Thursday, January 28, 2010

Back from vacation

I've just gotten back from a 2 week vacation in Southern India (which should explain my hiatus from blogging to my legion of readers). Did visit a fair few places. Goa, Gokarna, Udupi, Wayanad district and Ooty.

Gokarna was easily the best of all places - comparatively unspoilt by tourists as opposed to the Russian invasion of Goa. I do recommend folks to visit Gokarna - but only if your idea of fun is to laze at the beach all day. (Picture on left is sunset at Om Beach, Gokarna). And unless you have loads of cash, accommodation is pretty basic. This isn't a travel blog by any stretch, but will try and include some relevant details in another post.

The #fail thing that happened on this trip was my very first lesson on how white tourists get mobbed by random Indians. I thought it was highly embarrassing and a tad shameful as well. I'd never seen the phenomenon before and seeing it first hand was a real shocker. The play is this. Indian tourists of all shapes and colours (more likely young than old) walk up to random white tourists and in typically Indian style, ask, 'Photo'? Of course, our usually well-mannered westerner assumes (only during the first time) that s/he wants the white tourist to take a picture and him/her and is happy to oblige. But they've only understood half of it. The Indian wants his/her picture taken, but with the white person in it. Preferably if they are from the opposite sex. So what happens is although the white tourist reaches for the camera to oblige the Indian, all of a sudden there is a mysterious photographer who crops up and the white tourist suddenly becomes part of the picture. Not wishing to seem impolite in a foreign country, our white friend reluctantly obliges. As the crucial shutter release moment approaches, more and more Indians seems to materialize from thin air (and you wonder how a billion of us got here). Pretty soon, arms are laid on shoulders, hands are held and the more adventurous ones will even get an arm around the waist. Then only is the photo actually taken. Of course, our poor photographer does not want to be left out, so there is usually another round of the same. Sometimes it goes on for a few minutes till the white tourist gets the drift and has to call a stop to it. Epic fail.

I recall an incident where Jason (British / white) got into a similar situation. A group of 10-12 Indian youths crowding around him for a photo, hands on his naked torso (it was the beach, don't get any ideas). A guy then remarks, 'You look like an Indian cricket player.'. To which our bemused Jason is forced to reply - 'But I am white!'. ROFLMAO.


Sunday, January 10, 2010

Medium rare, please

The attitude of most Indians towards beef (yes, I mean the meat, not some vague metaphor) in today's world continues to astound me to no end.

Cows are considered sacred in India. Consider the recent controversy surrounding Mr. Shashi Tharoor's tweet. He tweeted about how he was being asked to adopt 'austere measures' and so from now on he would
"travel in cattle class out of solidarity with all our holy cows!"
Of course, Indian politicians are rarely known for their sense of humor (and usually even lesser for their sense of public service). Even Tharoor lamented about how he has learnt a very harsh lesson on why humour is a dangerous subject for politicians in India. Apparently, the diversity in India means that you can offend anyone with your 'free speech'. (Do read Amit Varma's recent post on the free speech cop-out.)

But back to cows. The exact reason why cows are sacred in India is probably lost to most practising Hindus. My reasearch, based on simple Google searches, indicates that the reason varies from;

  • a carry over from Babylonian civilization that has come to India
  • practical reasons - a (milch) cow throughout its life is more productive than as a source of beef. Milch cows provide dairy products, which are a continuous and valuable source of protein and fat.
Probably what many Indians do not realize are that there are two types of cows bred in the world. One is the 'milch' variety, reared almost exclusively for dairy, while the other is the 'beef' variety, reared as a source of meat. The variety of cattle raised for their meat are not really valuable as a milch cow and hence do not serve any economic value during their lifetime.

