Tuesday, May 31, 2005

India’s second favorite sport

See Akshay's Trivial Matters.

K. Kunjunni Raja

K. Kunjunni Raja, the doyen of Indian Sanskrit scholars, passed away yesterday. He was 85.

Kunjunni Raja started studying Sanskrit with his uncle C. Kunjan Raja, a well-known Sanskrit Scholar, and Sanskrit poet. His first doctoral research, in Sanskrit, was done under the supervision of Kunjan Raja at the University of Madras. Later Kunjunni Raja was at the SOAS, University of London, where he got his second Ph.D. in Linguistics, working with John Brough. His thesis, Indian Theories of Meaning, is considered as one of the best works in that area. He has authored around 30 books, and more than 200 research papers, and his books include the much acclaimed The Philosophy of the Grammarians (with Harold Coward) and The contribution of Kerala to Sanskrit literature. Kunjunni Raja was also the moving spirit behind compiling the early volumes of The New Catalogus Catalogorum, a remarkable ongoing project in manuscripts research. He was also the recipient of the 'President of India award' for outstanding contribution to Sanskrit.

After retiring from the Sanskrit department of the University of Madras, in 1980, he was associated with the Adyar Library and Research Centre, in Madras, run by the Theosophical Society. As honorary director of this institute, Kunjunni Raja also served as the chief editor of Brahmavidya, one of the leading international journals in Indology, till a few years ago. Failing health made him move to Kerala, his home state.

Kunjunni Raja was sort of a father figure to my father, who's also a Sanskritist. In his visits to Calicut, he used to stay with us. I have fond memories of his encouraging my sister and myself to recite shlokas. On his visits, after dinner, we used to take our chairs outside, and under a star studded sky, he used to tell us stories from the classics. He also used to take a keen interest in my tiny stamp collection, many a time bringing stamps to me in his visits.

Anybody who has met him once would know about his simplicity and forthrightness. In the higher echelons of academics, a world also of personal egos and group-think, Kunjunni Raja was a remarkable exception. He had travelled widely, lecturing on Indological topics. Those who have been fortunate to be associated with him are going to miss him very much.

Update (June 1): Here's a report from The Hindu.

Sati Matas

Rajasthan government thinks that Sati is a source of strength, and is planning to promote Sati temples as tourist spots. See this Indian Express report.

Strange things are haunting Rajsthan these days. A week ago, Indian Express quoted a Government magazine that the Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje "occupied the post to avenge the death of a relative in a battle 300 years ago". And, it seems, Vasundhara Raje has "a direct hotline with the Gods".

When Christopher met Peter

Guardian brings estranged Hitchens brothers together to discuss sibling rivalry, politics and reconciliation. When questioned whether they two are friends:

    Peter Hitchens: No. There was an old joke in East Germany that went, Are the Russians our friends or our brothers? And the answer is, they must be our brothers because you can choose your friends.

    Christopher Hitchens: The great thing about family life is that it introduces you to people you'd otherwise never meet.

Monday, May 30, 2005

Mundu Mafia

So, why did the Malayali cross the road?


The concept of a book

    Collect copious quotations to suit your argument. String them into a narrative that brooks no complications or explanation. See conspiracies everywhere. Punctuate the story by something that looks like analysis. This usually consists of repeating an accusatory question over and over: Who is going to do something about this? Pre-empt all criticism by labelling potential critics as anything from statistics-deniers to intellectual persecutors. Create a sense of authority by insinuating that virtue, clarity and determination resides only in [him]. Anyone who dares criticise him cannot possibly be serious about national defence; anyone who demands more methodological complexity is guilty of evasive obfuscation.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Amitav Ghosh interview

Christopher Lydon of Open Source is interviewing Amitav Ghosh on the June 6th. Chris Lydon will be talking with him about "empires old and new (including the US) as well as Ghosh's take on India". The show will not be transcribed, but one could listen to it streaming live or via the mp3 file that will be posted on the Open Source site afterwards. The idea of the Open Source is

    to capture the sound of conversation on the web, share it with a radio audience and then invite that audience back to the web to contribute.
It is a joint production of Open Source Media Inc., Boston’s WGBH and the University of Massachusetts-Lowell, and it will be distributed by Public Radio International (PRI) to its 727 affiliate stations.

