Saturday, August 31, 2013

Back to 1991

The state of the Indian economy today is eerily reminiscent of the 1991 days. All the talk from the government, the RBI, India Inc and the common man make allusions to those dark days, when we had just $5 billion in forex reserves and had to run to the IMF while also pledging gold reserves to creditors. Those were the worst days of the Indian economy, an antithesis of the very reason for which we became independent - to create a prosperous nation that could stand high in the comity of nations.

Now, the current situation is not as severe. We are sitting on about $275 billion in reserves. However, our import bill and external debt have also grown significantly in keeping with the fast pace of growth since 1991. The import cover is only about seven months now, which might be better than the two weeks we had in 1991, but is not really that much. The problem is compounded by the additional items that we are forced to import despite being able to produce them domestically - among others, coal. Any danger to the balance to payments can now cripple the country in more ways than in 1991.

Another rumour making the rounds in Delhi is the conversion of domestically-held gold into bullion to butress the reserves. It is possible for India to sell gold to the IMF or enter into agreements with other countries for the same, because Internationally gold is treated as an asset as good as dollars (despite the end of the gold standard). However, this is considered the most desperate thing that any country could do because there is absolutely nothing that can be done after this. Understandably, the RBI is trying its best to drive home the idea that this is not an option, but doubts persist.

The real problem, of course, is the fact that infrastructure growth and policy-making have taken a massive beating during the UPA regime. The reforms set forth by PV Narsimha Rao and Vajpayee have all but reached their nadir. The very meaning of the term reforms has been mutated from empowering people to dishing out doles. The highly-flawed Food Security Bill and Land Acquisition Bill will lead to much darker days ahead. Now, ordinarily, a depreciating currency is not such a bad thing - China actively keeps its currency undervalued in order to make its exports more lucrative abroad. However, India lacks any infrastructure to export on the scale required to revive the economy and the UPA Government is to squarely blame for this. Thus, we cannot make use of the depreciating rupee.

In all of this, the political discourse has been saddening to say the least. Commerce Minister Anand Sharma attempted to turn the Constitution on its head by blaming the judiciary for all economic woes. What he forgets is that the judiciary is duty-bound by the Constitution to prevent the sort of lawlessness that has become the norm under the UPA. The courts have only enforced laws set forth by Parliament - it is the Government under whose watch these laws were broken and therein lay the real rot. As if this were not enough, PM Manmohan Singh's supposedly-macho intervention in Parliament was a cruel joke. Instead of answering specifically as to how his government intended to manage the economy, he went on a political tirade on the floor of the house, providing no specifics but going on and about about his magnanimous belief that everything would become alright on its own. The entire thing was a complete joke and the moment when he asserted that 'in no other country do MPs rush to the well of the house to shout 'PM Chor Hai'' was irony in itself. Perhaps they say so because he has been the head of Independent India's most corrupt government?

Clearly, the UPA's strategy is to hide its neck in the sand like an ostrich and blame everybody around it for its own failures. This will prove costly not just for the Congress but also the whole country, which is already reeling and angry. As the BJP rightly said to the President, the country needs a general election right now and this failed Government must go. 

The Free Food Syndrome

When I was preparing to come to UIUC for Grad School, I had read about the grad-magnet, the one thing that can attract grad students such as nothing else: free food. I was of course quite curious to know why and I think have found out. Food is a major issue for grad students, not because of the perpetual financial crunch they find themselves to be in, but because of the perpetual time crunch and indeed, lack of skill.

Cooking is certainly not easy to the uninitiated. It takes time, patience and a fair bit of planning. Just think of yourself trying to fry something, only to realize that you put in too little oil. By the time you find the oil, your food would have burned. Of course, practice makes perfect and you will eventually get it right, but practice is something that a grad student would rather spare for research than cooking. Moreover, there is only so much bad food that you can have.

Time is another problem. Since you spend so much time in the library or in your lab, going through the rigmarole of cooking everyday is not the happiest part of life. Odd hours, days and days spent in office can make cooking very challenging but that will not make hunger go away. And that is why free food really attracts a grad student so much - it's as cheap as it can get (it's free!) and generally fills you up without having to put in any effort beyond just reaching the site.

The problem is not that grad students are trying to save money, they are actually trying to save time and effort, which are needed in copious amount in other places. Undergrads generally look down upon such behaviour from grad students, but they should actually see the advantages of it. Most grad students come with a lot of experience in industry, research or otherwise. In senior year, when the big, bad world is looming, asking a grad student for advice can be one of the best things to do.

Of course, you could also talk to a professor and understand his experience from a few decades back when the world was so very different, but for more updated information, grad students are the better source. But why should a busy grad student spend time answering essentially silly questions? Well, if you can offer them lunch, they might just pay you back in more ways than you can imagine! 

Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Lost City

The keeper of the West is in the city of Dwarka, a city where myth and reality become intertwined. It is believed that this city has been drowned by the sea and rebuilt several times, with the current city being the seventh. Dwarka was the capital city of Krishna after he left Mathura with his Yadav clan and today lies in the state of Gujarat, overlooking the mighty Arabian Sea.

The term 'Dwarka' means gateway. This can be understood in two ways. The city was a major port and saw several cultures entering India through traders. Thus, it served as the gateway to this great land. Another interpretation is that it is 'Mokshpuri,' the gateway to salvation. According to this, it is the route to Brahma, the creator in the Hindu trinity. This is symbolically represented by the meeting of the river Gomti (not related to the tributary of the Ganga) with the Gulf of Kutch.

The Dham
The Dwarkadhish Temple serves as the third Dham of India. It is a seven-storeyed structure that rises dramatically from the coastline to a height of 43 m and concludes with a saffron flag. The temple is actually a complex with several temples related to Krishna and characters from the Mahabharat and Krishna's life, including Satyabhama and Rukmini. The current structure is estimated to have been built in the sixth century BC.

The Submergence
Legend goes that after Krishna left the earth to return to Vaikuntha as Vishnu, feuds broke out between his clan members, the Yadavs. Because of the violence, Arjuna, victor of the great war, came to take Krishna's grandsons and the womenfolk to safety in his capital Hastinapur. But as he left the city, the sea began to engulf it. Within moments, the entire city was submerged and nothing was left - it was almost as though nothing was there in the first place. Amazingly, modern archaeological studies have found ruins of a city under the sea very close to modern-day Dwarka.

The city has faced many attacks over the course of its history. Afghan invaders tried their best to destroy the temple but its keepers always revived it in some form or the other. Of course, it was not until Independence that the Government of India decided to reconstruct the temple to its past glory and has continued to do so. In an eerie replay of the past. the Pakistan Navy tried to destroy the temple during 1965 War of Bangladeshi Liberation but failed to do so.

Within the Dwarkadhesh Temple Complex, the little Dwarka Peeth was established by Adi Shankaracharya and it is the destination of pilgrims on the Char Dham Yatra.

Next: Gem in the Hills

Looking forward to Labor Day

This weekend in America is called the Labor Day weekend, which ends on Sept. 2 with Labor Day, a national holiday to commemorate the hardworking people of the country whose work has contributed to building a better nation. Unlike the connotations of the term 'labor' back in India, here, it refers to almost everyone who has to work for a living, from sanitation workers to teachers to possibly even politicians. The respect for labor, clearly borne out of the French Revolution, is refreshing here and everyone seems to consider their work important, although not everyone might be happy with it.

But above all else, the Labor Day weekend is essentially a shopping extravaganza that can only be rivaled by Thanksgiving. The television has been blaring advertisements with amazing deals from a cross-section of retailers - from the little County Market next door to large furniture markets. At first, it seems queer that a day to commemorate workers should be celebrated by a buying binge, but if you consider that it is essentially a consumerist society, then it all makes sense. What better way to celebrate workers than by supporting the businesses, both small and large, that employ them?

