Monday, 28 January 2008

InsIghT and I

My tenure as Editor of InsIghT is coming to an end. My co-editor and I just forwarded our second last issue (it was our 5th as editors) for print. For the last two or three days I was trying to recollect the circumstances in which I landed up in this position of responsibility, the things I accomplished during my tenure and the things I gained out of it, for better or for worse. With Mozart's symphony no. 25 in G minor in making its way through my media player into my senses (the same tune which A. R. Rahman took 'inspiration' from to compose the Titan watch theme which all of us must have heard a googolplex times) , I feel the urge to pen down a self-evaluation statement of my editorial tenure.

How I landed in this job

I joined InsIghT as a regular member pretty late in my IIT life. I had written a couple of insignificant articles in my freshman and sophomore year but was mostly preoccupied with enjoying life with wingmates and academics, not that I regret it one bit. But I must say that joining InsIght and writing for it had always been on the back of my head. But then serendipity had its role to play and it decided that Krishna, the then newly elected editor of InsIghT should go to the US for his summer internship. He was in Rockefeller University, NY and I was in Purdue, Indiana. Though we knew each other as fellow tams, it took an awesome weekend in NY to realize that we should have known each other better in our first three years in IIT. I asked Krishna if I could join InsIghT, he coolly said to hop on, and during the next one year made sure that I could work on articles of my choice as far as possible.

To my surprise, towards the end of the year, Krishna and Patni (his co-editor) asked me if I'd like to take up editorship after them. Of all the people in the team, I doubted my candidature more than anyone! Nonetheless I took it up, partly out of my own interest and urge to make use of my final year in IIT to do something meaningful and to acknowledge the trust that Krishna and Patni had placed on me in spite of a weak candidature. My co-editor was to be Fubu, the most cheerful and enthusiastic member of the team, academically a year junior to me but substantially more experienced when it came to working for the newsletter. The friendship that would evolve between us was to be one of mutual affection, respect and a whole lot of fun.

What I (we) accomplished

If I were to look back at our tenure and jot down a few things that make me proud, they would be the following:

1. We got together a great team of people, mostly young and vibrant, who worked because they were excited about working. That is to say we did not let incompetent people with ulterior motives stick around for too long.
2. We acknowledged good work and continually challenged team-members who we knew were putting their best for the newsletter. Barring a couple of instances that I can recollect, we gave full creative freedom to people and never dictated the contents of any article.
3. We got five issues out and I can safely say that each issue was better than the previous one in terms of content and quality. A little presumptuous, considering our fifth issue has not been circulated yet, but I am nonetheless positive on that. Further we got a new website up and running and commissioned an exclusive bulletin board dedicated to news on campus.
4. As editors, there was never a time when either of us felt let down by the other. I can safely say that for myself and I am positive in the case of my co-editor.
5. Readership increased by a fair amount. Nothing gives an editor more happiness to see his newsletter being discussed and debated upon.

What was not accomplished

1. We're getting better but we still have a long way to go before we can claim to be agents of change or the voice of an institute. One can pass the buck on to the apathy of the reader only to a certain extent. This aspect, the editors have to take upon themselves and plead guilty.
2. The attempt to awaken the student community to the lack of academic integrity and motivation lost steam pretty early. We were greeted with condescension and pessimism from many of our readers and as editors, we unconsciously decided to stub the issue for now and take it up later.
3. On retrospect, I felt we let go off some bad apples in the team too easily. The team should not turn corporate but the editors should crack the whip on undeserving ones.

What I gained from the experience/opportunity

1. Some friendships which I am sure would not have happened if it were not for this; I'd have been happy leading the ghettoed solitary life that I fancy for myself, primarily because that's where my imagination ends normally. If it were not for InsIghT, I'd have walked out of IIT without ever getting close to the wonderful likes of Krishna, Fubu, Raj, Emani, SD, Arunabh, Tanny and a whole bunch of juniors. A wonderful co-editor like Fubu is much more than one could have ever asked for.
2. On the more utilitarian side, it got me a spike on my resume which would have played a hand in getting me shortlisted for BCG and McKinsey interviews. And it probably did play a role in getting me a (supposedly) coveted job during campus placements.
3. A teeny bit of personal conviction and the opportunity to prove to myself that I'm neither entirely unsocial or entirely worthless :).