The economics of the cow

Here's my take on how it evolved that cows are sacred in India. As India slid from being a land of 'milk and honey' and of untold riches where everyone lived in relative peace and prosperity; the economics of putting food on the table became of paramount importance. It must be noted that none of the ancient Indian texts actually prohibit meat-eating (as some misguided, self-righteous 'Hindu vegetarians' would like us to believe). In fact, there are instances of meat-eating by Brahmins in the Mahabharata. Yes, vegetarianism is recommended, but meat-eating is not explicitly condemned. So, that effectively settles the argument about how ancient Hindu texts forbid meat-eating. Next, does it say anything specifically about beef? I do not claim to be a scholar on ancient Hindu texts, but my basic research suggests: No. So, it is probably fair to assume that slaughter of cows and consumption of beef was a done practice in ancient India.

Now, let's cut to the recent history, say around the time the Mughals invaded and afterwards. Economically, rural Indians were not exactly feasting. As a result, some bright folks probably realized that as far as milch cows were concerned, they were more viable alive than dead. Now, armed with this knowledge that cows were more valuable alive than dead, the 'community advisers', typically learned Brahmins, would have tried to find a way to make it morally reprehensible for simple folk to slaughter cows. Simple solution: Make it a religious sin! There are several instances across the world where economic and scientific principles are couched in religious laws to ensure a strict adherence. (Refer below for some instances). As a result, people slowly became religiously conditioned to not eat beef. Note the hypocrisy with how this does not extend to goats (very little milch value) and chickens and the like. 

Of course, there is another train of thought that cows are sacred because they are used to till the land and the like. Because of the service they provide to the farmer, they are considered as sacred. The economic inviability of slaughtering bullocks in this case is obvious. Again, they are not exactly beef cattle either.

This train of thought leads me to believe that the Hindu religious notion of cows being sacred are not religious truths but in fact economic principles in the guise of religious truths.

The politics of the cow

Cut to the present day. Cows are a potent political symbol. The stated intention of certain political factions to protect the cow acts as the perfect ruse to disguise the lack of concrete social and economic measures that they need to undertake. As usual, the memory of the man on the street is short and his vision is near-sighted. Explosively discordant religious messages are better attention grabbers than a concrete vision for social upliftment. Caught in this atmosphere, the average Hindu fails to question fundamental truths as to why s/he does not consume beef but in a behavior uncannily resembling that of a cow just toes the line.

The final hypocrisy

Regardless of the economics and the politics, what however is utterly incomprehensible is the complete hypocrisy that Hindus show when it comes to their 'mother', the cow. Millions of cows roam Indian roads, left to fend for themselves. They pose a real threat to road safety and also litter the roads with unwanted dung. They have no better place to go, so are often seen munching on the patchy vegetation that is present on the road shoulders. Tell me, O Devout Hindu, if the cow is your mother, if the cow is your God, is this how you treat her? Would you let your own biological mother fend for herself on the streets? Would you rather she succumb to stomach cancer caused by consumption of plastics? Can't you see the hypocrisy of your thoughts and actions?


The poor breed of cows in India
It's probably also worth mentioning that cows in India are among the worst strains of milch cattle; meaning they produce very little milk. Which probably means that they might be a genetic breed of cattle which was earlier not exclusively of the milch variety. My guess is that they might have been extensively interbred with beef cattle which reduced their milk producing capacities.


The economics of meat eating today
Meat eating is very fashionable today. With the booming economies of China and India, meat is now found more often on the menu in families across these two countries. Considering that they harbour about 40% of the world's population, the increased demand for meat produces severe strain on grain cultivation. This is not to say that Indians and Chinese must refrain while the Western world continues to battle obesity. It merely highlights how economic prosperity changes our food habits. That said, we consume far more animal protein than we need, and we waste even more. It takes 16 pounds of grain to produce 1 pound of meat. In light of the fact that we still have millions of people starving across the world, is this the right dietary choice to make?


The dangers of meat today
IMHO, the best beef in the world comes from Australia. These cows are typically grass-fed and free range. The quality of the beef is great, the associated animal cruelty is minimal. Consider this against the beef produced in 'CAFO' style operations, where the associated health and environmental issues are severe. Read more about that here and here.