This concept is in stark contrast to the way I have seen May Day celebrations in India, where the emphasis seems to be on the supremacy of the laborer over the employer, not recognizing that they enjoy a symbiotic relationship. The painting of the employer as an evil force in India is highly counterproductive because without an employer, there is no labor, no economy and no prosperity. In contrast, I am highly impressed by the way Labor Day is used to celebrate the employer here.

Of course, as a student yet to even receive his first stipend, money is always tight. I won't really able to buy more than some necessary vegetables and such on Labor Day. But all the same, this form of celebration has greatly impressed me.   

A Dangerous Move

If media reports are to be believed, US President Barack Obama is preparing to launch an undefined 'limited strike' on Syria after presumably credible allegations that the regime there has used chemical weapons in the ongoing Syrian Civil War - or that the opposition, mostly made up of foreign mercenaries, has done so. Across the pond in Britain, Parliament narrowly rejected the call for a limited intervention, meaning that if the US does indeed go ahead with its plans, it would not have a 'coalition of the willing' with it as was the case in Iraq.

However, military strikes in Syria would be a grave mistake. The Syrian Civil War has already claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and this has been through covert foreign military aid to the opposition forces through a secret base in Turkey. Had it not been for this, the war would have ended by now in either way. The problem is that the West, or in this case just America, is seeking to overthrow Assad in hope of weakening Iran and bolstering Israel, which has become increasingly insecure after the Arab Spring played out in Egypt. Thus, they have not allowed the war to come to an end until they see regime change.

According to The New York Times, Obama is not seeking regime change but merely wishes to enforce International obligations against the use of chemical weapons. Now, there are two problems here. Firstly, he has already chosen which side he wants to throw the rule book at while it is still unclear as to who exactly used chemical weapons. This is quite akin to George Bush's disastrous invasion of Iraq before the UN could actually find any WMDs. Secondly, it would be a mortal blow to the entire concept of International commitments if the intervention took place without UNSC approval. Countries would hitherto refrain from ever committing themselves to anything again for fear that they are asking for intervention in the future.

That said, it is important to realize that the use of chemical weapons fundamentally changes the nature of the Syrian Civil War and brings to fore a need from all powers to enforce what is a major pillar of war rules in International law. If the ban on chemical weapons does not hold out, it will take the whole world back significantly and pose a grave risk to people across the globe. Russia and China, which have been blocking all resolutions against Syria at the UNSC, must realize that this event brings an established International order into question.

The Syrian situation is becoming dangerous. An American strike, however limited, would dramatically scale it up and destabilize the entire region. Obama must realize that the days when the US could invade and attack with impunity are over - neither the world nor America itself is prepared for the consequences. 

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Only Sridevi Can Do It

ENGLISH VINGLISH (2012)

Produced by: Eros Entertainment
Director: Anurag Basu
Starring: Sridevi, Adil Hussain, Mehdi Nebbou, Priya Anand and others
Pros: Good story albeit with some flaws, good acting
Cons: Lackluster music, poor cinematography
Rating: *** of 5 (3 of 5)

A blast from the past can work wonders for any movie, inducing a sense of nostalgia in the audience. If the movie has a good story, it just makes it better. English Vinglish had the potential to achieve such a winning combination but somewhere down the line, it peters out.

After several years into retirement, the queen of the good old days, Sridevi, returns to the silver screen as a simple housewife looking for some love and respect. This is reminiscent of Mitr: My Friend and indeed, there are similarities between the two. However, the problem with English Vinglish is its treatment of the characters, who are painted as black or white with no depth - with the surprising exception of Mehdi Nebbou, playing a Frenchman.

Story and loopholes aside, the movie sees some excellent acting, with all the characters expressing a full range of emotions. While Sridevi does dazzle with her seasoned performance, Mehdi Nebbou does surprisingly well, taking advantage of the gray shades in the character he portrays in an otherwise monochromatic plot. Sadly, that is not enough to redeem the movie, as the music simply fails to entice any interest - it is child-like and the lyrics lack nuance. Add to that the poor cinematography, where the camera stuck to the most boring lanes in America instead of taking advantage of the wonderful views possible, and this movie becomes a good idea gone bad. Again, a lot like Mitr!

Watch it for the nostalgia of seeing Sridevi again, but don't spend too much on the ticket or DVD. (OTFS)

Listening, Aren't You?

AASHIQUI 2 (2013)

Produced by: Vishesh Films
Director: Mohit Suri
Starring: Aditya Roy Kapoor, Shraddha Kapoor, Shaad Randhawa, Salil Acharya and others
Pros: Excellent music, decent acting
Cons: Half-baked story, redundant characters
Rating: **** of 5 (4 of 5)

Sometimes, it's OK to sit back and relax and not worry about the story. This might seem counter-intuitive to someone looking to review a movie but Aashiqui 2 is a movie that you do simply fall in love with as you go along. Let me say that at the very outset, it had a terrible story deserving the highest criticism. It was illogical and full of loopholes, with an abrupt ending to boot.

But perhaps this movie was never supposed to be about the story. Music forms an integral part of Bollywood movies, but in this case, the movie forms an integral part of the music. From Sunn Raha Hai Na Tu to the critically acclaimed Tum Hi Ho, it is the music that defines this movie - the story was just incidental. That said, the acting was not too bad, though it could have been better. Aditya Roy Kapoor puts in a good show as a has-been rock star, while Shraddha Kapoor does fairly well as the devoted lover. It's all very cliched really, but they did play they roles as best as they could.

One problem I found in the movie was the series of redundant characters who had no no real role. From RJ's manager to Shirke's colleagues, all of them were just dressing the screen and adding to the confusion. This was a major flaw that not even good music can hide. Still, for those who like simple stories, this one will not disappoint. And whether you love music in general or not, Aashiqui 2's music will bind you. Highly recommended. (OTFS)

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Will Raman Singh do it Again?

Elections are due in Chhattisgarh in a few weeks and the stage is set for a clash between the Congress and the BJP in this young state. While the BJP faces an anti-incumbency with two terms already behind it, it might not add up to much for want of a credible alternative.

The Chhattisgarh Congress is in a shambles, which is quite surprising for a region that used to be its bastion before the partition of Madhya Pradesh. But perhaps that is to be expected - the memories of Digvijay Singh's two terms as Chief Minister still haunt people in every hamlet. The truth is that the Congress here has a badly eroded base and no organization to capitalize on.

Yet, the picture is not black and white. As The Hindu analyzed, in the last elections in the state, the two parties had nearly the same vote shares, although the BJP was able to convert it more efficiently. However, as anyone familiar with the first past the post system knows all too well, a little swing here or there could effectively wipe the BJP out and bring the Congress to power with a thumping majority. Indeed, if the analysis quoted earlier is to be believed, there is a strong anti-incumbency against BJP MLAs and lower elected administrators and day to day corruption is turning into the government's Achilles Heel.

But the dark horse remains Chief Minister Raman Singh - certainly, he remains an immensely popular leader. True, he has used populism to bring him votes, but he has also focused on infrastructure generation, power reforms and a clamp down on wholesale corruption particularly in the PDS. Today, the state vies with Tamil Nadu for the honour of the best PDS in the country. His popularity can only be matched by the Congress' Ajit Jogi, but the difference is that the entire state BJP is behind the Chief Minister while there is a strong faction working actively against Jogi.

And it is this difference that could possibly be the deciding factor for mandate 2013. 