One more issue to go and I'm hoping to pass on the mantle (tongue in cheek :P) to some one willing and deserving!

Friday, 25 January 2008

Darwinism refuted?

Some days ago a sophomore came into my room looking for a book. We chatted awhile and he noticed a copy of Charles Darwin's seminal work, "The Origin of Species", on my desk. He asked me if I had read it, to which I said that I had read only a few parts and that too as a complementary reference while I was reading Dawkins' "The Selfish Gene". Then he told me that he had made a presentation in a humanities course the previous year and 'disproved Darwinism' before his class. My response to his remark was one of amusement and that, coupled with the fact that he was a sophie stopped me from jumping to my heels and starting a debate. Notwithstanding my urge to correct his phrase from 'disproving Darwinism' to 'presenting arguments from literature that reveal inconsistencies in the theory of natural selection', I asked him to describe some of the points of contention where evolution could be held hostage. Having read "The Selfish Gene" and "What Evolution is" (Mayr) recently and with Darwin's spirit in my room, I felt confident. That he was a sophomore helped substantially too. He replied saying that he would mail me the presentation for it was a long time since he had given his talk. One of the main arguments that he had presented against the theory, he told me, was that it hasn't been showed conclusively that random mutation leads to natural selection. I wasn't sure if this was right but I told him that I knew of a lab in Caltech led by Prof. Frances Arnold which pursued research in the area called "Directed Evolution" and the principle on which they genetically engineer phenotypes is based on the scientific paradigm of evolution through random mutation. Besides, one just had to read any popular book by Richard Dawkins, Ernst Mayr (well known biologist) or Jared Diamond (well known evolutionary biologist and anthropologist) to encounter a plethora of examples on examples of natural selection in the plant and animal kingdom. Especially significant is Mayr's work in seasonal changes in the average beak size of the birds of Melanesia where one could observe natural selection at times scales of half a year. That the phenomenon under scrutiny was indeed natural selection and nothing else was an inescapable inference.

I found the presentation in my mailbox the very next day. To be honest, I thought it was a well made document and the presenters had judiciously tried to decant a wide range of perspectives that criticized evolution, though I found the title "Darwinism refuted" slightly pompous. To begin with, the word 'Darwinism' is used in a pejorative sense to refer to much of the assumed social and metaphysical consequences of Darwin's theory of evolution, not all of which are justified and many of which are merely superfluous extrapolations (Ex. The principle of the survival of the fittest directs men to be immoral and selfish to thrive in this world). But nonetheless from transitivity, the opponents of Darwinism, the so called 'Creationists' or 'Intelligent Design theorists' have to end up opposing biological Darwinism (evolution of an organism through natural selection as the primary mechanism) which has been supported by a myriad experiments and observational evidence. At the end of the day, the makers of the presentation were only undergraduate students such as myself and had only used the jargons they found in the so-called 'dissent from Darwinism' literature. I have been wanting to read about the intelligent design theory in some detail to better understand its paradigms but was not able to do it primarily because it derives inspiration from Christian propaganda and hence is something I don't want to waste my time on. In other words, I am willing to concede a finite probability that they may be true but with my current sense of the real world, I wouldn't waste my time on a thousand page antiquated Hindu treatise which explains a model of the universe where an eclipse is the result of a demon swallowing the sun until the crusaders fight him out and pull it out of his bowels. Another slightly impertinent reason I wouldn't bother about it is that my life doesn't not depend upon the absolute veracity of either this model or that one.

