and parapets, which were designed to favor the most athletic, who invariably sucked inside the classroom. Those 3 hours of sun after school was the only time they were elite and acknowledged suitably. So they waited, through the insults and reprimands from teachers through the day for the evening bell, like bird for air. Sports Day was even better than Birthday, because for the only time in the year, the fast runners earned the applause. Everybody got cheered on their birthdays.

As people's brains grew older and seemingly bigger, running was overpowered by exam scores. Fast Runner was no longer celebrated or envied like before. Joker, steadily average inside the classroom, scraped through. Fast Runner’s run stopped. They went to different schools, became older, and shed the innocence that once served as oil for their fry.