The Bridges of Rameswaram

Continuing in our journey clockwise, we reach the Dham in South India - Rameswaram. For many Hindus, this site has a special significance because it is here where Lord Rama began the construction of his floating bridge of boulders all the way to Lanka to rescue Sita. Located in the island of Pamban in the Gulf of Mannar, it is connected to the Indian mainland by the Pamban Bridge.

The Dham
The Ramanathaswamy Temple in the town is one of the four Dhams that make up the Char Dham quadrilateral. However, despite the Vaishnavite legend behind the town, the temple is dedicated to Shiva. It contains a jyotirlinga ('Pillar of Light') which represents Shiva. The temple has gone through many restorations, but its current form was established by the Pandya Dynasty in the 12th Century. It received further contributions from other dynasties in Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka.

As part of the yatra, it is customary to bathe in one of the many water baths in Rameswaram. Most of the baths are in the form of tanks or wells and it is the ones inside the temple that are the most important. Most of the tanks or Theerthams are named after a character from the Ramayana, signifying the mythological significance of the area. For example, the Jatayu Theertham is where the Vulture King Jatayu supposedly fell after trying to rescue Sita from Ravana

Links
The Ramanathaswamy Temple is an integral component of the Char Dham Yatra, but it is also linked to Varanasi, considered Hinduism's holiest city because it is situated on the sangam of the Ganga, the Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati. It is said that a pilgrimage to Varanasi must be accompanied by one to Rameswaram for it to be considered complete.

During the period when the Maratha Kings rules the area, several rest houses were established for pilgrims. These continue to be in use today.

Next: The Lost City of the West

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Starting in Champaign

It's been a week today since I came to Champaign and started a new phase of life, one coming after a momentous time at IITR. The wonderful thing about new phases is that they offer a chance to make amends with the benefit of hindsight. Not that I regret a lot of things at Roorkee, but there were certainly mistakes that would require amends. Then again, there are many things that have proved useful too.

The paperwork at UIUC, maybe all of America, is tremendous. You have to fill out loads and loads of forms by hand, which somebody will then take and type in and then print out and ask you to sign. Depending on what you are doing, you may be required to mail the form to some government office or the other - interestingly, they are not all in Washington, DC. That is basically all I was doing for the first week - registering for something or the other. Department registration, Health Center screening, Fellowship Office registration, Payroll procedures, International Student registration... you name it and there was a registration procedure associated with it! However, while Roorkee did not have as many windows, things were more organized here. You could get things done quite easily at every office, but there were a lot of offices to go to; in comparison, in Roorkee, there were few offices to visit but everything was extremely slow. In either case, patience is the key and I learned plenty of it from Roorkee.

My acquired art of dealing with bureaucracy through brute patience, persistence and a perpetual availability of all required documents has been the key here at UIUC. But that was not really needed elsewhere - opening an account at Chase was smooth as butter and now that I have my Debit Card, I can safely forget about carrying change to every store a la Germany! However, transit has been an issue here because the bus network is extremely confusing to use - again, the skill of walking long distances has proved invaluable, although it does require using Google Maps more often.

Cooking has been the third and most important skill that has come handy - it can really save you a lot of money and lets you enjoy the flavours you like, instead of trying to adjust to American flavours. Incidentally, I have only enjoyed American pizzas, mainly because you get the same thing in India (though a little spicier). But with whatever limited skills I acquired in Munich, I can cook things ranging from Rajma to Alu Gobi to Macaroni - a pretty lavish spread for a single, pampered Indian male! I do hope to experiment a little further as time goes on, but it's pretty good for now.

I can identify two new things though. One, the attempt to live a more active lifestyle. I have tried my best to go out and roam the city as much as possible and jog in the two wonderful parks along Second St. I won't say I've achieved a great deal of success, but it is certainly a start. When I started jogging, I could barely go a few meters without my feet aching - now I can do a few hundred meters without much trouble. Small improvement, but improvement nonetheless. It will be a lot harder once classes start and work begins to pile up, but I hope to be able to keep this going in any case. It is a priority.

Two, the rejection of the Working Model that I had envisioned. I have tried my best, despite significant pressure on my patience, to be as appealing as possible, to be nice to everyone around me and to speak as little as possible, knowing that I generally have nothing much to say. Sadly, I have this feeling that this is not going to last too long and I can already feel a regression back to the stance of strategic interdependence, which I had wanted to avoid. But maybe I was wrong and this is something that cannot really be avoided. Only time will tell.

Well, the first week in Champaign was a pleasant experience, full of registrations, orientations, parties and even a little free food. I think half my tweets this week (@sen_sushobhan) have been based on how much free food appeals to a grad student - more on that later! 

Back to the Dark Days

This week, the four college students who mercilessly beat and murdered a junior student Aman Kachroo in a medical college in Himachal Pradesh were released nine months ahead of their term of four years for good behaviour. If the media is to be believed, they would be able to resume their studies albeit with some conditions.

While there is the usual urge to condemn their release, bringing metaphors of vengeance, it is a fact that jail is meant to reform and not just punish; and good behaviour is an accepted reason for early release. Thankfully, Aman's Father has not objected to the move. However bad their actions might have been, the boys do deserve another chance.

But the real question is - where have we come from those days, when brutal hooliganism was an acceptable social behaviour? On the heels of the ghastly murder, OTFS conducted a two-year documentary on ragging. But what is its status today? Certainly, after the Supreme Court's landmark decision, a sense of fear has been instilled, which has possibly saved many lives from being permanently brutalized. But has the attitude towards ragging changed?

Sadly, no. At least, not significantly enough. The idea of power, of control over a younger, confused human being still stands as a powerful talisman, a rite of passage into the world of adulthood, where one goes from being a mollycoddled boy to a powerful man, powerful enough to determine the fate (literally) of another human being. Aman Kachroo's death has saved many, but it has not created any lasting change. That is perhaps the eternal tragedy of the many like me, who refuse to believe that power and respect are a right that do not need to be earned.

We are all Aman Kachroo. We all remember him. We all cry at what has become. 

Independence Day Lecture: On Indian States

From a historical perspective, the Indian subcontinent is much older than the Indian Nation-State. This large area of land, guarded on the north by the great Himalayas and in the south by the Indian ocean, has been geographically isolated but culturally open. With a part of the Silk Route passing through it and as the flourishing center of trade with empires in the West, it has seen several cultures coming together. This has had a paradoxical effect: in India, cultures tend to mix and tend towards homogeneity, but there are still a large number of heterogeneous cultures that live here.

Before the Nation-State, there were the princely states: the Mauryan Empire, the Mughal Empire, the British Empire, the Chola Empire... it was a constant battle for land and administration. None of these empires had fixed borders for long, but each left its mark on the people of the area. That has been the mode by which Indian culture expanded and mutated even beyond its natural borders, to places as far and diverse as Indonesia and Rome. In a strict sense, the Indian Nation-State appeared not as a consequence of religious considerations or the free market, as had happened in Europe, but as a historical reaction to colonialism.

The Modern State
However, post-Independence, the Indian Nation-State became a reality that had to be balanced with its utter lack of historical precedent. How would it be possible for the hill-dwellers in the North and the fishermen of the South to consider themselves to be a part of one entity, without even a King or at least a figurative head to unite them? If the people were to be sovereign, what prevented them from taking it to a logical conclusion and seeking sovereignty in pockets of homogeneity?

The Indian states came as a reaction to these opposing forces - the desire to remain united within the Nation-State and the desire to create 'homelands' out of pockets of homogeneity. That is why India is not a federation in the strictest sense of the term - a federation is a Nation-State created by the Union of several constituent states, which existed before the Nation-State. In India's case, the states appeared as a result of the creation of the Nation-State and there was not really a grand union as those in Germany or the United States.