For exact timings, check here.

Monday, May 23, 2005

Bombay bloggers meet

Met a lot more bloggers yesterday. There were Aadisht, Amit, Dilip, Gaurav, Nandan, Ravikiran, Saket, Vikrum, and Yazad, whom I have met before. There was Rohit whom I knew via mutual friends and e-mail. There were Charu, Harini, and Rashmi, whose blogs I've been reading for quite some time. Then there were Devendra, Rohini, and Sudheer, whom I hadn't met or read before. A well-spent long Sunday evening it was.

Yazad did a splendid job in organising this get together. The venue, just ten minutes from home, suited me well too!

Aadisht, Amit, and Devendra have posts on the meet. Read those here, here, and here.

Next time, do try to make it for the meet. You are not going to go back empty-handed as Sarika is planning to give a laughing Buddha memento to all the participants.

Friday, May 20, 2005

Plaint of a Mallu

    Get a Mallu to 'roam in Rome' and he will get lost, although he might very well enjoy 'Pope music'! Why only Mallus have to suffer so much from this deeply devious feature of English when everyone else escapes?
[Link: Anamika]

Update (May 25): Another superb post here: Snakes were in the hole.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005


Sudoku is a relatively new puzzle. In its current form it was developed two decades ago by a Japanese publishing house. The word means "number single". The rules of the game are very easy:

    There's a 9x9 box consisting of nine 3x3 boxes. You need to fill in the box so that every row, every column, and every 3x3 box contains the digits 1 through 9.
As the Sudoku webpage says: "That's all there is to it. It's fun. It's challenging. It's addictive!" Here's a sample question. (This is also the May 2005 contest puzzle at http://www.sudoku.com/. You could solve and submit the answer here.)
Sudoku is in the news everywhere these days. In the UK, it's become a national craze apparently. Times, Daily Mail, Daily Telegraph, Guardian, Independent, and the Sun offer Sudoku puzzles to the readers. "Forget the election, the Royal wedding and Beckham. A puzzle has national newspapers - and readers - in its grasp", wrote the Independent. (Here's a detailed article from the Guardian about Sudoku.)

I do think it's interesting, but I do not understand the hype. Perhaps when one's absolutely bored, and in no mood to blog, one could attempt Sudoku! Anyway try it out once. It might take 5-10 minutes.

If you like to see the answer to the above puzzle, click here.

Update (May 23): Dion Church, a Telegraph sudoku enthusiast, has come up with 'the ultimate Sudoku', a 3-D version of Sudoku. It's called the Dion Cube. All the rules apply but now in three dimensions. Here's the first Telegraph Dion Cube.

Update (May 31): Jerome Turner has a blog -- Sudokusolution -- devoted to Sudoku. Two other interesting sites here and here.

Man of Peace

Another friend of mine, Ramesh, has started blogging. From his latest post on the Ganesha beer:

    I find it pretty amusing and somewhat appropriate as it explains Ganesha's gut. And doesn't beer make obstacles vanish? Of course it isnt surprising that people are offended, but nowadays people are offended by the slightest things.
Do check out Man of Peace.

Saturday, May 14, 2005

To the Amazon, with Paul Theroux

    I travel to find obstacles, to discover my limits, to ease the passage of time, to reassure myself that innocence and antiquity exist, to search for links to the past, to flee from the nastiness of urban life and the paranoia, if not outright dementia, of the technological world.
This time Paul Theroux travels to the Amazon, eastern Equador, "where the ayahuasca vine clinging to the trunks of rain forest trees grows as thick as a baby's arm." Travelling eastwards, his group arrives in Lago Agrio,
    a boom town that had grown to accommodate the sprawl of the American oil companies, which were exploiting the rainforest and displacing the Indians,
a stinking town -- "the sour creamy stink of spilled oil" -- "of furtive shadows and sharp clicking heels." Mostly there are those who work all night in the oil fields and spend their mornings getting drunk and finding women. Polished skulls of endangered jaguars, hunks of tortoiseshell, stuffed bats, mounted lizards, dead spiders transfixed by needles, all these are there for sale; also weapons of all sorts. In fact one can have "a Toxic Tour, a survey of the local blight caused by Halliburton and Occidental Petroleum."

