Sunday, December 26, 2004

2004 - Summing Up

  • Taught undergraduate courses for the first time in the spring semester. That was a very pleasant experience. I never thought I would enjoy teaching to that extent till then. Now sometimes I miss teaching!
  • Wrote three papers. Workwise, this was a good year.
  • Started blogging. I think it doesn't naturally come to me. I often envy most of the blogs that I read for their effortless style. Wonder how long I'll blog. Will try to do it for another year at least!
  • R joined a new company, and moved to Bombay.
  • Best book (that I read in 2004): A House for Mr. Biswas.
  • Best movie: No Man's Land.
  • Best blog: Amardeep Singh.
  • Best post: Putu's Literary Saga with Happy Ending.
  • My own post that I liked the most: How old is Lucy?
  • Happiest event: Indian election results on the 13th of May. Especially BJP losing many seats in Gujarat - the Hindutva lab.
  • Saddest event: Yesterday's Tsunami.
I'm off to Hyderabad for New Years. May not blog from there. A very happy new year to all!


More than 12,000 people are dead in yesterday's earthquake. A very sad event. As is to be expected, in almost all the newspapers, this is the main news item. But in the Hindu online edition, the first news is about Bangladesh-India cricket match! Disgusting.

Update: Well, they have changed the frontpage of the online edition. The cricket news is the last item now. Good!

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Best Bakery Case

Siddharth Varadarajan's article in The Hindu: "The latest act in the tragedy that is Zahira."

    Zahira may or may not have taken money but she and her family will always remain the principal victims in the case. Each time she turns hostile, she enacts another chapter in the tragedy that is Gujarat.

    Apart from the obvious issue of witness protection, the Supreme Court needs to take a hard look at the question of financial compensation for the riot victims.

    The pittance that the Modi Government has offered as compensation for the lives lost or homes and businesses destroyed often forces victims who have lost everything to forsake the elusive chimera of justice for the immediate relief of a pay-off.

    The worst that can be said about Zahira Sheikh is that having lost everything while the rulers of Gujarat sat back and enjoyed the show, she is trying to get the best she can out of a politico-legal system that rarely delivers justice to the poor.

    But if "greed" is the vice which has afflicted her, it pales into insignificance before the greater immorality of those who are so determined to ensure that the perpetrators of the communal carnage in Gujarat are never brought to book.

Amardeep Singh's post: "Tell it to the Tehelka: Communalism and Corruption in Gujurat." Amardeep puts things in perspective, and the post has many relevant links.

Dr. Urbino and Phantom Limbs

I've got the quote that I was looking for:

    She [Fermina Daza] could not avoid a profound feeling of rancor toward her husband [Dr. Juvenal Urbino] for having left her alone in the middle of the ocean. Everything of his made her cry: ... ... At every moment countless ordinary questions would come to mind that he alone could answer for her. Once he had told her something that she could not imagine: that amputees suffer pains, cramps, itches, in the leg that is no longer there. That is how she felt without him, feeling his presence where he no longer was. [Love in the Time of Cholera, Garcia Marquez]

After a week

I haven't blogged for more than a week. For no reason, actually. Anyway back to blogging:

  • Nobel laureate Chen Ning Yang, who is 82, is marrying a 28 year old student. Yang is perhaps most famous for Yang-Mills theory.
  • R is back home, and that's nice.
  • There was a public lecture by V.S. Ramachandran -- well-known Neuroscientist and author of Phantoms in the Brain. Gave an excellent and entertaining lecture. Talk was, of course, about "phantoms", "synesthesia", etc. Talking about Ramachandran, phantom limbs and all that, didn't Garcia Marquez write about somebody who continues to feel the itching in an amputated body part? If anyone knows the exact quote, please e-mail. I have a searchable version of "One Hundred Years of Solitude", and I couldn't find that there. Perhaps in "Love in the Time of Cholera"? It'll be interesting if Marquez's Dr. Urbino indeed talks about phantom limbs. Afterall, Ramachandran shares many things in common with Dr. Urbino, including a flair for smelling diseases, and a passion for literature and arts!
  • P. Sainath speaks about the poor media coverage of agrarian crisis.
      While journalism attains greatness or notoriety on the basis of how relevant it is to the great occurrences of that time, today it is [the] mass media, on [the] one hand, and mass reality, on the other.
  • Thanks to Lubos Motl for linking to my blog.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Sainath & Varadarajan