Science & Economics vs. Religion
A couple of cases where religion dictated the adoption of scientific principles. This is my own guess, and not proven research!

1) Hindus have (had) a habit of washing their feet before entering a residence. One can note how many houses still have a water tap outside to enable folks to wash their feet before entering the house. The belief is that 'Shani' or Saturn clings to the dust in one's feet, and so must be washed away before entering a house. The simpler scientific explanation is probably that in ancient times footwear wasn't as common as today. Further, roads and pathways were dirty (probably sparkling clean in comparison to the roads in India today) and littered with animal feces. It must have been realized that the simple act of washing one's feet before entering a household prevented many diseases. Unable to; or unwilling to provide a scientific explanation for the same, it was couched in religious mumbo-jumbo and passed on as religious fact.

2) Why Muslims and Jews don't eat pork? These religions originated in the middle-eastern regions, where slaughtered meat, especially pork, does not keep well (unlike Europe). As a result, it was noticed that people fell sick eating pork and hence the religious doctrine of why not to eat pork. 

Friday, January 8, 2010

The media circus surrounding the Ruchika Girhotra case

If you've been following the news in India, you must be aware of the media circus surrounding the Ruchika Girhotra case.
Of course, some people might take offence at the use of the term media circus in this post. Yet, that is precisely what it is. I do not condone the actions of Mr. Rathore, in fact, I condemn it highly. Read on.

Mrs. Abha Rathore, wife of Mr. Rathore has complained that Mr. Rathore is being tried by the media. Tell me, Mrs. Rathore, if it were not for the media, do you think that Mr. Rathore would have been convicted today? If it were not for the media, would you find that an entire nation has been outraged by the action of your husband? The outrage of what happened to Ms. Ruchika and the simmering rage that we all hapless citizens bear because at one time or the other we've also been victims of abuse of power. A man who was supposed to protect her fundamental rights violated it and you're crying hoarse about the media circus? When did the law and justice become mutually exclusive?

A note to Mr. K.P.S. Gill

Mr. K.P.S. Gill is best remembered for 3 things.
1) Flushing out militants in Punjab and restoring normalcy there.
2) Flushing taxpayers' money down the toilet and contributing to the decline of Indian hockey.
3) Flushing respectability of career policeman down the toilet by slapping a woman's 'posterior' at a party.

Now, Mr. Gill is offended that his brother-in-arms, Mr. Rathore, is being 'tried by the media' and is having his police medal stripped from him. His contention is,
"Medals should be taken away only in cases of treason by police officers. In other countries, they strip an officer of medals only if he commits treason or is in involved in suspicious international activities."
Firstly, as you've pointed out, that is elsewhere, and not in India. Don't even get me started on comparing India to functioning democracies elsewhere. That's one battle you will not win.

The Central Police Awards committee recommends withdrawing police medals for officers who have been convicted of moral turpitude. Surely, bottom slapping is moral turpitude? So, I understand that you're anxious about losing your own police medal and are now publicly coming to the rescue of your convicted colleague.

Where is your shame, Mr. Gill?

A note to Mrs. Rathore

Dear Mrs. Rathore,
You've started something called a 'character assassination', a ploy that is used and used well by the peculiar breed of sub-humans called lawyers. Your contention is that Ruchika's father is 'morally corrupt'. Tell me, why are you so interested in what consenting adults do behind closed doors? What business is it of yours? I am not even going to discuss whether this is true or not as it does not concern me, and shouldn't concern anyone except Mr. Girhotra and a Mrs. Girhotra, if she exists.

Secondly, by extrapolation of your comments, do you mean to say that if the father is 'morally corrupt' by your own silly standards of ethics, the child should suffer the advances and molestation of a sexual predator disguised as a protector? Should Ruchika's parents and sibling suffer because of what you think is morally reprehensible?