What then, is the purpose of Indian states? To merely act as a compromise between two contradictory forces? Or is there something deeper? Let us consider the case of an India without states, as a single, unitary entity. First and foremost, the entity would be very difficult to administer - the seventh largest in the world by area, the second by population, it would have an administrative apparatus that would trip over itself. No, India cannot be administered from Delhi. As an administrative requirement, the Indian state is a necessity.

A Matter of Identity
But it would be foolish to assume that administration was the reason behind Indian states. If anything, it is probably a pleasant coincidence - even if states made administration harder, they would continue to exist and that is because of the very contradiction in the Indian Nation-State - identity. Who is Indian? Who is not? What makes a Gorkha in Darjeeling an Indian and a Gorkha in Kathmandu a Nepali? What makes a Naga an Indian in one geography and Burmese in another?

The Indian state serves the larger purpose of giving such diverse identities a place within the larger Republic, a space where different identities can stay safe, yet remain open to winds from outside; much like the Indian subcontinent itself. Whereas the latter uses natural borders, the former relies on man-made ones. But both serve one and the same purpose - as spaces for identities.

Is it 'bad' then, to have such homelands for multiple identities? One school of thought believes that anything that subverts an Indian identity, a single, homogeneous identity, is 'bad' for the nation. Another believes that by the very way in which the Nation-State was created, such identities are a part of the entire system and are therefore not 'bad' at all. But which of the two is right? Although it is a matter of debate, history has shown us that multiple identities can and do exist within the Indian identity. Someone can recognize himself as Marathi and Indian at the same time, while his neighbour could be Sindhi and Indian at the same time - there is no inherent contradiction at all.

Upside Down
In a way, the Indian Nation-State needs its states more than the latter needs the former. States do have some historical bases, being based on linguistic lines. Language, as has been said before, is not just a means of communication but a form of identity. Therefore, the identity of an Indian state is very real and has solid historical rationale. The Indian Nation-State's identity however, enjoys no such backing.

Therefore, what is India? Is it a country with states? Or is it a Union of States? India is not a true federation, because the Union comes before the states and while the latter can be changed, the former cannot, at least not on paper. And yet, India is a federation because it cannot exist without its states. Indeed, this contradiction seems insurmountable until one realizes that there is nothing truly Indian at all - because everything is Indian!

This post was written from The United States of America. Wishing all Indians across the world a wonderful Independence Day from Opinions 24x7.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Murder of the Constitution

The shocking murder of Dr. Narendra Dabholkar, the nation's leading rationalist fighting to eliminate superstitions and inculcate a scientific temper in the people of India, is not just a sad day for rational thinkers but for all those who believe in the idea of a free, modern India. This is not just a failure of the Maharashtra Government but of all generations of Indians since Independence, who have conveniently ignored their duties as enshrined in the Constitution while abusing the freedoms guaranteed by it.

The Fundamental Duties in the Constitution of India outline the need to inculcate a scientific temper among Indians. The Constituent Assembly rightly felt that Indians as a whole are mostly illiterate and fall prey to superstitions very easily; thus, they codified the idea of a scientific temper to remind generations hence of the need to change things for the better. These superstitions have a devastating impact on society - women are treated as mere objects with no right to their own thoughts; families spend their entire life savings on pointless rituals; tons of food is wasted each year in a country where millions of children go hungry everyday. The aim of our society, our nationhood, is to fight these superstitions and work towards wiping every tear from every eye, to paraphrase our first Prime Minister.

The murder of Dr. Dabholkar is an attack on the principles that lay at the very foundation of the country. It is a failure of the Government, which has often used religion and superstition to take advantage of poor, uneducated people. It is not uncommon for governments to sponsor poojas and havans when they do not have any credible action plan in an emergency, such as a drought. It is also a failure of citizens to make use of their education - what is the point of studying science if people are not going to develop a scientific temper? What is the point of being free and democratic if we are still locked down by false beliefs and even outright lies?

It is a sad day for India - our constitutional values have been attacked and slaughtered. Daughters will continue to be raped; the poor will continue to go hungry; children and women will be exploited and abused by charlatans and all we can do is watch. Shame on us, as a nation. 

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Time to Move On

Ah, what a wonderful three months of doing nothing! This has been the longest break I've had since clearing JEE and quite rightly, it precedes another momentous occasion. The bags are precariously packed  to just within the limit; the documents are all ready for administrative processing. All that's left is to drive down to the airport.

Four years ago, going to IT Roorkee Saharanpur Campus was a big decision - and it was not entirely mine either. I have no idea how I would come out of it. Seeing as though I had the worst JEE rank in my class of Polymer Science, I felt that I would do badly and remain a mediocre student there. Fate had it that I ended with the Institute Medal in Civil Engineering! This time however, it's quite the opposite - the decision to go is entirely mine and was taken after much opposition at home, and with a Fellowship, I am probably one of the very best students to come into the Transportation Engineering program. So, if it's been so different so far, how will the future pan out?

I've already done a What-If analysis and it isn't all that bleak. But the dreams I have chosen to execute are big. I thought ITC would have been the easy way out but as my friend told me, there is struggle there too. So, if there is struggle everywhere at this stage in life, might as well struggle for something you really want! If it goes well, I could return as Dr. Sushobhan Sen. If not... well, at least I can be proud that I tried to take the path less trodden.

Next post from the United States of America! 

Monday, August 12, 2013

East: Jagannath Puri

The Char Dham yatra begins in the East, in the town of Puri in modern Odhisha. The word 'Puri' means 'town' and Jagannath is one of the many names of Vishnu (specifically the Krishna avatar), the second member of the Hindu Trinity. The word literally means 'keeper of the world,' and is the etymological source of the English word juggernaut.

The temple town has a number of temples, the main one (after which the two is named) being dedicated to Krishna and others to Gods and Goddesses including Radha, Krishna's love whom he could never marry. The town also has the Govardhan Math, which was established by Adi Shankaracharya as part of his Char Dhams. The place also has several other Maths, some of which are known to be holy towards the end of one's life.

Now, it is said that each of the four maths represents one of the Vedas. These ancient texts are not religious in nature, rather, they try to rationalize the universe through science and spirituality. But despite the lack of overt religion, they do form the basis for Hinduism. The math in Puri is said to represent the Rig Veda, the first of the Vedas.

Legend
It is said in Odiya folklore that there was once a tribal leader named Vishwavasu, who worshipped Jagannath in a cave. A king grew curious to see the Lord and sent a Brahmin aide. Try as he might, the Brahmin was unable to find the cave. Desperate, he married the tribal leader's daughter as a sort of bargaining chip. Now, as son-in-law, the Brahmin could not be denied access to the cave, but the wily tribal leader decided to take him there blindfolded so that he could not retrace his steps.

But the Brahmin knew better and he dispersed mustard seeds along the way, which grew into little plants in a few days. A path marked out, the Brahmin invited his King to see the Lord in the cave. But alas, the Lord was not there! He has buried himself in the sand. Disappointed, the King decided to perform penance on top of a hill until he could see lord Jagannath.

One day, he heard a divine voice say 'It shall be done' (तथास्तु ). He then built a temple on the hill and brought idols there to worship. Sure enough, he saw the Lord in his dreams and fulfilled his dream. The modern temple lies at the site of that ancient temple.

