Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Madraasis

I'm bad at small talk. Terrible at it. I can't even talk about the weather. I sit comfortably in between ominous silences, when you can hear each other breathe, and usually put the onus on the other person to entertain me by sparking a conversation. But this time I decided to start changing myself.

"So...you're also a tamilian?", I inquired Ms. Babe (having heard her utter "aiyoo" somewhere, apart from her unmistakable last name)
"Yeah....", she drawled ruefully, her face wilting, "But I'm from Mumbai, was brought up there and lived my whooole life there!", she clarified, with her eyes turning moist at the thought of her hometown.
"Where are you from?", it was now her turn.
"I'm from Madras", I stated.

Now Ms. Babe is as trendy and hep so as to set a fashion statement on behalf of all the Indian ladies. Latest hair style, bold clothes, and the whole ensemble(Bold clothes = wearing a mini-skirt and a sleeveless shirt in the middle of frigid January, when the wind howls and the temperature is below -20 F... no exaggerations). Anyway, Babe surely must have gathered my native origin -- my darling daddy's 13 lettered last name and the trademark stamp of Madraas-filter-Kaapi Kalai on my face were enough evidences.

But, out of this Babe's mouth came these words, "Oh!!! Really?! I didn't know! (wide eyed). You don't look like a Madraasi! I thought you were from Bangalore...", she trailed, looking at me incredulously. Talk about bitter sweets... I didn't know whether I recognized it as a compliment because I was "elevated" to the state of Bangalorean from my drudged Filter-Kaapi self, or as a brutal dish out to my "madraasi community".
"Oh? Why?", I asked in my customary ringing tone. (My father taught me early on to be interested in "Tell me Why" books and I religiously started asking "why" till people tear their hair out)
"You know... you're not like one of those typical Madraasis... ", she said, scrunching her pretty little nose and curling her lips as if on seeing a miserable rat.
"Oh...", I said, trying to put on a plastic smile and wondering if I should ask another "Like how" question and risk piling more insults to my clan. While my mind was running wild on thoughts, Babe was more accepting and friendly of me and started chattering more.

Now, this is not the first time I've heard this. The popular G, scorned at me as I offered to shake his hand during our first meeting, seething the words, "You're from Bangalore, aren't you?" Why? I ask again. Madras girls know enough etiquette to shake hands with new people they are introduced to, especially in a professional setting...( only our tamil heroines say "namaskaram" with joint hands and refuse to touch a man's hand) or is there some other aura around me that makes me less of a Madraasi? Not that I'm fanatically oriented towards my place... I don't care which city's spirit I emanate... I am me. But I don't understand the sense of disgrace and inferiority associated with Madras -- the only metro in India that is not considered good enough.

I perfectly relate to and understand a person's detachment to their native place when they have lived their whole lives in another city. Their identity and memories are towards the place of nurture and it's irrational to expect a sense of pride or attachment to a place they visited during occasional vacations. So Babe's detachment to Madras can very well be understood... but why the disgust, the distaste? And I don't understand the sense of detachment and/or disgust among those Madraasis who have lived their whole lives in the city. I have hardly met any Indian from any other metro/city who abuses their hometown. Hometowns are proudly praised and hailed high, and people weep with nostalgia on their reference. But Madras is not so privileged.

Obviously Madras is a tad more conservative than the other metros, no doubt, but the poor thing is trying its best to catch up fast with the rest. And I by the way, am the country-bumpkin dunderhead in my elite hep group of friends from Madras. So if babe considered me good enough to be a Bangalorean, she ain't seen nothing of Madras and its girls. But this is a common perception. Even within Madras, guys would lament that the best-looking girl in Madras was the worst-looking girl in Delhi. The maamis of my household will return from a wedding and proclaim, "Ponnu chekka-chevernu, north-indian ponnu madri irruka" (the bride looks fair and lovely like a north-indian girl). This statement, when the girl would be an agmark-tamil-Madraasi. A well groomed, fair and lovely Madraasi is always seen as an aberration, even by the locals, betraying total lack of pride or appreciation of one's own clan. I know of Tamilians who go out of their ways to mask their origin, to remove every trace of evidence linking them to the city, and try every possible way to link themselves to a sophisticated Bangalorean, Mumbai-ian, Delhi-an, or pretty much any Metro falling above Tamil Nadu's border.