Two of my favourite journalists are back in action. P. Sainath writes about the plight of farmers in Wayanad in Kerala:

    Media reports reckon that some 120 farmers have taken their own lives in Wayanad since January 9 this year. The Government admits to no more than 50 distress suicides in that time. On the surface, the figure of 120 may seem small beside, say, the suicides in Anantapur in Andhra Pradesh. That district saw an average of 600 each year during a five-year period. Yet, at one level, Wayanad's suicides are almost as intense. Anantapur has nearly 37 lakh people. Wayanad has some seven lakh. On that base, its 120 suicides add up to nearly the same as Anantapur's. (The data in both cases are flawed, but give us some sense of the trend.) [So near to God, so far from Heaven, The Hindu.]
Siddharth Varadarajan focuses on Chavez and Venezuela. He writes:
    At a time when most countries are vying with each other for a place under Pax Americana, the Venezuela of Mr. Chavez is an aberration, a rude and insistent interruption in the otherwise triumphant march towards the End of History. From the war on terror to free market economics, privatisation, cutbacks on social expenditure and the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas, Mr. Chavez opposes the Washington orthodoxy on just about everything.

    "Some people say, hey Chavez, why are we spending so much on adult literacy and not on physical infrastructure," he said later. "My answer is that before buildings and highways, we have to build a sovereign people who can live with dignity." [The Chavez phenomenon and the U.S., The Hindu.]

Monday, December 13, 2004

String Theory

String theory is getting a lot of attention in the mainstream media these days. See this New York Times article for example. Andrew Strominger was here today, and he gave a very good public lecture on String Theory. Meanwhile he also managed to dump George Bush into a black hole!

On the right, Andrew Strominger with collaborator Cumrun Vafa.

Sunday, December 12, 2004

Salman Rushdie

A lot of Rushdie in the Indian newspapers these days, thanks to his visit. Here's a well-written Telegraph piece. I've heard him once, in March last week this year, and his speech was very impressive. I was reading what I wrote before and after his talk (in a blog that I used to keep then). Rereading that was fun. Here it goes:

    Monday, March 29, 2004

    Salman Rushdie is going to be here tonight.

    I don't exactly remember when I heard his name for the first time. But I do distinctly remember the controversy that his book "The Satanic Verses" created, the fatwa that followed, discussions and debates on the freedom of expression that follwed that ... In Kerala (where I was born and brought up), these sort of topics do not restrict to small "intellectual groups". A controversy over Rushdie, Mandela's release from the prison, Marquez' friendship with Castro, all are often potential election issues!

    I was in the 9th grade then. My friend U and I had a poster protesting the fatwa against Rushdie. I think we posted it on the wall of the Ladies Hostel of the University Campus where I was living. (I had the 'privilege' to live in one Univesity Campus or other throughout my life.) U's father was a great admirer of "Midnights' Children". As far as I remember, majority of those who participated in the debates on that particular controversy thought "The Satanic Verses" was not a great work of art (unlike "Midnights' Children"), controversial references in the book could have been avoided, nevertheless the writer had the right to express what he wanted to express, and everybody condemned the fatwa.

    I never read "The Satanic Verses" though. The only Rushdie books that I have read are "Midnights' Children", and "The Ground Beneath Her Feet". I liked the first one a lot, but did not like the second one much. In fact I had a tough time finishing it. I read (rather started reading) "Midnights' Children" in a train journey from Cochin to Hyderabad in 1999. I wanted a book to read in the train, and thought would buy one at the railway station in Cochin. The bookshops at the station were not opened for some reason. When the train stopped at Shoranur for quite some time, I noticed that a few shops were open. Among all the Sidney Sheldons and John Grishams, there was this Rushdie book. (I do read Sheldons and Grishams, but - I don't know why - I do not spend money on them!) I must have finished it two or three weeks later. (I'm a slow reader. Typically do not read more than 50 pages a day.) I enjoyed reading it.