The Rath Yatra
Every year, the presiding deities of the Jagannath Puri temple are taken out on a sojourn on a chariot, called a Rath Yatra, giving all devotees a chance to see them. This is usually in July and is attended my millions of Hindus and many non-Hindus as well. The procession actually consists of several events and stretches on over twelve days, each with its own significance. During the Yatra as well as the rest of the year, hundreds of cooks participate in making the offerings (महाप्रसाद) to the Lord, a subject of many documentaries.

Next: The Elegance of the South

Sunday, August 11, 2013

TOI's Clandestine War on Modi?

It is virtually official now that The Times of India is at war with Narendra Modi and will use every trick in the book to bring him bad publicity. While this was strongly suspected, a recent article confirms it. According to it, a privately-owned mall in Ahmedabad has decided to charge Rs. 20 to any Muslim using its parking facility, ostensibly because of some tensions between rival groups in the area. Now, local media outlets that investigated the issue found no such thing happening. The national dailies barring TOI did not report the incident at all. Yet, TOI had a very special article on it.

The article stated that 'In NaMo's Gujarat... [Muslims are charged Rs. 20 to enter a mall].' Can there be any more obvious insinuation? Since when was it 'NaMo's Gujarat'? How is the Gujarat Government, much less the Chief Minister himself, responsible for what a private mall is doing? Not that the news is true and not that even if it were true, it was OK to charge someone for his religion, but in any case the Government had nothing to do with it. Gujarat's model under NaMo has been to empower people so that they do not need to be beholden to the Government for every little thing. If someone would have complained to the police about it, then the Government would have been observed for its response; but there was no complaint (which probably means that it was untrue). Does TOI expect the Gujarat Government, nay the CM himself, to keep a tab on each and every commercial, private area in the state?

If TOI's logic were to be used, then the Maharashtra CM should have been held personally responsible for the now infamous Aditi Restaurant bill, which criticized the UPA's corruption and tax policies.

This is not the first time TOI has done this - there have been a series of covert articles focusing on NaMo and unfairly blaming him for everything. It is sometimes as explicit as this one and sometimes covert, fine... a sort of subtle hint as to where the editorial preferences of the newspaper lie. You might think this is OK for a newspaper but it is not - criticize him all you want in the editorial pages (which TOI mostly devotes to pointless debates and columns by and about the rich and famous) but readers do have a right to balance and fair journalism in the news articles. Given that TOI has openly stated that it would allow anybody to pay to receive a certain kind of news stance, it says a lot of what the BJP's rivals are doing to defeat NaMo.

The 'Rambo' incident was perhaps the biggest example of TOI's covert war on NaMo, quoting an unknown source to state an impossible number that no one could every corroborate and that no other media outlet or even the BJP for that matter ever reported. If this is not filthy "journalism", what is? 

Friday, August 9, 2013

Origins: Adi Shankaracharya

The Char Dhams are the four holy seats of Hinduism that are considered the four corners of a holy pilgrimage circuit. Three of them - Badrinath, Dwarka and Jagannath Puri - are Vaishnavite sites and the fourth - Rameshwaram - is a Shaivite site. Yet despite these differences, the dhams constitute pilgrimage locations for all sects of Hinduism.

The origins of the Char Dhams are shrouded in mystery and legend. But we do know that they were established by Hindu philosopher Adi Shankaracharya, who established the philosophical advaita school of Hinduism and founded mathas all over the country - places of religious and philosophical teaching. The four dhams constitute the four most important mathas. Their geographical spread indicates that the acharya clearly wanted to unite Hindus across the subcontinent.

In the ninth century AD, Adi Shankar, who was born in a Brahmin family in Kaladi in modern-day Kerala, traveled across the subcontinent, looking to revive Hindu philosophy among the masses, who had forgotten the teachings of simplicity and discipline that Hinduism espoused. He became a sanyasi and devoted his life to learning and teaching Hindu philosophy from a very young age. His desire to unite Hindus of Bharat led to the establishment of the Char Dhams.

Since the pilgrimage involves circumabulating the parts of India that remained mostly Hindu at the time (other arts such as Sindh, Punjab and Bengal has been strongly influenced by Islam and to a lesser extent Buddhism by them), it is often referred to as the Mahaparikrama (Great Circum-ambulation). Adi Shankaracharya believed that the study of Hinduism involved an understanding of the various texts such as the Upanishads and that the knowledge of these texts was scattered across India. Therefore, to fully grasp them, it was necessary to travel around India. Thus, the location of the Dhams.

Next: Jagannath Puri

Going Blind

Another Indo-Pak fight on the Line of Control (LoC), another expression of indignation, another suspended dialogue and we are on the same road (down). With the way things have been working since 26/11 and even before that with Kargil, one really wonders why the India-Pak relationship just cannot stabilize. Of the many reasons, one troubling reality I find is the refusal of either side but specifically the Indian side to accept the truth that is not reported on the shrill, electronic media that sets the agenda.

For the Indian media, the latest incident on the de facto border could be many things - the Pakistani army trying to break down the 'peace process'; the Pakistani army trying to send a warning to Nawaz Sharif to go slow; the Pakistani army trying to establish its supremacy; the Pakistani army having fun at India's style of (not) reacting... the list is endless. But one item that almost never comes up is - the Pakistani army looking for revenge. Revenge, you say? But that would imply the Indian Army gave them a reason to want revenge, right?

Praveen Swami, who now works with Network 18 and used to work with The Hindu before that, has been bringing out a series of articles on the tit-for-tat tactics adopted by both armies on the LoC. For over a year now, one incident has led to another and both have been undertaking covert operations against each other, including beheading each others soldiers. Now, it is possible that Swami has gotten his facts wrong or that his sources are feeding him bull. But it is equally possible that he is right. If so, this is a typical example of what Gandhiji said - an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.

The media however, refuses to even report this argument. For them, anyone who says anything against the Indian Army is a traitor. True, they are working very hard to defend our borders but that does not mean we should bury our heads in sand and refuse to analyze why such incidents keep coming up. The Indian Army's means might not be as saintly as their aim (protecting India) - if Swami is to be believed, that is the case here. We need to talk about this, to understand what is happening here. The media does not help here and refuses to listen to any constructive criticism.

On Talks
What about the talks that keep being turned on and off every now and then? Both sides seem to accept that the Composite Dialogue is off its peak and is not really going anywhere on any issue. At the same time, back channel talks between the special representatives of both sides has hitherto managed to achieve the most, although the political leadership was unable to implement anything.

In the current situation, it would be prudent to call off all political dialogue - the time is just not right, there can be no big bang announcements and the public glare would make it impossible for either side to conclude anything. Instead, both back channel talks and Track-II Dialogue should be encouraged because they alone can achieve something, however small, away from the shrill noise and glare of the media.

The way the media has been behaving since the incident seriously undermines everything between both sides. Instead of critically analyzing all sides, they decide the editorial lines first and then ignore anything that comes in their way. A tweet put it appropriately:

Indian media makes their Pakistani counterparts look like paragons of responsible journalism.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

New Documentary: The Four Dhams of India

The Uttarakhand floods brought before the International media the Char Dham Yatra of Uttarakhand, a Hindu pilgrimage encompassing Gangotri, Yamunotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath and welcoming Hindus of all sects, as well as non-Hindus. However, while this has become the most popular Hindu pilgrimage, it is actually a much smaller version of the original Char Dham Yatra.

The original Four Dhams - Dwarka, Jagannath Puri, Rameshwaram and Badrinath - remain the holiest sites of advaita Hinduism. In this documentary series, The Four Dhams of India, we understand the origins of these four sites and look at what makes each of them unique.

भारत के चार धाम - The Four Dhams of India:
Dwarka : Jagannath Puri : Rameshwaram : Badrinath
Coming up on Opinions 24x7

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

What If...?