I know of my own schoolmates and college-mates who, having lived their entire lives in Madras, would cringe to publicly state so. They will proudly feign complete lack of knowledge of Tamil and stutter when they have to speak to the auto-driver. One claims that she is half-north-indian because her dad was raised in Mumbai. And that esteemed link to her was golden. Chicks change their last names to eliminate that conspicuous old-fashioned ring to their names, by appending a generic "Iyer", while some truncate their poor daddy's longish name. "Krishnaswamy" becomes "Krish", "Ramamoorthy" becomes "Ram" and "Mahadevan" becomes "M'Devan". Believe me, I realize how agonizing it is to wait for the American on the other side to stutter and mince my father's name in their effort to recite my full name, as I beg and wail to leave his name alone. But the above name-changing-chicks reside within Hindustan, specifically near Marina Beach. While it's none of my business on how people change their names, the pattern somehow seems to be around Madraasis, centering around the intention to wipe off any trace of south-indianism. I have never heard of Kulkarnis, Deshpandes shortening/changing their names.

And the other extremes are the tamil-fanatics, who will chatter only in loud-localized accents and will abuse and scorn at those who utter two words in English/Hindi and exhibit the slightest sense of modernity/refinement (thoughts included) that don't conform to the local rules. These people set the standards on how to be a great Kumbakonam-maama and Thanjavoor-maami. They will gossip better than my great-grand-aunt and will be the moral police to uphold the "tamil culture" better than our cuckoo Chief Minister. Maybe Babe's impression of Madras was tainted by such people. But doesn't every state, every city, every metro have their share of irritants who bring down the name of the place? Thackareyism is at the tip of my tongue. Or am I biased in my view of my hometown? Does Madras really have so many reasons to be ashamed of?

It's sad that such people's sense of identity is based on global perceptions of a city's westernization and modernization. There are obviously those minority middle grounders who share a loving bond with the city, despite its sweltering heat, incorrigible auto drivers and gossiping maamis. And I hope in the coming years, this minority section grows and the other extremes dwindle.

Friday, April 17, 2009

On Education Reforms

Life has suddenly gotten busy and nerve wracking, thanks to the semester winding down and all the scores of deadlines staring at me in the face with an evil laugh that I'm behind most. Friday afternoons lend themselves well to a beautiful nap, especially when the weather chooses to be good. So in order to get myself a short break I thought I'd post something. But since I can't spend time writing one, I thought why not recycle my old writings that I recently uncovered :).

Since in the previous post on Capital Punishments, we touched upon the subject of education as a primary means of reformation, I'm pasting my thoughts on education reforms in India.

From December 2004

The fundamental framework and thinking of people all over India still remains stringent. Lets think on the following
1. why are there still Indian software engineers(and the like), working abroad, who still demand or never question dowry? These people take it as yet another fact of life--I’m a guy earning well in a country away from my homeland. I’m just worth so much of dowry.
2. why is the birth of a second girl child into a family(no no I’m not talking abt the so called lower or down trodden section. I’m talking abt the so called upper middle class), bring about the reply----“Ah, it would have been better otherwise. Hmm...you better start saving up dear fellow.”
3. why do eyebrows raise when you demand to get into a profession other than medicine/ engineering?
4. why do comfortable commuters in a train, flinch with disgust on seeing a haggard man/woman/child(a fellow being of their nation), begging for money and food?
5. finally………the cream of it!
Why is it that 75% of final year engineering students never know how to fix a simple failed brake, a leaking faucet, a dimming monitor, change a fuse, fix a fan, when all through four rigorous years they were taught and made to pass far more complex stuff.
Now all these above said people are educated…well-educated as a matter of fact(hey engineering is no joke :-)). So how exactly has education served its purpose? An educated mind is supposed to cross the petty fences laid out by society to think beyond the horizons to implement positive reformations. It is to cull out the old and rusted principles and customs and to replace them with bright polished ones. A broader perspective, an open mind amicable to changes and suggestions……well I could go on.