Then Theroux goes to a Secoya village, a village beyond a long reach of a river, and in the late evening,

    daylight drained from the sky, the jungle darkened, the river gurgled at the hull of the dugout; yet the river, amazingly, was still visible, holding the last of the light, as though the day glowed undissolved in its muddy current.
One day he decides to go deep into the rainforest. Three hours of walk to the forest, and there are "brilliant heleconias, beaky strelitzias, wild-eyed blossoms, pink torches of wild ginger, and the attenuated Datura Brugmansia, Angel's Trumpet, that gave people visions and could make them go blind. Ayahuasca, too: the vine was unprepossessing and serpentine on the tree trunks."
    Only the dimmest daylight penetrated to the bottom of the forest. The greenish air was littered with gnats and filtered sunlight, and here and there a large woolly wheel of a spider's web, the spider crouched at the edge like a small dusty plum with legs.
Theroux was just beginning to think that "it was possible to believe that, though humans had passed nearby, none had interfered with it, nor had never bent a stem, nor plucked a flower, that this was a little Eden of the Secoya people", and a gigantic helicopter lands near by with its Americal oil companiy people.
    It was one of the ugliest things I had ever seen in my life.

    "This is Secoya land," I said. "How can they be drilling for oil?"

Later, Theroux learns "that the local people had been paid a pittance by the American oil company, so that the fence could be erected, but no profits would accrue to them, and it was only a matter of time before this part of the rainforest would have the shops and brothels and bars and oil-spattered roads of Lago Agrio."

And much more ...

Read the full thing.

Friday, May 13, 2005

Mild provocations

Now that would be a better title for Ram Guha's Telegraph columns! From this week's column:

    I think that time will show that [Edward Said's] reputation at its peak was probably undeserved. Said was a very fine scholar, but not a great one. Orientalism was a useful polemic, not an enduring work of scholarship. And postcolonial theory is an intellectual dead-end.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

This day last year ...


Police chase, gunfire, and Mata Amritanandamayi

I just watched a video of this Calfornia car chase that ended in the driver's death in police gunfire. The video showed the guy being repeatedly shot at. No, I wasn't watching one of the American channels. I was watching a new Malayalam channel, Amrita TV, launched recently by Mata Amritanandamayi's followers. Whenever I watch these high speed chases I wonder whether it's news or entertainment. I guess this is what they call infotainment. And I guess TV channels show these incidents as there's a market for that.

But then Amritanandamayi is a spiritual leader with millions of followers worldwide. One would expect her followers not to go by all that that sell, right? I was curious and checked what Amritanandamayi had to say about launching this channel. In her message, she said:

    The media's dharma is also in finding and enhancing the beauty in human life and nature. What is true and auspicious alone can lead us to real beauty. We should not only consider what people like, but also what is good for them. The entertainment and enjoyment we provide should be based on cultural values. This is the only way for us to perceive truth and beauty.
Now that was a beautiful car chase there, and a few beautiful gun shots!

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Amra kara? Bastuhara!

Annu Jalais' article on the Morichjhapi incident -- Dwelling on Morichjhapi -- is the leading article of the latest issue of Economic and Political Weekly. Morichjhapi is an island in the Sundarbans, and the Morichjhapi incident refers to the forced eviction of 'illegal settlers' there, in the late seventies, in which hundreds are believed to have been killed. Amitav Ghosh's 'The Hungry Tide', about which I had a post some time back, deals a lot with the Morichjhapi massacre. Nirmal, whose diary is a main thread in the novel, had worked among the island settlers; Kusum, perhaps the central figure of the novel, died in the Morichjhapi violence, etc. In fact it's in the acknowledgements section of 'The Hungry Tide' that I came across Annu Jalais' name for the first time.