Finally, let me put you through a scenario. Your husband has now been convicted of a crime. The key word here is convicted. That crime is molesting a minor. There are few crimes actually are as morally reprehensible as that. Obviously, even by your definition, your husband's character is flawed. So, going by the intentions of your smear campaign, if somebody nows molests your daughter, you'll give up seeking legal recourse because, 'My husband's character is unquestionably bad'?

Get off your high horse, Mrs. Rathore. Don't you have any shame?

The Pill

Call me a champion of woman's rights or a closet chauvinist, I don't really care. But I strongly believe that the single most important invention in recent times that has really empowered women is The Pill. The pill gives women the chance to have sex without the bother of pregnancy. It really was the spark that lit the flame of the sexual revolution in the western world in the sixties. Of course, the pill does not prevent STDs, but at least takes away the complication of unwanted pregnancies.
The best indicator of social empowerment of women lies in the sales graph of the pill. The more pills sold would mean a more progressive society, especially for women. There are numerous studies that have proved how society has been transformed by the pill and for the better.

The other great indicator of women's empowerment in India is the rapidly rising divorce rates, especially in cities like New Delhi and Bangalore. This is not a cause for concern, methinks, but a reason for celebration. It means that women have now been empowered financially and socially, and so are now more confident of walking out of unhappy marriages. Compare this to the previous generation (and before that), where women had no choice but to endure a unhappy, abusive and sexually frustrating marriages. All becuase the husband controlled the purse strings.

The next great revolution for women's empowerment in India will come with the introduction and implementation of child protection services. I believe marriages are an unnecessary societal farce and that having children in today's world is nothing short of a criminal misdemeanor but the truth is that marriage and children are a part of society. Often, it is the children who are the worst affected in a marriage. As a result, even in families where the wife has the economic freedom to walk out, divorce is not an option because of the stigma attached to a failed marriage (for the kids) and the lack of proper child protection services. Although, I am inclined to think that this could be a reason for men also not walking out of unhappy marriages.

If you're a woman and have walked out of an unhappy marriage, I tip my hat to you. Power to the people.

Hot tip # 1

When convicted of a socially abhorrent crime and sentenced to light punishment, do not smirk for the cameras. See what NOT to do below.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

That's me money # 1

The Prime Minister of India, Dr. Manmohan Singh, is a man I generally hold in high regard, regardless of what I think of the effectiveness of his government or of his party's ideology. But a rash and stupid statement by him today has made me really rethink about my views and made me ponder if I should call him Dr. Manmoron Singh instead, as I've read in some other blogs.

Read about how Dr. Singh is offering to 'fly in doctors' to treat a 95 year old man who is probably single handedly responsible for transforming West Bengal from a highly effective, competitive and industrialized state to an economically and socially 'sick' state today. Tell me, Dr. Singh, who will pay for this treatment? Don't you think it is a bit rash on your side to commit millions of taxpayers' money for what is near certainly a lost cause? If you feel that strongly about it, why not spend your own money? Maybe some of the prize money that your daughter won will help to contribute to Jyoti Basu's wellbeing.

Have you no shame, Dr. Singh?

Polam rei...

It's the war cry that nearly every citizen of the fair city of Chennai who's ever had the misfortune of traveling in the city's buses is well aware of. Varying in pitch and intensity from a Nordic growl to a Singaporean pip-squeak, it is the cry that conductors spend hours practicing. And the finely tuned ears of Chennai's bus drivers have honed their aural skills to a fine pitch, waiting for this specific battle cry which signifies the moment to slam down hard on the accelerator with their rubber/leather thong sandals and start flexing their muscles to coax the stick shift into what is nearly always second gear.Yet, bus drivers in Chennai are just another class of poor drivers on the road.

What irks me though is how the poor bus drivers of Chennai seem to have their brethren elsewhere in the state of Tamilnadu as well. Especially on her highways. On my recent road-trip to Chennai and back, what I did notice, or rather what struck me as the poster child for poor driving were the state transport buses in Tamilnadu. The red or blue ones, with almost everyone of them registered in TN29 or TN30 plates. What makes them the worst highway drivers ever, you ask?