Ah, that question. Of late, it has been coming to my mind a lot - and in a myriad of avatars. 'What if?' is such a powerful question that it can do everything from making you overturn a decision to dying of a heart attack. However, as a matter of introspection and as a tool for planning for the future, the question is quite handy. Which is why I made good use of it to answer some questions for myself:

(a) What if the tide turns against me, as it did four years ago, and I am unable to get through my first year of MS?
This is the first of many bad situations and is actually not-so-bad. I would still have a valid GATE score after the matter ends; true, a lot of money would have gone down the train because of the (successful) admission process, but I would still have age on my side. I would of course be very disappointed with myself and would seriously question the bases on which I dropped ITC and chose to go to Illinois. A lot of work would have to be done philosophically too; perhaps dreams are meant to be just that - dreams; perhaps money is everything. But I would be able to come back and find some job, low-paying as it may be. It won't be in engineering and would depend more on my literary skills and such jobs are always poor paying. I could save enough and do an MBA from FMS in the future though. Since everything is to be re-evaluated, even an MBA would come back to the table (it went off three years ago).

(b) What if I scrape through the first year but not the second for various reasons (no funding, low GPA etc.)?
This is the worse situation - I would still have a valid GATE score but a full, blank year on my resume. I might be able to do M.Tech from somewhere (not an IIT/IISc), but I would mostly try for a non-core job, like the previous case. In short, cases (a) and (b) would suggest that I am just not cut out for (Civil) Engineering and should try my luck elsewhere. I do hope that it will never have to come to that, but then, we're trying to be practical here.

(c) What if I managed to get an MS but nobody wants to take me for a PhD - or if I don't want to do a PhD anymore?
This is a tricky situation. I would have an MS degree and that, coupled with a B.Tech from IIT Roorkee, would make me quite eligible for an entry-level job at least, and the pay would rise. I would not have been rejected in the field of Civil Engineering, but just told that research is not really for me. If nobody wants me then it would be an embarrassment but I could turn it into a learning experience. If I choose to opt out, it would be an awkward situation, since I received my initial funding assuming that I would do a PhD (which is indeed what I currently intend to do; this is all just hypothetical), but if I'm not ready for a PhD, then that's it.

(d) What if I have some non-academic issues and have to return to India?
I could develop some dangerous disease (I'm not too far from one anyway) or something at home could force me to leave. I would be disappointed either with myself or with my circumstances or both and would certainly be angry. But life would have to go on somehow. I might or might not stay in engineering; quite frankly, if fate was to pull me out, I would start depending on fate to find me something else to do too.

(e) What if I can't get a job and don't have a valid GATE score anymore? 
A common question that I find is usually answered by a timeline extension that shows that you eventually do find a job. In that period, I suppose I would have to write a ton of exams, find some work. I might do an MBA in that case, but that would only be a desperate move. It would be a difficult phase that would require a lot of time, sweat and travel, not to mention some money too. But I suppose it will be the least difficult of all the cases, because it is a part of life and there are many precedents to follow.

(f) What if I do everything but have a low GPA/few or no good papers?
Well then, I would have been a mediocre student/researched. Which is not a very bad thing, I should think. As I read in a lot of places, you do not need to be brilliant to do a PhD, you do have to be hardworking. Therefore, I don't think I should take this as a big problem. My undergrad stint made me used to seeing only A's and A+'s on my gradesheet, but that should not be taken for granted. If my GPA is low, then I have to live with it - either work to get it higher or gather enough job experience to make sure it does't matter. I might get a bad job initially (maybe a lecturer in a private college) but it would be what I deserved. And if I want to get a better one, I'd have to deserve it.

These are questions that have been bothering me. There are more, but these are the biggest. Now that I have chose UIUC as the next step in life after IIT Roorkee (and having dropped ITC in the process), I will have to live with the risks in this option. Grad School was certainly not an easy option to make, but I know that it was the right one. For now. 

Mr. Rajan's Plate

The government today announced that current Chief Economic Adviser to the Ministry of Finance, Prof. Raghuram Rajan, will succeed incumbent D. Subbarao as Governor of the Reserve Bank of India in September, a position held by several eminent people, including the current Prime Minister. He joins at a very difficult time for the Indian economy, when almost all indicators show a clear decline in economic activity and a deteriorating standard of living across the country.

Rajan is quite qualified to head the RBI, of course. He did his bachelors in Electrical Engineering from IIT Delhi and followed it up with an MBA from IIM-A. He then went on to do his PhD from MIT and has then served with the IMF, the US Federal Reserve and other institutions apart from teaching at the University of Chicago. One of the few people in the MoF to be a relative outsider to the bureaucracy, he is well-known among economic circles for his knowledge of modern banking and capitalism. As a product of India's, maybe even the world's, most elite education system, his credentials are top notch. Which is precisely why he might just be the best man to head the RBI at this time.

The challenges he faces are humongous. Perhaps the first and most important challenge will be to tackle consumer inflation, which has persistently remained high despite the tough measures taken by the RBI so far. The Rupee is another matter of grave concern, with the currency being the worst-hit in Asia. The RBI faces a difficult situation on this front because it did not depreciate the Rupee when it saw record highs last year by accumulating dollars and therefore, lacks ammunition right now. Creative methods will have to be employed to stabilize, if not strengthen, the currency. In addition, the slow pace of growth and burgeoning deficit will be a major concern as the government will be forced to look to the RBI for help in meeting the deficit. India's economy is affected by the external environment more than ever before and conventional monetary policy does not seem to be working anymore. In such a situation, his background with the IMF and expertise in International finance will be invaluable.

All this will certainly require a strong and bright leader at the top and Rajan has shown himself to be capable. However, the truth is that there is only so much that monetary policy can do in the absence of an unstable fiscal policy and an investment climate that locks in private money. At best, the RBI can manage the steady decline of the Indian economy that the UPA-II has put us in, particularly when President Pranab Mukherjee was the Finance Minister. We wish Prof. Rajan good luck for what promises to be the assignment of a lifetime. We also commend him for giving up the chance to live abroad and serve richer governments and choosing to work with his own country's oft-derided system - a true son of the nation. 

Good Intentions, Poor Results

JOLLY LLB (2013)

Produced By: Fox Star Productions
Director: Subhash Kapoor
Starring: Arshad Warsi, Boman Irani, Amrita Rao, Saurabh Shukla and others
Pros: Smart comedy, decent storyline
Cons: Boring music, bad ending
Rating: ** of 5 (2 of 5)

In India, when a child is born, a pendulum is said to swing n one direction - either engineering or medicine. And that is how the child will live forever. But sometimes, some children choose to rebel against the holy system and some of them go on to become lawyers. Jagdish Tyagi aka Jolly, LLB (Arshad Warsi) was one of them. Like all young lawyers, especially from small towns, he too wanted to become a star. But when he got his chance, it turned out not to be what he had hoped for.

This simple, classic storyline of the underdog is what is most appealing in this comic tale. It is believable and potentially entertaining. Potentially. The comedy is pretty good too, peppered here and there in a sea of preachy lines about integrity and ethics. But if only good jokes could save a movie. Unfortunately, Jolly LLB fails to leave an impression. Despite its good start, it is the final set of scenes that really ruins it all - with a hitherto pliant judge suddenly dawning the knight-in-shining-armor mantle and a host of unlikely events playing way for an ending that anyone with common sense can say is virtually impossible.

Now, some would say that movies need not be realistic as long as they entertain. To them I say - if you can be entertained by the impossible, you can be entertained by anything and really do not need to judge any movie. It's like saying that food need not taste good, it's just needed for sustenance! But alright, even if I cam being too demanding here, the music could have been interesting at least. It was not - just listening to it made me ever so restless!