    I bought a copy of "The Ground Beneath Her Feet" in the Sunday market at Abids, Hyderabad, in 2001. Abids Sunday market typically has used books or cheap (pirated!) editions. Mine was a pirated one on bad quality paper. Those were the days when work wasn't going very well(?!). I had finished working on a problem successfully a couple of months before, and hadn't really started thinking about a new one. Plus marriage, followed by a short break from work, was on the cards within the next couple of months. The break that I was going to take must have put me in a semi-break-from-work mood! I thought 700 pages of printed material would keep me busy for some time. Indeed it did! I didn't like the book very much. I think I finished reading it only because I started reading it!

    I don't know what Rushdie is going to talk about tonight. Two days back R told me about Irshad Manji's "The Trouble with Islam". I hadn't heard about her before that. Later I read one or two interviews with Irshad Manji on the web. Reading those, I tend to support a critic of Manji who said there's even more trouble with Manji! I see that Manji uses Rushdie's name a lot. I havn't seen Rushdie saying much about Manji. It'll be interesting if he comments on Manji or her book tonight. Not improbable as Manji's book is getting a lot of attention these days (more wrongly and less rightly, shall I say?)

    I asked two friends of mine whether they are planning to go to Rushdie's programme. (One of them was reading Kundera's "The Unbearable Lightness of Being", which in fact prompted me asking this question.) Both had an emphatic "No" in return. Sometimes I too think I'm wasting time attending this sort of stuff. But then I was always like that. I think I'm crazy about literary figures, social scientists, activists and politicians. (Film stars, musicians, and scientists do not charm me to this extent.)

    Okay it's time to go for Rushdie's talk.

    Tuesday, March 30, 2004

    Rushdie's talk went very well yesterday. I had a nice evening out there.

    While walking back, after the talk, I met F. According to him, Rushdie could be the most well-known writer living today. Everybody knows him for the fatwa and the controversies, if not for his writing.

    I'm not so sure about that. I guess those who noticed his name just due to the controversies might have forgotten him after some time. Right to say that the controversies (and the associated public memory) have a short life span? I'm not so sure about that too.

    In any case the teenager who sat next to me had no idea who Rushdie was. She asked me why I was there for the talk. I said I had heard a lot of about him, had read a couple of his books, would like to listen to him. She said: "I wish that was my reason too." What then was her reason to attend the talk? She's a freshman who'll be majoring in Nursing, and she has a course in literature. Taking down notes of Rushdie's talk was part of her assignment. She asked me a few questions about Rushdie (spell the name, what is he famous for, etc). I helped her as I could. I hope my comments were helpful. And I wish she gets the maximum points in her assignment.

    Now that's how liberal education should be. A student of Nursing or Engineering listens to a famous writer at least once. A student of English literature gets a feeling of an advancement in science in a public lecture. Unfortunately that's not the case in many places.

    Rushdie's words, frequently punctuated by humour, projected clarity and conviction. You might disagree with him, but you would not be confused about his point. The arrogance that he often radiates in his interviews and coulmns was either not there or it appeared to be more positive and gentle than blunt.

    Anjali Khosla, the chairwoman of the event, made a faux pas addressing the President of the University as the President of the United States. And the President thanked her for "the wonderful demotion"!

    Tuesday, March 30, 2004

    Rushdie mentioned the verb dixiechick in his talk. One questioner wondered whether Rushdie has heard about lewinskied. He had not. Anyway the intern's name prompted Rushdie to recall his favourite Bill-Lewinsky joke. Here it is.

    Federal Bureau of Investigation Crime Lab DNA Test Results for Bill Clinton: Dear Mr. Starr: The test on the dress came back inconclusive. Everyone in Arkansas has the same DNA. Sorry, The FBI.