So I was pretty excited to know that the inaugural lecture in Techfest 2008, IITB's annual technology fete was going to be delivered by Prof. Henry Schaefer, the Graham Perdue Professor of Chemistry and Director of the Center for Computational Chemistry at the University of Georgia. Prof. Schaefer is a world renowned chemist and supposedly the sixth most cited chemist from 1981 to 1997, as his wikipedia page puts it. Further, he is a supporter of the intelligent design theory and one of the few distinguished scientists in the band. It turns out that there is a growing band of people who oppose Darwinism consisting of a few scientists and mostly pseudo-scientists, theologians, philosophers, evangelists and members of the church. From whatever I know, the intelligent design theory is hardly a theory. It is just a throw up of hands when you arrive at an overwhelming predicament while formulating an ambitious scientific theory; a refusal to persevere and probe further, an act of defeat. But because it is not just any theory but Darwin's theory of evolution, the principles of which are directly orthogonal to the model of the universe and life propounded by the New Testament, we have a whole lobby of Christians who call themselves 'Creationists'. I thought it would be a good opportunity to hear an articulation of Creationism from an eminent scientist; the following was the synopsis of his talk:

The evolution of universe, its content have always been debatable even after stephen hawking discussed them in "A Brief History of Time" , still the subject of cosmology; more generally, poses many questions about the interface between science and theism, and some of these will be explored in the much awaited lecture. Discussing god's contribution in the making of universe while answering and commenting on the some of the never answered questions like extent and content dimensons of the universe; its beginning, its creation, its irreversibilty ,its eternity, what governs laws and constant of physics. Mr Schaeffer gives his stand on these debatable topics. Hear the nobel nominee himself answer and comment some of the untouched aspects of the mighty universe @ Techfest 2008.
Much to my disappointment, the talk turned out to be a bummer. It turned out nothing like what one would anticipate by reading the synopsis. The problem that I have always had with the Christian propagandist manner of promoting intelligent design is the absence of a coherent line of reasoning and a diffidence to acknowledge the same. For instance, a true scientist would defend a scientific theory in the following manner- be it General Relativity, Evolution or Quantum Theory:

"This is a theory which is based on a particular premise of assumptions which you may call axioms. They may be self evident truths or otherwise but they contain the essential character of the theory. From these axioms we will go on to construct the consequences of the theory by applying it to natural systems and the theory would be judged at each step on its ability to predict or account for real world phenomena. This process would involve integration of this theory with other well known theories which on the other hand would have evolved from a different set of axioms. If at any point, there arises an inconsistency in theory and observation, one would first try to eliminate extraneous possibilities that could have been responsible. Still, if all evidence points to an inconsistency in the theory itself then it is a moral imperative on the scientific community to re-examine the premise"

Such a temperament involves no kind of literalism and is communicable in an elementary language (elementary need not mean simple :) and universally comprehensible). What holds together such a framework is consistency. Moreover, basing itself upon a finite set of axioms, it seeks to possess a predictive capability, transcending the ad hoc character of an explanation. In contrast, the proponents of the biblical model of creationism would say the following:

"Adherence to our religion necessitates our faith in a model of this universe that is propounded by its holy book, "The Bible", which is the word of God. Man by himself is incompetent to comprehend the complexities of this universe. Men were wretched sinners oblivious to the moral way of life until God sent his son on this earth to instruct them. The Bible is the root of all morality in this world and if men denied it there would only be chaos. Physics, Biology and the other natural sciences have their limitations and there is no way they can account for everything. One has to turn to God and hence the Bible for higher truths. Moreover, any man-made theory that contradicts the biblical word is wrong and unchristian and has no place in the world of man."

The creationists view is a literalist view; it is grossly unscientific but he does not see it or accept it. On one hand we have a theory which is overwhelmingly supported in most of the scientific community not because it is particularly appealing aesthetically but because it is largely consistent. There are always questions asked about a theory as there are about any other but the only thing that can replace a theory such as that of evolution is another theory that shows more consistency and offers predictive advantages. "Intelligent design" is not a theory; it is pigheadedness and foolishness put together. It is vague, ambiguous, offers no predictive capabilities and insults the creativity of the human mind and the unlimited bounties and surprises that nature can offer.

