Sunday, October 15, 2006

A Left Turn

There were many moments at IIT Madras that made me think; some of which actually changed my life. Technical discourses from the likes of V Ramachandran (the neuro-whiz from UCSD) and Roberk Resnick rank quite high, for one. But a talk by journalist P. Sainath really changed my life.

Sainath is one of those guys who makes people uncomfortable. And he does so with fact rather than rhetoric. The tirade he launched against the BJP for having the temerity to suggest that India was actually shining when the poorest of the poor were going through their toughest time ever opened my eyes, and almost everyone else's in the audience. IITians are a cynical audience, by and large. Nobody, not even T.N Seshan got a standing ovation. But Sainath did.

His analysis was spot on; the subsequent election results showed the free-market-capitalist BJP and the CEO of AP, Naidu, receive a historic drubbing by the wary masses. The family of the farmer who committed suicide would certainly have thought the India Shining campaign insensitive, to say the least. And proposals to build a F1 racetrack in Hyderabad when farmers were dying would have been the salt on the wound. Democracy spoke out; the left leaning congress party came to power (after some political theatrics).

Another moment that changed my life was the following. I was at an aunt's place in India (the details of the location shall be with-held, for I don't want to be accused of slander and be responsible for the subsequent rift in the family). She said the following:

"The poorer people are animals. The rickshaw-wallas, the shop-keepers. They beat their wives at home and get drunk all the time. Just don't think of them as human. Treat them as low-lives."

I was enraged at that time; and still am. But now, I realize that almost every rich person and business in India thinks this way - by just don't say it in so many words. Let me elaborate.

The poor are omnipresent in India. Look through any window from home (unless you are in one of those expensive Metro neighbourhoods); from trains, from anywhere. You will see the poor live in their ill constructed slums facing the vagaries of nature (extreme heat, extreme cold and heavy rain). With this poverty everywhere one tends to take this poverty for granted. There are so many poor people in the country that the average rich Indian just takes them for granted. Servant maids are upbraided for missing a spot on the ground; auto drivers are shouted at and fought with.

Life in the US has been such a contrast. Labour is dignified; carpenters and chauffeurs (often among the poorest in India) live with a standard of living comparable to while collar workers in India - often with that of executives. This country is so insulated from human suffering that any little suffering is given a lot of importance. The US is a way more compassionate country for that very reason.

It is obvious that the lot of the poor Indian is unlikely to stage an overnight recovery. The only way out , of course, is sustainable development - and perhaps laws that make it difficult for corporations to continue making positive economic profits (by monopoly) off the poorest of the poor. Dr. Singh's tag line "Reforms with a Human Face" makes a lot of sense at first hear. But is it really practical? Only time will tell. Meanwhile, the fate of poor India hangs in the balance.

I can see that the only sensible Ideology an Indian/ a sensitive global citizen can follow is an Indian-style leftist ideology (not the ridiculous ideology of Michael Moore et. al. Back in the third world, we've got more important things to worry about than the right to surf porn annonymously on the internet.). For the poor are people too, my aunt's words of wisdom notwithstanding.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Ick, Kiki and Orb.

Long long ago, on this very piece of land, lived a family - a family whose real names have been lost in the prehistoric era. A family of Cave men. For marketing purposes in today's world, they have been assigned the decidedly uninspiring monikers: Ick, Kiki and Orb. Ick being the patriarch, Kiki being the matriarch and Orb being the only surviving male offspring - a rather naughty one at that, one would imagine.

Ick's real name was Theodore; Kiki's was Razia and Orb's was Gaston-Lee. They lived in the huge city of Newport. A prosperous megapolis of 30 million, built more on the lines of today's New York than Tora bora. Newport was a part of the pre-historic Altivian empire - an empire built like today's USA - but with a significant difference.

In the Altivian era, progress in ecological research was much ahead of its time. There was international consensus on the greenhouse effect and on the dangers of non-biodegradable materials. (This was partly due to a preponderance of massive carbon dioxide breathing dragons which had to be eliminated by fearless princesses riding on their equally fearless mules. The scientific community had to justify this slaughter of massive beasts - the princesses being too beautiful to blame. It was a by a stroke of luck that the greenhouse effect was stumbled upon).

The upshot, of course, was that all the buildings that were built could be destroyed without a trace on impact. Only solar energy was used - and it was used extensively. Not a square millimeter of land on a desert remained without it being covered by organic solar cells. Organic solar cells were essentially plants which were genetically engineered to produce DC through their leaves and connect to the national grid via their roots (of course, after passing through the appropriate inverters and other waveform conditioning modules). The process of cross pollination took care of capacity expansion.

Organised religion in the Altivian era was as organized as that of today. The Altivians worshipped the boar (like Obelix of Gaul) , worshipped the cow (like the Hindus), worshipped the pig (unlike the Muslims) ; the ram (unlike the Christians)- actually anything on four legs except the dragon (like the Chinese and King Arthur) and the mule. A certain sect of the Altivians believed in the Noble boar that had fed a famished group of piligrms on the verge of passing away by sacrificing itself. The same sect of Altivians, as a mark of respect for the aforementioned boar would touch no meat. They would sacrifice twenty-thousand tomatoes by showering the same on a boar.

And then there was the Foremost Pig that had helped relieve people of their sin by kissing them on the forehead; the Central Cow whose milk had guaranteed immortality. (Its calves died of malnutrition - they never got any of the milk)

Gaston-Lee was an inquisitive man by nature. He questioned the basis of this belief - he had seen ample evidence against the same. The poorer sections of Newport had thousands of poor people starving without a meal a day. Why didn't the noble boar do anything? He saw wrinkled old folk on the street gaze fearfully at a funeral procession. What had become of the central cow? He then saw the robber snatch a purse from an innocent woman walking on the street. He pursued the robber - only to see the same disappear into a pigpen, presumably to get kissed by the Foremost Pig.

Gaston-Lee therefore questioned God. He suspected that organized religion was one big hoax. He melted into a sea of cynicism. And in a fit of rage, he and a couple of other like minded people secluded themselves into a cave and let their disillusionment show in a series of drawings on the wall. They used permanent ink - they had begun to doubt everything - even those ecological beliefs that were such a central a part of their society. Gaston and his co-workers drew a man killing a boar - he had understood that the boar had not given up its life voluntarily, but had been cruelly snuffed.

Dr. Josef Pierre, a history teacher at Harvard had put the above picture up in his snazzy power-point slide show.

He said "As we can see, the caveman was primarily carnivorous. He used primitive methods to kill his prey. He was too primitive to be able to cultivate crops. This was his only food. Boar."