‘Educating’ the masses alone isn’t enough. The real sense of that word is long buried deep. It is imperative to infuse ethics with learning. Our system of education has to evolve into a more healthier version where
· morals and ethics are not rhetorically told to be mugged up and reproduced
· the teacher is no monster near the black board and the students are no subjects. A more impersonal atmosphere encourages learning and more interaction.
· Corporal punishments, such as caning, beating, kneeling, verbal abuse, etc need to stop.
· Textbooks should not be encouraged as sole bibles without knowing whose every line and verse, the student is made to dread a mortal fear of ‘failing’.
· There’s freedom to explore and learn on a higher plane. There’s no stifling of potentials because of societal norms
· Its not mere numbers that determine a person’s ‘success’ in life, but it is the wholesome knowledge and personality gained out of schooling.

All these are easier said than done. But what I’m driving at is, the art of imparting education has lost its true sense. People are neither taught to gain knowledge, nor to survive. Its all on a short term basis--- how to get good marks in this particular test/semester, how to get into those companies, how to improve the pass percentage of the school. The aim has become shallow and fails to look beyond the present.

If we want our future generations to carry on with our struggle, we need to pass on the torch to people who truly understand the crux of our problems with an astute mind driving towards progress in its wholesome sense. These qualities need to be inculcated in the young. As they grow, schools have the responsibility of pruning their tangential characteristics and fine tuning their latent talents. All these cant be accomplished with a cane in hand and a rigid inflexible mindless rigmarole of memorizing and spitting out Newtonian theories.

One thing I glaringly find missing is---the dignity of labor. I still remember a documentary on the discovery channel that was a three hour session wholly dedicated to the study of sea-weeds. I really admired the professionalism and seriousness with which any topic or study is handled without being discarded as useless. Anything started on, is delved into its core and deepest trench and depths. I’m not advocating the study of weeds. But its that kind of passion and enthusiasm for learning and experimentation that needs to be developed. In simple words--teach the brain to think, appreciate the mind to explore, make mistakes and learn, while holding stiff the reins of discipline.

The Chinese saying--“teach a man to fish”, speaks well. It can be extended to teach a man to hunt. I say why restrict with fishing? What if the river dries up? It is essential he knows to explore his surroundings to survive.

Once there are bright ‘educated’ minds out to strive for the nation, social evils would diminish and erode away, as every generation passes, leaving behind healthier and more wise remnants(or shall we say leaders), who would flourish the nation with progress.
After a little more than 4 years, I still would hope for such reforms in Education. How exactly, and what tangible steps to take, I don't know. This requires a change in attitude, scratching the syllabus and starting from scratch. Some schools have started exploring such things, but today, with engineering colleges still mushrooming in every street corner, and job opportunities getting more stringent, I'm sure it will take a good 2-3 decades before we can expect changes.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

On Capital Punishments - Old and New

I had a lot to say on Capital Punishments, and now I'm parched to say anything more. Below is my argument against capital punishments, when I was all of 20 years old. I shamelessly showcase my weak arguments that carry an air of amateurish faith in humanity. I had no concept of brevity, so excuse my rambling and silly analogies. I didn't want to edit and tarnish my pitiable innocence/stupidity.