The one hour that Schaefer talked, all he did was quote famous scientists' views on God and creationism. Somewhere in the middle he quoted the Singularity theorem and explained the Big Bang model and wonderfully concluded that a beginning of time points to a higher cause, which has to be God and no one else. It was a combination of exasperation and amusement to hear a famous chemist who had done outstanding work in his field talk in such vague terms. Rather than present a coherent defense for "Intelligent Design", he merely tried to provide legitimation to the belief by quoting other eminent scientists' affiliation with the same. And the last nail on the grave was hammered when Schaefer hailed the Christian view of life in a pseudo-evangelical manner before an audience he knew to be largely non-Christian. If anything can be called scientific heresy, it is this!

In the next few days, I am planning to read some books on Creationism to better understand what the lobby is trying to say. The only books on religion that I have in my room are those of Dawkins, Russel and Sam Harris and they go a long way in brewing frustration in my head against religious fundamentalists, of whom these Creationists are a mere innocuous fraction. But then from what it seems at the surface, they need to do a lot better before they can displace Darwin's legacy.

Thursday, 24 January 2008

Age of Arrogance

For most humans in this world, it is reasonable to say that arrogance is a decreasing function of age. But not for Balasaheb Thackeray, the abominable demagogue of my city. If one were able to somehow measure arrogance and multiply it with age for all the people in this world, I'm sure he'll be the top third world contender. A couple of days ago he celebrated his 82nd birthday and there was the usual arraying of the city with his posters and an overdose of saffron. I read a TOI article where the Sena chief made the following comment on Modi's arrival in Bombay:

Maharashtra will not accept anybody. States have been divided on linguistic basis. Modi has got Gujarat. Mayawati got Uttar Pradesh. Leave Maharashtra to us. In Maharashtra, only the Shiv Sena pattern will work.
Plaguing a city dying to maintain its pluralism with the politics of alienation will no doubt leave more than bad tastes in mouths. It is true that Modi is no angel and it is only fitting that we have an in-house goonda who, with whatever life is left in him, will try his best to keep a behemoth away. But coming back to the title of this post, it is interesting how the polemics and propaganda of people like Thackeray and Modi can move a people from liberalism to extreme bigotry. And this shift has nothing to do with class, caste or creed. Fear that does not have a logical reason behind itself always hits below the belt and one immediately turns to the demon for refuge and counsel, who in turn fuels and nourishes one's bondage to an ideology favorable to himself. And in a state such as Maharashtra which is a hot bed when it comes to issues like farmer suicides, rural unemployment, undernourishment; where more than 70% of the state's commerce are channeled through a chip of a land on its west coast, with immigrants from other parts of India holding a much bigger share of the economic opportunities over the natives; a state where linguistic intolerance has penetrated itself deep into the psyche of the common man manifesting itself as a fear of the invader. And it is but natural that when an old hyena like Thackeray comes up with statements like "All residential buildings constructed henceforth must have 50% reservations for the marathi manoos", the marathi manoos naturally feels reassured of his identity thanks to the loud mouthed crusader who can afford to parade in a lions coat. And as Orwell portrays, if the plebeians act like sheep, then it is in the politician's advantage to act pigheaded.

On a different note, when I read an article in these days, I invariably end up judging the quality of prose and structure, noticing grammar errors and also the general layout of the newspaper. A paper like TOI goes out of its way to boost and nourish the ego of an insignificant editor like myself. Now that it is possible to move blocks of prose here and there you commonly find articles that defy the form of an essay in every possible way; absence of a clear flow of thought, tortuous constructions and pedestrian language are common. For instance, the article that I mentioned in this post was titled 'Only Sena pattern will work in state, says Thackeray' and its last paragraph was the following:

Thackeray predicted that Pakistan president Pervez Musharraf would be assassinated. On the occasion of his birthday, Thackeray released a book on the Sena by senior party leader Manohar Joshi.