Overall, Jolly LLB was a good attempt to use an old story to deliver an old message in a new way. Sadly, it could not fulfill the intent. (OTFS)

Loot in the name of Secularism

The recent events in Uttar Pradesh around suspended IAS officer Durga Shakti Nagpal once again demonstrate that the Congress and SP are all set to bring in a communal agenda in the 2014 general elections to win seats on the basis of fear and paranoia among hapless Muslims. The reason the SP has consistently put forward for her suspension was that she ordered the demolition of the boundary wall of a mosque that was illegally put up, as per directions of the Supreme Court of India. Supposedly, her actions could have led to communal tensions.

On the other hand, the media alleges that she was hounded out for taking on the powerful sand mining mafia, from which the SP supposedly gets a lot of money. The Congress has chosen to latch on to this story, with UPA Chairperson Sonia Gandhi writing to the PM. Now, it is a matter of concern as to what the exact reason for her suspension is. But more importantly, assuming that the SP is right and everyone else is wrong - was it still something that deserved punishment?

Only the BJP has pointed out that the SP is trying to communalize the area for votes. If a mosque's wall was built illegally and an IAS officer was implementing Supreme Court orders to that effect, what is wrong in it? Why is a mosque above the law? Is this a secular country or a country where only Hindus need to follow the law? The shocking fact is that time and again, the SP, the Congress and others in the secular cabal have been doing just that - putting Muslims above the law in order to appease them while using caste equations to neutralize Hindus and prevent a backlash.

This communal agenda that the secular cabal has set out has taken Ms. Nagpal as a victim. Although reports have pointed out that there was no communal tension in the area, even if there was, why should the person on the side of the law be punished? Even if some communal elements decided to come out and run riot, why should the state protect them and not the officer who was simply follow the Supreme Court's directions? I'll tell you why - because secularism has become a joke in this country at the hands of the secular cabal. It is a burkha to hide all sorts of loot, murder and arson.

The Congress, the SP and other members of the secular cabal are the most communal parties of all and are playing a very dangerous game that will eventually tear the country apart. It is only up to the people of India to vote with their heads in 2014 because another five years of this sham will severely test the unity and integrity of India. 

Lessons from Jalalabad

The failed attempt at blowing up the Indian Consulate in Jalalabad is a grim reminder of the dark days coming in Afghanistan that is sure to have a strongly negative effect on India. This is the third attempted attack on an Indian diplomatic post on Afghanistan, a country that is at the centre of our geostrategic interests in South Asia on land. With the US running out in 2014, it is time to make some hard decisions.

As analyst Praveen Swami articulated, the Pakistani Army is preparing to declare victory in Afghanistan. With the Americans gone, the pressure to fight home-grown terrorist organizations will vaporize and India will face a strong onslaught from both Pakistan and their proxies in Afghanistan. Already, the negotiations with the Talibran are supposedly going nowhere and it seems as though the US is no longer interested in Afghanistan but just needs to find an honorable exit, much like what happened in Vietnam, which was eventually gobbled up by the Communists that the Americans were fighting.

What option does India have? The crown jewel is certainly the Indo-Afghan Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA), something that will allow India to leverage its already positive position in Afghanistan. Although putting faith in the Afghan National Army (ANA) is a rather risky exercise, it is the next-best thing to actually sending the Indian Armed Forces on an expeditionary exercise in the Hindu Kush. President Karzai has already sent India a wish-list of weapons to arm his army to the teeth to battle the Pakistan-backed jihadist wave that everyone is sure his country will face after 2014. But has India been able to take on the issue?

Unfortunately, no. And this time, it is not because of the incompetence of the UPA-II, it is because of its ideology. It is no secret that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is prepared to give Pakistan a huge leeway in all diplomatic matters in the face of opposition from political parties, his own Cabinet and civil society. Simply put, Singh does not want to be seen as the PM who took military action against Pakistan by arming the Afghans because of his own vision of Pakistan. This is bad news for India because Pakistan does not share his vision and for all the rhetoric that Nawaz Sharif has been using, attacks in Kashmir have only increased since he took power.

With the 2014 deadline looming, it is imperative that we free ourselves from a self-imposed diplomatic leash and stop treating Pakistan as though we are the ones who are helpless. After all, India is more powerful in every way you look at it except in the absolute number of nuclear warheads, which is also not true if you look at against India's size and spread. Arming the ANA to the teeth and training them in active combat while also continuing our civilian aid is our only hope against having to enter the Afghan theater ourselves. This is not because of any expansionist, strategic goals that India does not hold in any case - it is necessary to defend the integrity of the nation, particularly Kashmir, and keep our cities safe.

Cold winds are blowing into the Pir Panjal as another winter approaches. If we do not give us our false hope of driving some sense into Pakistan, this winter will never end.  

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Visa + 2 months

Today is August 4, exactly two months after I got my visa from the US Consulate General in Hyderabad. It's been quite a few days since then. A lot has happened, and a lot has not. It has been a hectic time and I have never been more free. Obviously, this much should tell you that I have spent a lot of time reading my vast and unread collection of novels that I accumulated with each scholarship that came my way at IITR. I have now read all of Ayn Rand's novels (and thanks to Dramatics, IITR, I have also seen her two most acclaimed plays); I've read Rahul Pandita who I don't entirely agree with politically, but is a good writer nonetheless; and have been struck with fear upon finishing Dracula. That, among many others. I'm currently venturing to read Leo Tolstoy's two best works, War & Peace and Anna Karenina, which will definitely take me well over a year to finish, given my busy schedule.

These two months have seen some memorable and some not-so-memorable meetings with friends. While in one case I was made to rush around in the middle of Begumpet's rush hour traffic by an impatient someone who was oh-so-tired after a long day of visiting tourist spots, in another I spent a leisurely afternoon at Central, with nothing being bought eventually! From a historical perspective - and oh, how I love those - I was also able to finally heal and close an open wound that I feared I would have to carry forever. It was certainly a good feeling and despite the rush in which it had to be planned, I will fondly remember it.

I managed to slip in three movies in a theater this period, which must be a statistical record for me! While Lootera was spot-on, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag was a bore while Turbo was less about the movie and more about the people I was with. This is in addition to the movies on my HDD that I could see - not a bad haul, overall. Oh, and I should add that I saw Ek Thi Daayan on TV, which was surprisingly decent!

This period saw me trying to get a driver's license. I can now drive decently, but a license seems to be a lot harder. The almost-institutionalized xenophobia in this city is what I would blame for it. No matter, at least the UIUC International Student's Handbook says - thrice - that a car is not recommended in the area and the bus system is quite enough. Personally, from the point of view of convenience, professionalism and environmental issues, I'd prefer public transport any day. I know Munich was probably the best in the world, but even for private transportation, I'd prefer nothing bigger than a gear-less two wheeler.

It's been a bad time physically though - I might have doubled my weight in this period, if that is possible anymore. I can't blame anyone but myself for it and it will have to be one of my focus areas from now on. In any case, given that grad students have near nil cultural activities to participate in, this should be a case of simple substitution - I hope. If not, it will require effort. I tried with some success in Roorkee, but this time, it's not business as usual.

Apart from that, the two months went by figuring out paperwork (UIUC is a terribly decentralized place and it can be a challenge figuring things out, especially when it comes to funding), immunizations and purchasing things needed. It has been an investment of not just time and money, but also of emotion. I see my friends in their jobs, delighted at their first salary, and I know that my first salary is almost a decade away, with a stipend being all I get till then, the firs installment as late as Sep. 16. I just hope that I manage to keep being funded, because there really is no Plan B for that.