Friday, December 10, 2004

The sports of empire

Ram Guha's column in the Telegraph:

    When asked what the duties of a University president were, the sociologist Clark Kerr β€” at the time president of the University of California at Berkeley β€” answered: β€œTo provide enough sex for the undergraduates, adequate parking for the faculty, and a good enough football team for the alumni.”

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Kanna Peruvannan

The veteran Theyyam exponent Kanna Peruvannan passed away on Wednesday evening. Theyyam is the most popular ritual dance in northern Kerala. Peruvannan was a legendary figure among the folk artists of northern Kerala.

    Kanna Peruvannan was born at Kodakkad, a small village near Karivellur. He started performing Theyyam at a very young age of six and he got a chance to perform the most brilliant Theyyam of Kathivannur Veeran when he was 14 years old. From then he had performed the same Theyyam of Kathivannur Veeran for more than six hundred times which is a record in this field. The rituals and Thottam songs of almost all the Theyyams are by heart for this veteran artiste. [from]
In my school days, we used to visit Karivellur -- where my grandparents used to live and where I have a lot of close relatives -- once in a year or so. I have seen theyyam performances there whenever our visits matched the festival season. I think I've seen Kanna Peruvannan once, long ago in a function where he was felicitated, but I'm not able to recall for sure.

I got this short note on Theyyam by Pepita Seth via Google. She has researched this topic for almost thirty years, and is the author of the book "Reflections of the Spirit - The Theyyams of Malabar". A quote from that note:

    Although acquiring divinity can be seen as an extraordinary honor, Theyyam's great irony is that its practitioners belong to one of the dozen or so communities at the bottom of Kerala's complicated caste structure. In the not so distant past their presence, within a prescribed distance, was believed to be so polluting as to ritually contaminate high caste Hindus. Even now, though they are venerated and honored when 'divine', they still receive no special attention or recognition in their everyday lives.

Fighting chickens

J frequently sends a lot of beautiful photos from Ha Noi. Here are the "fighting chickens" of Halong Bay.

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Shwaas needs oxygen

For those of you who like to contribute to the Shwaas fund [I got this message via an e-mail]:

    The Shwaas team is working towards collecting funds for the promotion of the movie at the international level. People from all sections of the society have come forward to help. However, there is a long way to go. You can help by sending in your contribution. As they say, little drops make up an ocean. Your cheque / Demand Draft (payable in Mumbai) should be drawn in favour of SHWAAS FOUNDATION. Write your name, address and telephone no. at the back of the cheque/DD and send it to:
    • Shwaas Foundation, Kathi Arts, Shop no. 2, Bahubali Towers, Saibaba Nagar, Boriwali (W), Mumbai - 400092, India.
    • Phone: (+91) 22-28643680.

Shiing-Shen Chern

The New York Times obituary of prominent mathematician S.S. Chern who died last friday. [Via Peter Woit.]

Take the challenge

This is for fun. Take the Guardian work-IQ test.

    "Are you too smart for your salary? Live up to your boast; take the test, plug in your salary and find out how high - or low - your cash/cleverness coefficient is."
My cash/cleverness coefficient is 500. Now that means I'm very very underpaid! Here is my test result.

Sunday, December 05, 2004

Babri Masjid

It is twelve years since the Hindutva fanatics demolished the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya. Perhaps no other day in independent India's history signifies and symbolizes the communal polarization, mutual hatred, and a contempt for rule of law, so blatant in our society today, as that black Sunday in December 92. We saw Golwalkar in action, "teaching" Indian Muslims how they should lead their lives in India as "second rate" citizens -- citizens without any rights.

Though I had known it very well that these fanatics could stoop to any low to gain political mileage, I hadn't thought till that day, in fact till the All India Radio confirmed the demolition in its evening news, that the struture would actually be grounded. I had the rather simplistic impression that the "karsevaks" would enter the disputed site, with the help of the friendly police, and might even damage the masjid a little bit, but wouldn't dare to do the total demolition. As a not so politically conscious teenager, this perhaps was understandable. Unfortunately the then prime minister Narasimha Rao, it appears now, was just as naive, willing to trust an Advani and a Kalyan Singh on their word that the Masjid wouldn't be demolished.