Tuesday, 22 January 2008

Losing it

It does not take too long for one to get attached to Bombay. The city is a wealthy proprietor of crime, commerce, cinema, cosmopolitanism, culture, chaos and all these cumulatively give it the vibrant-mutating-inscrutable character that it possesses. It is my belief that many people (and I am one of them) stick to Bombay not because of the above things but despite many other things. I recently read an article by Jerry Pinto which seemed to aptly furnish my thoughts into words:

Bombay has none of the imperium of Delhi, the self-conscious stasis of Calcutta or the provincial self-satisfaction of Madras. It is the ugly stepdaughter city but Prince Charming must cut his heels off to win her hand. It is a city in which no one dies of starvation but the vast majority are forced to endure living conditions that no enlightened zookeeper would allow for his animals. Yet the exiles and arrivistes keep flooding into the City imagined, to the Bombay they see as siren and savior. They never leave.
Much is said about Bombay's impregnable character with great pomposity whenever a catastrophe like the 1993 blasts or the 26/7 deluge crosses our fate. No doubt, some of these stories deserve to be told; what but unrestrained hope can come out of a peoples' voice which does not have the luxury of a lasting memory! True, like all of theirs, my legs have been anchored to the city how much ever I wish I could leave it. The city that I knew of is degrading slowly and everyday I feel at the end of the candle.

1. The city which I generously defended in front of my parents once so that my sister could stay out a little longer saw an NRI woman being molested outside one of its biggest hotels.
2. A school kid recently paid back his class bully with a bullet from his father's revolver.
3. As the Mumbai Marathon ended, Modi and his saffron brigade prepared to get polemical on the Shivaji Park grounds. One needn't dial M for Murder anymore
4. If nothing else, a common thread that cuts across all classes is a universal lack of civic sense.
5. Seventy percent of college going youth spend seventy percent of their time in coffee houses and malls. Make way for Starbucks!
6. An urchin merely 5-6 years old comes and stubs its nose to my window precisely when I am on my way to a lavish dinner. And to top it up I can feel nothing but cash in my pockets.

Sunday, 20 January 2008

Half a day in my life

After being subject to the lavish hospitality of the firm that happened to recruit me during campus placements for two days, Sunday morning brought my feet back on the ground. I came back from a family function late Saturday evening to be told by Onkar that he managed to get two wild card registrations for the 'Dream Run' in the Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon. The fatass sophomore and he were walking back after playing squash when they bumped into a couple of women working for Vidya (the in-house NGO in IITB) who announced their willingness to dispense with two Marathon registrations if there were willing takers. My friends happily came back with one bib each and told me about it. When a desire to participate arose in my heart, it was amicably decided that fatass would wait until next year and I would run in his place.

We were told to report to main gate at 6 in the morning. Onkar woke me up in time and we took an early morning hop to our pick-up point. In about ten minutes the place was swarming with children from the NGO and the two of us found ourselves pinning the registration bibs on the t-shirts of little kiddos and kiddies. A red herring by the NGO women indeed :)! Soon we were greeted by the Director's wife (who is by far the scariest looking woman in the world after the Hindu Goddesses Kali and Durga) and she requested us to load food packets and drinking water bottle cartons from her attic to the transport buses. A request from a formidable woman such as her was a command from the highest order and I found myself meekly doing the chores. All the while the only thing I hoped for was for Providence to leave one food packet for the least my empty stomach deserved after the voluntary labor was a humble ration of cheese sandwich and slice cake.

My rising fears were soon alleviated we pushed off to Azad Maidan with Onkar and me finding ourselves in positions of responsibility over the adolescents. I savored whatever was in the food packet balancing myself on the edge of a seat which was barely enough to support one half of one of my buttocks. The bus was stuffed you see! But we made it through and reached our destination in good time. Outside the VT station we got off the bus and walked the kids to the magnificent Oval Maidan. En route to the grounds, my ears were relishing the long forgotten platitudes that one gets to hear from school masters and school teachers - "Walk neatly in groups of six, single file", "Don't leave your partner's hand", "Don't chit chat among yourselves, pay attention to me" and the sorts. There were other NGOs walking by and Onkar and I imagined what would happen if one NGO started sledging and abusing the other. In a city of contradictions, anything is possible!