One month back, I took the plunge and quit ITC, thus taking another concrete step towards the dream of prefixing "Dr." to my name. I admit, I am a little scared - the whole thing could blow up in my face. JEE taught me the hard way that brilliance does not last forever, though life has taught me otherwise. I have no idea what to believe. Prateek's unexplained suicide did shake me, because I'm not sure it's OK to follow your dreams any more. In any case, I have no choice right now. With a GATE score valid till 2016 to fall back on, and the encouragement that I topped in what is called the best and toughest Civil Engineering Program in South Asia, I can just hope for the best at UIUC! 

In Memory: Prateek Shrivastava

Prateek Shrivastava
B.Tech (Meta) - 2012, IIT Roorkee
1990-2013
Survived by his parents, friends and everyone associated with IITR MUN

There are few who live to build a legacy. Sure, many people, maybe most people, do something in life which they consider exceptional, but how many have been able to create opportunities for others to do something exceptional themselves? How many have been able to leave behind a legacy for others to follow? Very few.

I first met Prateek when the first edition of IITR MUN, in 2011, was going through what every MUN goes through - cancellations. I was supposed to be the Editor-in-Chief of the International Press, but so many people had backed out that he needed me on board. I already had a decent reputation in the LitSec circle and he let me take on the role of India in my first MUN. That dark evening in Jawahar Bhawan, which I had entered only once before, was when he led me to the Computer Center while 'interviewing' me for the role!

Prateek was the typical happy person - someone who, even in a difficult situation, could handle affairs calmly, making sure to use the choicest below-the-belt jokes and expletives at the right time to keep the pressure from getting too much. He had a keen sense of people, being able to judge them with minimum inputs and mostly getting it right. This was an invaluable gift. But what he was really well-known for was in the Quizzing Club. In his final year, he ably juggled the final BTP, his passion for quizzing and that unending pang somewhere in your head of having to leave a very wonderful place.

In my conversations with him, I have always been of the opinion that he and I shared one thing in common - we made our own choices and did not really believe in destiny. It was not about some metaphysical belief system, our lives were proof that you can actually make your way through by planning and choosing what you do, where you go. Which is why the news of his suicide came as such a shock to me - it was certainly his own choice, because he is not one to let others push him around. The last time I met him, he was very happy to be working in TFI and doing just what he always wanted to - teach. Society puts a lot of expectations on students, especially IITians, forgetting that every individual has a right to fulfill his own dreams.

The reasons behind his suicide are unclear but I do hope that it was not because he regretted his choice - that of following his dream. There are very few of us who have been able to do that. Our choices might not always be right, but that goes for everything in life. What is important is to follow your dreams while you can. As for IITR MUN, his creation in 2011 has finished three editions and would probably see many more. That is something he can always be proud of - wherever he is. 

The Entrance Exams

A interesting question on Quora was the inspiration for this post. It asks - if the Indian equivalent of various tests at different levels of education (JEE vs SAT, GATE vs GRE, CAT vs GMAT and so on) is considered a lot harder (and the implication was in terms of the number of students who write it compared to the number of seats available), then aren't Indian students the best in the world? Of course, the answers said it all, but I wanted to analyze the idea that led to this question being asked in the first place.

India is a land of few opportunities. Out socialist economy failed to live up to our aspirations and the last decade of jobless, rapid growth has made it worse for most people. The cause however, is not entirely the government's mismanagement. Indians, as a people, are not very scientific in their approach to things, they prefer to go by word of mouth or what the neighbors did, instead of doing some research themselves. This leads to a herd mentality in India, wherein everyone blindly runs behind whatever was a good option for someone else.

Most Indian parents think engineering is a good career choice because they equate engineering with IT jobs. This is a clear example of not doing your research - for one, engineering is not a glamorous career, it involves long hours and sub-optimal pay. And IT is not engineering at all! Similarly, doing well at an entrance exam is not the same as doing well in the course itself but because an entrance exam is a singularity, a one-time event that starts and ends very quickly, everyone focuses in it. This gives rise to the parable, "Coaching kar lo, engineering to aise hi ho jayega." That means - "study at the coaching classes [for the entrance exam] and don't worry about engineering."

Which brings me to my central point - in India, we think about the shortest possible goals. You have entrance exams, that excite everyone, while at the same time nobody cares about how you do in your education after that. Then you have the placements, wherein everyone judges you by your first salary but nobody cares about what you do after your first job. We as a people are very averse to thinking critically and accepting things that the 'mob' does not talk about.

The question, as many of the subsequent answers indicate, is grounded in the coaching mentality that we have come to imbibe. I know people who have done very well in GATE but who did badly in most courses - they understood nothing in the open-ended work we did in class, but were adept at solving those MCQs after a few years of GATE coaching. The coaching industry is symptomatic of this focus on short-term goals, encouraging students to put in a monstrous amount of time and money to clear those goals, but not teaching them to prepare for the long-drawn our process of well, life! 

Friday, August 2, 2013

The Future of the Working Model

By the end of the second year, I had enough data and experience to establish the Working Model - a set of guidelines that allowed me to establish a firm base for myself after the disastrous branch change and also keep the exploitative powers at bay through strategic autonomy. Although it sounds complicated, it was quite simple to implement - I kept a small, hand-chosen group of people whom I could trust virtually blindly inside an inner circle, and another group that I could trust cautiously in an outer circle; indeed, the second one was an unexpected outcome, because the Model itself could not be implemented with absolute efficiency. Everyone else was in an outer circle that did not matter to me.

This arrangement proved bountiful towards the end, with awards, successes and even a decent amount of money flowing my way. Indeed, if I had to attribute my success at IITR to any thing, it would be a tie between my wonderful first year and the Working Model. However, one consequence of this (not directly intended, but an outcome) has been a strong hostility against me from those in the 'outer circle.' Whether it was because of my general attitude of superiority towards them (which was very much on purpose) or because they tried so hard (in vain) to enter an inner circle, I was not very popular in a positive sense. Well-known yes, but I could certainly never hope to win any election (not that I was interested).

However, this will clearly not work in the future. There is no need to even try, because the basic assumptions that the Working Model makes are not necessarily valid, meaning that a whole new model will have to be generated. That said, the lessons of the Working Model remain. Therefore, the concept of circles will have to go away for now - a general sense of friendliness towards everyone will have to be the order of the day until a better arrangement can be worked out. I would of course join the IGSA, but given my future goals, participating in an electoral capacity is clearly ruled out - that was for the undergrad years, not now.

However, the assumption that everyone viciously guards their turf is still valid. I have found this to be a true human characteristic, something that I missed out in the first year for the simple reason that nobody had any turf to guard, yet. This will be even more acute at UIUC, given that everyone would be quite desperate for jobs, which in turn would depend on grades. Although I can be quite proud of the way I was admitted as a Kinra Fellow, the JEE experience has taught me that it's a clean slate from this point onward. I can only take hope from the undergrad experience, not bank on it. Hard work from the word 'Go' will have to be the way forward. And that involves some tough competition, at least as long as it's about coursework. The Ph.D part will require an entirely new assessment - later.

The Working Model is gone and a replacement usually takes a fair amount of time to come. But, one lesson that I have learned is the need to hit the ground running, meaning that there would be much less time to find a replacement. The teachings of the Model remain, of course. One fear is to what extent I have come to believe myself, how much I can really deviate from that model; but objectivism would tell you that you need not fear yourself. Therefore, the replacement would be natural and organic, unlike the Working Model. A new dawn is clearly approaching.