In the days followed, people were behaving in pretty strange -- or was that more natural then? -- ways. I could see many friends of mine from the Muslim community keeping a distance from me and other non-Muslims. The behaviour of several of my Hindu friends was even more strange. Many were ecstatic about the destruction that took place in Ayodhya -- several ordinary Hindu teenagers parrotted local RSS hooligans, for a short period though. When our college reopened after a fortnight of bandhs, hartals, strikes, and a general everything-isn't-alright atmosphere, my closest friend confessed to me that though he couldn't justify Gandhi's assassination -- many on the "secular" side were talking a lot about the parallels between the Masjid demolition and Gandhi's assassination -- he sympathized with Godse's position. As one can see, talking in extremes was the norm.

This was the period when I started taking a keener interest in political matters. Though never very active in day-to-day activism, I decided to pay more attention to what such local activists say. I found that those who actually work with people and their problems weren't floundering at difficult times, unlike some of the bookish liberal intellectuals. In societal matters, words of those who are willing to make sacrifices, started appealing to me more, than the dull rigour of "academic" logic.

Back to Babri Masjid, for a "secularist", today it is politically correct to say that the issue should be settled in court. On the whole, our judiciary is exemplary, and I believe this issue can be settled in court. But I think a truly secular government should be willing to undo the wrong, and the right thing to do is to rebuild the masjid there. If I advocate anything less than this, I can't but feel that I'm indirectly siding with the demolishers.

Saturday, December 04, 2004

News from Panaji

News from Panaji somehow brings a vague sense of disquiet. The other day Nikhat Kazmi remarked that "Shwaas" is nothing but melodrama -- melodrama of the Karan Johar variety. The next day Farrukh Dhondy says Indian audiences and film makers are not mature enough (to spot shades of grey between black and white).

Interesting that Nikhat Kazmi cannot appreciate Shwaas, but found Lagaan much better than "No Man's Land". Interesting that while Kazmi makes careless remarks about Shwaas being pure melodrama -- imitating a Karan Johar? -- she is being accused of plagiarism. Also interesting that Dhondy is now speaking about maturity! After all, not much time has passed since he told this to William Dalrymple:

    "Come on Willy, get a ball transplant and say so, if that's what you and your Indian dilettante circuit think."
Dhondy and Nikhat Kazmi are perhaps birds of the same feather. For instance, Dhondy thinks Sonia Gandhi and Dalrymple are "invaders", and Kazmi looked comfortable with the proposition that Akbar built Fatehpur Sikri over a temple. Both of them tend to possess a rather exclusionary viewpoint.

Friday, December 03, 2004


The "Jude Finisterra hoax" on the 20th anniversary of this horrific tragedy. That was very cruel.

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

John Wilson

It is the 200th birth anniversary of John Wilson -- Scottish missionary, indologist, sanskrit lover, linguist, founder of Wilson College, former Vice Chancellor of Mumbai University, a former president of the Royal Asiatic Society, and "one of the seven founders of modern Bombay". Wilson was Vice-Chancellor of Mumbai University in 1868. The University Library started with his personal collection in 1880, five years after his death, and a major chunk of the library stock then consisted of his personal collection of books and manuscripts. My current interest in Wilson is due to the latter fact. I need to get a Sanskrit Manuscript from the Mumbai University Library. According to the The 'New Catalogus Catalogorum', that manuscript is there in the Mumbai University collection. Still I need to find out whether or not the manuscript is actually there. It's been two weeks since I e-mailed to the concerned authorities, but it looks like people over there either do not check their e-mail or do not promptly respond. I see that there's a fortnight long celebration to mark John Wilson's birth anniversary. Searching through the dusted manuscripts and replying to an e-mail is perhaps more difficult than organizing celebrations!