We finally reached the Maidan to find a full-feldged mela out there. The roads were cordoned (Mumbai Marathon is now a big deal backed by a lot of corporate sponsorship, celebrity participation and razzmatazz. I remember a friend reminiscing his experience of the Bangalore marathon with much disdain especially moments when he had to spot jog at the traffic signal as the organisers did not bother to stop vehicular traffic during the time of the run) by the police but they were filled with large and small groups fighting for a cause (or atleast to try and make as much a deal out of it with whatever time a Sunday morning of festivities could offer), families where daddy strongest has made it clear that this is going to be a yearly ritual for the family, cliques of youngsters who get an excuse to purchase a brand new nike/adidas/reebok, groups of senior citizens who believe that it is necessary to prove the non-existence of any correlation between age and mileage, people who feel it is necessary to participate in order to align one's identity with that of the city and people like me who just happened to be there because they got a chance to do so. Amidst all this hustle and bustle, one could notice that the poor animals (stray dogs, cats, crows and pigeons) were pretty disillusioned and were wondering what the hell is wrong with this city.

Finally the run commenced around 9:30 am from the BMC and I judiciously jogged the first half (for whatever it was worth). I was constantly being taken over by faster, more energetic ones and I overtook a few gasping for their breath. On my right I could see the special lanes where the participants of the half and the full marathons ran. All along the road, there were people cheering us (for reasons I cannot think of)- people offering mineral water bottles to the fatigued, ad hoc bands playing songs from RDB with a hope to channel the athleticism in the unfit and housewives in their nighties staring at us with deep consternation from the verandas of the residential buildings along Marine drive. Yes, the marathon proceeded from CST to Churchgate; touching Nariman point and tracing the a part of the queen's necklace all the way to Marine Lines. Everyone who was there (apart from the participants) was there because she or he had nothing better to do that morning but then once in place, most people played their role well - be it of a cheerleader, waterboy, photographer or spectator.

The city changes in seconds. It mutates and it mutates through its people. I could already see the last vestiges of the day disappearing as I neared the end of the finish line. As I did that, quite a few images came to my mind. There are many that talk about the resilience of the city, its character, some talk about its growing decadence (read the recent molestation case) and some say it is repeating the mistakes of the west. But among these characteristics, is that of fickleness and amnesia. The city forgets too soon for good and for the bad but the skeletons invariably remain in the closet. I quote a verse from a compendium of poems on Bombay that I read recently.

Bright and tempting breezes
flow across the island,
separating past from the future;
then the air is still again
as I sleep the sleep of ignorance.

Finally we came back to Azad Maidan where I took a beeline for CST. I walked through the last minutes of fanfare through the promenades, savoring the remains of the day before the streets of south Bombay get back their usual vehicular flux. After meeting Fubu and Raj at McDonalds and sharing a tasty cheese pav bhaji, I walked to Sunderbhai Hall for the Strand Book fare. The usual spendthrift in me came alive and I bought Rs. 2000 worth of some awesome books- The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer, The Devil's Chaplain by Richard Dawkins, Why is Sex fun? by Jared Diamond, Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace by Gore Vidal include some of them. I don't know when I am going to read them. But I will soon, probably. Optimism is something that Bombay has plenty to offer whenever there isn't any need for it.

Saturday, 19 January 2008

Why is he single?

In the last two weeks, I have been confronted, chided, reprimanded, judged and what not for the fact that I don't have a girlfriend currently. Another nail on the grave was during the BCG party yesterday was when my cohorts started patronizing with my plight. Not that I'm complaining, for I trust the good intents of Krishna Ramkumar more than my own most of the time. But they thankfully never persist for a very long time. Long enough to strip me of all my defenses and excuses. I suppose the following would be (objectively) the reasons behind their surprise over my relationship status:

1. I'm rich
2. I'm reasonably smart (which has nothing to do with the fact that I'm an IITian)
3. I'm nither extremely high headed nor chauvinistic nor eccentric.
4. There is nothing wrong with the way I talk to women and I don't come across as repulsive.