My thoughts as they were in May 2004

Its very true that practically speaking, we have no time on our hands to actually sit down and have a diplomatic talk over a cup of tea and try to sort things over with terrorists; because when we’re busy talking, a minimum of 200 new problems seem to crop up. With terrorism and ruthless violence at their hilt, we have no patience to talk about reforming people. I mean its hard enough to make someone close to you, understand your viewpoint, how the heck is a hard core criminal going to be reformed by you?? So I guess all that justifies us to play God and arrange for these people to be shipped to what we call as hell.

Consider this analogy. At 5, when you loved to doodle on the walls (well, I used to), and your mom wagged her rolling pin at you, and said “next time I see you scribble you’re going to be spanked like crazy!”, did you stop doodling or whatever sin you were prohibited from doing?? Well, I found a way though…I started doodling at the back of our bed, the side of the fridge not visible to my mom, and on the last page of my dad’s files. It wasn’t until packing day that my parents realized that they had a sly imp living with them! One of my friends always says that he invariably makes it a point to execute that deed that he’s begged to not do. Tell a child not to put down that glass vase cos it will break and give him a dire threat, and you’ll at once see a twinkle in his eyes and he’ll make sure that it shatters into a million dazzling pieces in front of your horrified face. Well the child is not evil, he just loves the pleasure of seeing something created……he cant create a glass vase at 3 (he realizes that), but he can always create a mess; a million sparkling pieces of glass is according to him a new creation or ‘evolution’ of that drab vase, which his mom used to love, when he was supposed to be the only one there to be loved. How many of u guys have been obedient sons in listening to your dad in coming home early? Although the punishment is severe you’ve always found a way out to smuggle into the house and out of the house, thanks to darling mama’s help.

My point is, do corporal and brutal punishments serve their purpose of getting the ethics into our head? Copying during exams is considered a major ‘crime’, and severe punishments are meted out. But then why do I still find the guy sitting next to me, turn a complete 180 degrees to mime out the answer to his friend, when the invigilator turns her back? If bits are out, a new style comes in; make noises with ur bootstrap…the number of times the velcro is stripped out indicates the question no., a small dull ripping sound, indicates “sorry buddy have no clue.”, a nice enthusiastic rip, kinda like a roar means “yup! I know that……”, and several more that I couldn’t spare time to gauge.

I know what u’re thinking...doodling or breaking a vase isn’t a crime. We’re dealing with hard core rapists and murderers. All the same we are dealing with people whose minds work just as bizarre…only differing in magnitude. America seems to be Laden’s glass vase that’s all. Its weird to be wagging a lethal injection, or swinging a threatening sword to warn people from indulging in what the ‘society’ calls as a crime. In one culture, it’s a moral privilege for a man to have more than 1 wife, yet in other cultures it’s a mortal sin. In Saudi, a dad has the right to execute his daughter or cut off her arm, if the tip of her hand is accidentally shown. So what is ‘right’ and what is ‘wrong’?? We are humans...not animals to be exterminated when considered pests.

Every time a brutal punishment is meted out to us, God knows how we cringe and crib inside with the injustice of it all, the atrocity and the humiliation that we swear passionately to make the scores even...but if u’re dead, u don’t have a chance. So now that’s the whole point isn’t it? remember the time u got spanked and humiliated...can u remember feeling that hate, anger, bitter resentment(at being caught……) and most of all that feeling of being so helpless in the midst of savage people who know nothing abt fair play. From the time we got our first black mark for coming late to school to this day when our internals zoom down, we never seem to realize where we’re going wrong. Have these punishments served their purpose? Its always considered the height of cruelty and injustice when u’re suspended from college for punching another guy’s nose to a pulp, because the child inside u is whining, "u don’t know the whole story, u don’t know who started the fight, u don’t know why I hit him, u don’t know he hit me first, u don’t know that he provoked me, u don’t know that I’m not a heartless guy to rip another fellow’s nose…!”. There u go u have a reason, and u didn’t do it in the heat of the moment, and had actually planned and called for a fight at the back alleys to settle things out -man-to-man.