The paper, in the author's words,

    looks at how the memory of Morichjhapi was evoked by the islanders to talk about their resentment about the unequal distribution of resources between them and the Royal Bengal tigers of the Sundarbans reserve forest.
It also looks at
    how the government's primacy on ecology and its use of force in Morichjhapi that saw hundreds of refugees dying, was seen by the Sundarbans islanders as a betrayal not only of refugees and of the poor and marginalised in general, but also, of the Bengali nimnobarno identity.
This paper, in some sense, is the first of its kind. The Subaltern school, pioneered by Ranajit Guha, has emphasised on rural communities' consciousness through the study of rural movements in colonial Bengal, but Annu Jalais contends that the focus was overwhelmingly on the religious discourse of the oppressed, especially in relation to resistance.
    Privileging religion over all else distracts from the economic and political spheres, and from alternative, less well known, cultural spheres,
and the thrust of Annu Jalais' article is to bring in this latter perspective.

'Dwellings on Morichjhapi' describes, in some detail, how the would-be inhabitants of the island were promised this land, and how they were betrayed later. It also talks about the spirit of bonhomie and solidarity between refugees and islanders "whose similar experiences of marginalisation brought them together to bond over a common cause which was to fight for a niche for themselves" while they occupied the island. This was "an experiment, imagined not by those with learning and power, but by those without", as Amitav Ghosh writes in 'The Hungry Tide'. (Indeed reading this article refreshes one's memory of reading 'The Hungry Tide'. For instance, Annu Jalais quotes a villager: "Were we vermin that our shacks had to be burned down?". In 'The Hungry Tide', Kusum's anger is very similar: "the worst part is to sit here and listen to the policemen making announcements that our existence is worth less than dirt or dust".)

All said and done, I must add that I find the "anthropomorphisation of tigers" theory that Annu Jalais seems to be endorsing, a bit unpalatable. This theory argues that tigers initially were fine animals that were afraid of people, that they were compassionate and were agreeable to the fact that the products of the forest and rivers were to be shared with people. But due to the legitimising of killings in their name, they had turned egotistical and did not hesitate to attack people. Now tigers were no longer the neighbours with whom the forest had to be shared but 'state-property', and backed by the ruling elite they had begun to treat the islanders as 'tiger-food'. That explains the man-eating nature of the Bengali tigers! I'm willing to be persuaded though, for, Annu Jalais, otherwise succinctly portrays and convinces me of "the dilemma of being a Bengali, yet not a bhadralok" faced by the Dalit settlers of Morichjhapi.

Amitav Ghosh's handling of Morichjhapi is of course much subtler. As Amardeep Singh wrote, "the specific political actors and discourses that lead to events such as the massacre at Morichjhapi are downplayed" as

    Ghosh's view of history makes it impossible to render such atrocities as events that might have been avoided, or for which some historical responsibility might be assigned to particular actors.
Annu Jalais does try to fix responsibilities, somewhat convincingly too. In any case, the answer to Kusum's question -- who loves animals so much that they are willing to kill us for them? -- is even more clear after reading Annu Jalais.

Update (May 13): Annu Jalais writes in:

    You are not the only person who finds 'my' 'anthropomorphisation of tigers' problematic. What I need to do now is argue, following Philippe Descola's work, that people have different understandings of what an animal, or a 'non-human' is. In my next piece, I intend to highlight how the Sundarbans islanders' understanding of 'what is a tiger' is just as valid as yours or mine. This will lead me to look at the issue of authority i.e. who is allowed to speak in the name of Bengal tigers? Is science only the sum of results based on empirical research? As have argued Shiv Viswanathan, Bruno Latour, etc I will develop how science is also a mouthpiece for authoritarian politics. It is in relation to this argument that I found the Sundarbans islanders' interpretations of why tigers have become man-eaters so appealing.

Spanish In India

Just see the depth and breadth of this blog. Economic reforms, movies, books, power crisis, driving (& hence roads, petrol, diesel), Linux (& other techie stuff) ... ...

Treating others as ethical equals

A very good piece by Dipankar Gupta in The Telegraph.