So I wonder what possible reconciliations people resort to. I could guess some of them:

1. He's probably gay (celibate anyone?)
2. He's on the apex of Maslow's pyramid; he doesn't need women.
3. He's strictly average looking and fat so it would be difficult to impress a girl up right.
4. He has a pathetic dressing sense and he goes out of his way to look disheveled. Plus he's good at math and knows better than to play a zero sum game when so many people are watching. But then he's a fool to think he's currently winning.

Among the four above, I find 3, 4 as fairly reasonable. I'm working on three these days something which I hope will have a domino effect on 4. 2 is certainly not the case for I am a man and I have my needs but then my upbringing urges me to exercise discretion. As far as 1 is concerned, I'd like you to take a look at a photo which has been around for long in my orkut profile.

And to end this post let me state here once and for all, that I'm a man with an eclectic set of orientations. But whatever they may be, neither one of them is the same as that of my finger in the picture!

Wednesday, 16 January 2008


Taking a class on non-linear dynamics introduced me to logistic maps, a section I would have happily skipped if I were reading the topic on my own. I had read about universality in Gleick'a book and had also made an attempt to read Feigenbaum's 1979 paper but I think I didn't understand it properly. It is only yesterday while re-reading Lorenz's paper when I put two and two together. And now I'm all the more happy because it turns out that the system I am working on (non-linear kinetic model for cyclohexane oxidation) has a unimodal Lorenz map and hence 4.699 (Feigenbaum's constant) is lurking in there somewhere. I hope to encounter it sometime in the near future and think it would be nice to say hello and have a chat. I scarcely imagine it to be of any importance to a manufacturer of nylon or adipic acid but whoever said the good things in life were utilitarian?

Monday, 14 January 2008

I'm reading two very interesting books at this moment and thought I should pen a thought or two about them.

1. Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond: This book tries to answer a simple yet profoundly difficult question about human history namely the differences in the histories in different continents. Why didn't we have the Red Indians colonising the British or why did the industrial revolution have to start in Europe and not in India? The 'superiority of race' argument is an easy one that has found appeals among many in the west but Diamond probes deeper in judicious detail.

2. American Power and the new Mandarins by Noam Chomsky: Chomsky's first book and his scathing critique of the American war in Vietnam. Notwithstanding the fear of sounding impertinent I humbly state that I felt that some essays lacked crispness. Nonetheless I am happy I read them for now I feel that India seriously needs a Chomsky. There is a responsibility that intellectuals in a welfare state have to execute constantly and it is all the more imperative in the current situation of India. Our politics is filled with preposturous rhetoric and devoid of any kind of sensitivity and I hope we will find means of awakening our masses more refined than RDB and Lage Raho...

Weekend in Pune was nice time. I miss my friends more than I show it. And I hope I shall stick to the routine of physical activity that has recommenced in my life.

Thursday, 3 January 2008

Interview with Sir Mark Tully

I had been wanting to chronicle this one since the day it happened but lots of things came about and blah bloo blee stopped me from doing so. It has so happened that I have inadvertently created an image of myself as that of a voriacious reader and a good speaker (I am neither and as far as speaking is concerned I am pretty mediocre. I recently discovered that I tend to make quite a few grammatical mistakes while speaking, something that has thankfully avoided the attention of people around me and hence the prevailing image). My interview with Gregory David Roberts, the author of Shantaram, probably helped created this image (The interview, on the other hand, was both given and conducted by Greg Roberts for all practical purposes, reducing me to a mere spectator). Nonetheless, I was happily commandeered as the interviewer of Sir Mark Tully during his talk at Mood Indigo '07.