If we can get so passionate and if we can so virulently support our cause, over a simple college fight, why cant we extrapolate this to more serious matters and more passionate people. I’m in no way trying to justify crimes……not at all. Ask yourself whether u’ve ever felt justified at being punished, brutally. When did u finally realize that its wrong to hurt people physically?

a) when your mom had a heart-to-heart talk with u
b) when your dad yelled his head off abusing u unfairly
c) when your teacher caned u with that mean stick


I understand that things have gone far out of our reach to actually mend in a more rational way. I know capital punishment in India is not meted out with a snap of one’s fingers, thanks to our judiciary. I realize that it does solve the purpose of curbing a country’s crime rate, but our Vedas state “Saama…Dhaana…bedha…dandam”, escalating towards brutal punishments as a final resort. The essence of punishments always is towards reformation of the individual, and not to seek out revenge or to brutally afflict physical pain that is only going to madly fuel his already insane passion and anger. I’m therefore strictly against mutilation. With capital punishment, a rapist or a hard core terrorist dies with the helpless thought that he cant get even with this cruel world, not a whit of remorse for having killed any innocent person, as a matter of fact he would love to stab his executor…if only he wasn't tied up.

Sadly, that is the plight of our present crisis; no time to reform, no time to realize abt ethics of punishments. So call out those docs and let them poke out as many terrorists as they can snare. God knows that the doc is no paragon of virtues himself, but aint he clever enough to not get caught?? That’s all that matters. Sorry if I’m sardonic, but my heart can never accept the concept of a fellow human being killed, in the name of punishment. It can be argued as the need of the moment, but call it termination, please do not word it as a ‘punishment’. Punishments must have a post-period…a period of realization.

Punishment is to make a man realize his deeds and it thus hopes to reform him. If we are too busy for all that, terminate him…but don’t call it punishment, for the man no longer lives to realize that.

And now, 5 years later - "America seems to be Laden's glass vase", whatever did I mean by that?! That's such a hilarious statement. The essay above had little to do with capital punishments and more to do with the topic of "corporal punishments - their ethics", or "reforming kids in school". Or maybe not even that. Notice how I've eluded from giving a solution - I've argued against brutal punishments, but offered no solution except "reformation "- just by showing compassion and treating terrorists through counseling or psychotherapy. I seriously thought it would be that easy to reform criminals? I compare college kids to criminals and argue they are same in principle and a little different in magnitude... religious fundamentalists versus silly teenagers?!! Thank god I rambled in an electronic media unaware of all the sneering and swearing and rotten vegetables spewed on me.

I no longer can find enough energy or words to argue or say anything on capital punishments. With my throat and mind resembling a parched well, I can't even find enough words, or reason to make a loved one merely glimpse at my side of the coin. Reformation of hardened fundamentalists by banking on implicit human goodness? Not going to happen. Long term solutions - plenty to speculate, but not enough fire to voice them. I resign to change the term to "termination" and make peace with it (ah, the oxymoron and irony). Either they live and wreak havoc for us, or they die and we are guilty of not resorting to more "humane" forms of reformation for their inhuman heinous crimes.

The Old and the New

I was clearing and organizing my email yesterday, and I dug out quite a few memories and thoughts that were tucked away in the safe crevices of chaotic electronic folders. Suffice to say that I spent the rest of the evening drunk on nostalgia. I was a little rattled that I couldn't identify with my own writings, my own thoughts and well, the person I was 5-6 years back. It was less than a decade ago and yet there has been a surprising leap of time, thoughts, and views. If it weren't for the convincing evidence that all the emails were signed off by me and had emanated from my email address, I would have probably not been convinced as much that I was indeed the author (I still hold a 1% chance that my account was hacked!).