For starters, although the roads in the cities of India are death traps in the guise of pathways, where danger lurks in every corner and safe or good driving is an Utopian dream, the GQ highways are another matter. At least here the vehicles follow the lane system (actually, lane marking exist here). And the slower trucks move on the left. Except of course for our friends from Tamilnadu. They drive their buses at 60kms per hour on the right lane where everyone is traveling at 100kms per hour. And they have no compunction for doing so. Everbody else be damned, I will drive as I please. On the fast lane, at 60 kmph. Come the next town for a bus stop, and they swerve to the left lane; pick up passengers and promptly head back to the right lane. Why don't you guys have any common sense?

Of course the worst situation is when you have a truck on the left lane and a Tamilnadu state transport bus on the right. Both moving at the same speed, both hogging the entire road. Of course, the truck has nowhere to go. Pissed off that other vehicles can actually go faster than he can, the bus driver from Tamilnadu refuses to back down and switch to the left lane. So you're stuck waiting for a sliver of space to open up while one vehicle is a few meters behind the other and then you make your move. You do have one truck at 42 kmph trying to overtake another at 40 kmph, but at least they move out of the way when they're done. Not a pleasant experience when you have to slow from a 100 kmph speed to 40 kmph, but better than the kind of shite that you have to endure with TN bus drivers. What a load of bozos.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Madras Musings - When Chennai was still Madras

On Wednesday afternoon I was strolling down the footpath on North Usman Road in T.Nagar. I'd just finished lunch at Ganga hotel (of Ganga color xerox fame). I was amused by the fact that there were a couple of folks from 'North India' seated behind me and having lunch with their Tamil colleagues. I couldn't help but overhear. One of the guys was telling his Tamil colleague that 'Chennai hotels have different types of rice'. Much to my and the colleague's confusion. Then he explained, 'Sambar rice, Lemon rice, Curd rice.'. Oh. Like that.

Anyways, lunch completed, I was strolling back in the relatively mild December sun of Chennai, contemplating the ugly monstrosity of a 'mini-flyover' that has been built to bridge N.Usman road with Mahalingapuram. Bloody shame, I felt. At least some places were as before. Like Ganga hotel. And as I was walking along the pavement, I was thinking that there was a time when that part of Madras did not even have pavements, let alone ugly flyovers. My earliest memory of a pavement harks back to school days. My friends and I used to save the 50p, later revised to 70p bus fare and walk the 3-4 kms home. And there were no footpaths from Habibullah Road till Meenakshi college, save for the walking path on Kodambakkam bridge. And then one day in 93-94, we saw trucks emptying cement slabs on the existing 'footpath'. And lo and behold, in about 3-4 months lots of places in Chennai were proudly sporting paved footpaths. And one of my recollections of that period was how the cement slabs had the year of manufacture stamped on it. I was curious to see if the ones in N.Usman road were from that lot. Sure enough, I found one slab with MC 94 within a ellipse stamped on it. 94 for the year. C for Corporation. M for when Chennai was still called Madras.

Cheers. And have a happy new year.

P.S.: I couldn't think of a better title for this post. Sorry to rip it off so shamelessly from what is (was?) undoubtedly one of the best columns on Madras carried by the venerable 'The Hindu' newspaper.

P.P.S: Just got back from a 4 day trip (down memory lane) to Madras. I had 2 days of employer leave to be availed this calendar year, and I felt that spending it in Madras, catching up with old friends would be a nice way to end 2009 and ring in 2010. I drove down from 'Namma Bengaluru' on Wednesday (30 Dec). Fairly quick drive; left at about 7 am and reached Porur around noon. Guess it was lucky as well, considering the chaos that Bangalore was thrown into by the death of a local movie star. Again, return trip was fairly uneventful. Started around 11 AM from Madras, reached home by 4:30 PM. Did use the GQ NH4/NH46/NH7 route both ways.