As a short introduction, Sir Mark Tully was the BBC correspondent in India for a long time right from the late 70s to the late 90s (I think). He was/is a prolific journalist and at the same time has written a number of books/travelogues on India. Very professionally had he turned up for his talk in IIT but since every event was running late on schedule, the organisers had to postpone this event and we were there waiting eagerly for the auditorium to fill to a critical quorum. Finally things were ready, much to Archana's relief (she was the main organising person behind this event and also the authority which commandeered me into this service. A very lovable sophomore, who was in a very excitable mood that day). Sir Mark Tully entered the auditorium and slowly took his seat, politely acknowledging the warm welcome that received him into the room.

He then spoke for about half an hour. It was a very well articulated speech but then the subject was something that I had not anticipated earlier. His writings are usually a mix of his thoughts, opinions and experiences, each of which flow into one another and also develop together in his stories. I have read two of his books, the much acclaimed "No Full stops in India" and his latest "India's Unending journey". He is strongly opinionated about things but rarely gets polemical while writing, which is perhaps one reason why reading Tully is not always that interesting and eventful. Nonetheless, he is one of those westerners, like Edward Said, who vociferously denounce the west's perception of the east. At the same time Tully is also strongly critical of the colonial hangover that is present in most Indians, who from the time of independence, have felt it prudent to marry everything that the west has to offer and finding no good in our native culture and heritage.

But coming back to his talk that day, he chose the continuing battle between theology and science as his subject. I don't know if labeling it a 'battle' is premature on my part but Sir Mark spoke on the very same subject. His main thesis was could be summarized in the following words - "In the current age of scientific progress and market capitalism, there is a prevailing notion that religion as an antiquated practice should necessarily be rejected for the good of the society. But it is important for the people of this world, especially the beneficiaries of modern day technology, to realise that not all answers to life can come out of science and that theology should not be done away with completely." As regards to religious beliefs, I know that Tully is a devout theist. I wanted to find out if he was a fundamental Christian in the Dawkinsean sense (like if he believes that the earth is actually 9000 years old because it is said so in the bible and whether he believes in hell fire and other such stuff) and I realised that he wasn't one but that he strongly believed in the existence of a supernatural power that transcended human aptitude.

During his talk, he very strongly criticised Dawkins's book, "The God Delusion" on the scientific dogmatism it tries to propagate, attempting to completely dismiss religion as a human emotion and possible social institution. One of the objections that I raised to his criticism of Dawkins was prompted by something that I had read in his introduction in "No full stops...". While writing on the colonial and the Indian elitist view of the caste system Tully remarked that "..the easiest way to denounce or debunk any system is to highlight only its excesses" and I told him that this is precisely what I thought he had done with Dawkins's book during his lecture. No doubt Dawkins gets polemical too frequently (scientists have to learn to resist the easy tempation of arrogance that comes along with the feeling when one knows that one is correct about something) but I said that he was mainly denouncing institutionalized religion and not an individual right to a personal god or theology for that matter. To this, Sir Mark replied that he considered it premature of Dawkins to completely rule out institutionalized religion and at the same time Dawkins seemed unaware of advances by recent theologicians (read Dawkins' statement on leprechauns and leprechaunology!). Also more importantly, he stated that Dawkins had chosen the most detestable of all possible Gods to make his thesis and that he lacked moderation for all his stature. (I shall end this debate here and post my own views on God and religion sometime later; perhaps when I am as famous as either one of these two :P. Only then will people take me seriously).

The most important thing that struck me about Sir Mark Tully (Honestly, I didn't buy most of what he said about religion; perhaps it was too short a time) was that he was a humble man and a genuinely affable person. He didn't have any airs of being knighted by the queen and happily joined Archana and me for a humble lunch at Gulmohar restaurant. He generously chatted with us throughout the lunch, while enjoying dollops of palak paneer and dal khichidi, asking us about our families, future plans etc. He seemed slightly dissappointed when I told him of my plans of doing a PhD in the United States and asked me if I had applied to his alma mater Cambridge. My reply in support of US as my choice did not seem to satisfy him particularly, so we left it at that. It ended up being an extremely memorable afternoon with me feeling a deep admiration for this gem of a person.