    Scientific growth is possible in modern societies not because there are suddenly more sceptical scientists, but because people must now respect the other as an ethical equal. This person may be an anonymous individual, about whose origins we have no knowledge, and towards whose point of view we may have no sympathy. Surely this does not happen easily and that is why many societies that are industrializing are not yet modern in this very critical sense. On the other hand, without a thoroughgoing industrialization that overthrows every vestige of past relationships that were governed by status and birth, it is impossible to inaugurate an era where ethical equality can be a defining social motif. There are certain structural conditions that favour the development of such modern social relations. It is difficult to imagine modernity of the kind outlined above when there are vast economic disparities between classes.

    ... ... ...

    It would be incorrect to say that only bright minds are produced in the western hemisphere. Countries like India fall behind in scientific production because we lack the basic ethical quotient necessary for being modern. This demonstrates that social relations of modernity thrive particularly well when there is greater economic parity between people. So if India is to move towards true modernity then it is important that we overcome economic and status differentials of the kind that prevail in this country. Modernity, in the ultimate analysis, is not about affectations, or about personal dispositions, such as being scientific, irreligious, or philanthropic; nor is it really about building big industries and dams. Modernity is essentially a sociological concept as it emphasizes, above all else, the conditions under which social relations based on ethical equality can be realized as a universal principle.

Monday, May 09, 2005

Those of you who like Sanskrit ...

... may find this interesting. Check out Ujjayini.

Saturday, May 07, 2005

We write and then our readers edit us

We write and then our readers edit us.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Sitemeter Magic

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

In defense of anecdotes

What prompts this post is the discussion taking place at Yazad Jal's AnarCapLib. This would have been ideally a comment over there, but I thought perhaps this one is a bit too long for that. Do check out Yazad's post, and the comments over there.

Yazad's post starts an interesting discussion on whether or not the Indian economic reforms have benefited the poor. In particular did it help in bringing down poverty levels? The post follows Dilip D'Souza's and Yazad's Rediff columns on the same topic. An interesting question that was asked was to what extent one can trust anecdotal evidences.

I like to think that anecdotal evidences do not count. I also like to think that only figures, facts, graphs, and charts count. Then one realizes that, in real life, anecdotal evidences do matter. Many a time only anecdotal evidences matter. I found this out once again recently, when I had to write a reco for a former student. The program chair made it clear that she would like to see my "anecdotes" about the student's overall performance, and I shouldn't be stressing on the student's grades etc. Incidentally, the student was applying for an MS in Statistics! Life would be certainly much easier if everything can be put into percentages and neatly columned tables. But it's too complex for the statistical tools to tame it.

Perhaps that's one reason why having certain figures at hand do not end a debate on social issues like poverty eradication. Obviously, a sizeable population of "otherwise sane" people are not willing to buy figures of this kind in order to come to a conclusion. We do not debate election results here in India because we trust absolute headcount. The very fact that we do debate data on poverty does say that an absolute trust in such data is lacking even from the perspective of some one who endorses the data at hand.

Not to say that statistics do not tell you anything right. They do, but not always. Chances are that a majority of those who are just above that "poverty line" wouldn't buy that statistics! Also which one to buy? For instance, Narasimha Rao govt had maintained two different numbers at the same time; one was twice the other! In another instance, nine consecutive surveys do not show any reduction in poverty, but the tenth one shows a ten percentage points reduction. I believe that statistics can give you meaningful, truth-approximate results, if you care for it. I do not believe in this sort of figures in general as it's almost trivial to manipulate the starting criteria. Must say that Disraeli is often vindicated these days!

So have the reforms benefited the poor? I guess there's no blanket Yes or No answer here. Have the reforms benefited the rich, the upper middle class? You know the answer, right? Now does that say anything? Also, has the inequality increased? Or is it that equality in itself isn't a great thing to have?

Apparently, the voters do not like the reformists. Natural guess is that this is because the reforms haven't benefited the majority. The only way to sell the reforms to more and more people is to tell them that these reforms promise a bright future. But then who doesn't promise a bright future? People wouldn't buy that therefore. Do the govt figures come handy then? Perhaps not. India did shine in figures. That helped India to shine in opinion polls, but she did not, when it came to actual voting machines. Mass propaganda statistics got reflected in mass media statistics, but beyond that, statistics did not count. Perhaps in elections too, as in the case of the reco I wrote, it's anecdotal evidences that matter.