In college, under the auspices of a revolutionary go-getter, a group of rebellious , opinionated (or so we called) and enthusiastic people formed a yahoo group to debate on a variety of topics. The members of the group grew from young college students to include a huge gamut of members with different backgrounds, education and views. Posts were fired regularly. I wrote with passion, my arguments fueled with optimism and conviction. My thoughts reflected my utter naivete and belief that there was a tangible solution to every issue the world was plagued with. It was quite amusing and entertaining to hear me debate as if I knew everything there was to know :)

And now, I look back and pity the young girl, shrouded with idealism and insane optimism. Now reality has eroded most of that pristine optimism. Thoughts have evolved and I see myself shaking my head at the very words I penned with such unshakable conviction. Still in the "prime of my youth" I seem to have lost most of the fire in me. Is it just a natural part of growing up, or am I growing too old, too fast?

Since this blog is turning out to be a collection of all my thoughts, I thought I would include some of my "old thoughts" in here, and have a fun time arguing with myself :). It will be all the more interesting, when in the year of 2019, if my blog and I are still around, I could read my thoughts from 2004-2009 and introspect on how much more I had "evolved" :). Hopefully I'll reach a point in my life when I'll stop contradicting and arguing with myself.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Achilles and The Tortoise

Long long ago in Athens, there was held the man-tortoise run off. Achilles made a nice (arguably so) gesture of giving Tarquin the tortoise a 100-yard head start. Tarquin's tactic was to keep moving constantly, however slow it might be. If Achilles wants to overtake Tarquin, logic states that he must first get to where Tarquin is, when the race starts. This will take a few seconds. In these few seconds, Tarquin who is focussed on constantly moving, is sure to have moved a short distance away from Achilles. Achilles needs to now get to this distance, by which time Tarquin would have moved a teeny distance further. And so on...you get the drift? It seems as if it's "logically and mathematically impossible" for Achilles to beat the tortoise. But as we all know, Achilles did win the race, overtaking poor Tarquin. (Source: "The Ancient Paradox of Achilles and the Tortoise", attributed to Zeno (born c.488 BCE))

The feeling one has when one knows the implicitness of a situation/outcome and yet cannot verbalize in as many intelligent words and logical statements to prove it, is indeed very pitiable. It's always crippling when I can no longer use mere words to churn out a logical proof and need to resort to mathematical means to prove a point, however implicit it may seem. I'm never good with abstract mathematical proofs (as you will or have evidenced before), but let's see how far I can get with mere words alongside some logic.

The basic logic holds true - in order for Achilles to overtake the tortoise, he needs to first get to the current state of the tortoise by which time the tortoise may have moved a little farther away. But will this turn out to be an endless loop that can't be won over? Intuitive sense argues no. Time and space if viewed as being continuous chunks, it is reasonable to envisage dividing space into 'n' points... is n is close to infinity? I don't know... we can get down to an atom and a molecule but beyond that I haven't kept track of Physics to know more :). But if "n" could be infinity, does it make sense? In a physical sense, where do we draw the boundary on "space"? My room, my home, my street, country, continent, world... universe? I think scientists have conceded that "space" does tend to extend to infinity. But in this particular example, space would be with respect to distance between Achilles and the tortoise; this is obviously finite by itself, but seems infinite to the extent to which it can be divided. Anyway, having chunked up space into so many such divisions, we move onto time. We start dividing time into infinitesimal chunks. Then it follows that, due to this phenomenon called "speed", the rate of movement of Achilles is such that he traveled at a dimension of space and time, wherein the tortoise's motion was almost non-existent for a certain extent of space and time, thus causing him to overtake the tortoise.

I guess Achilles and tortoise makes this reasoning sound more plausible, for the two are such stark contrasts. It's quite conceivable that if we were to freeze the time frames of the race, the tortoise would seem to appear immobile for several frames. But what about the blindly whizzing cars in formula-one races (or other such races)? To what extent should space and time be divided to fathom a stage where there was no motion?

Does this make sense? As always, please help me out with your views :)