Remembering Teachers Who Have Long Forgotten Me

As happens with every occassion, this Teacher's Day brought back fond memories of teachers - for many people on social media. Of course, the icing on cake was our dear Prime Minister's speech for school children. As someone rightly asked on Twitter, shouldn't he be addressing teachers. Well, I guess teachers will need to wait a bit more for their Ache Din!

Leave that, coming back to teachers and the special bond that many of my friends shared with their teachers. Believe me, when I say, I feel a little bit jealous because I do not have any teacher who I can proudly call the beacon of my life. This coming from someone who attended 6 different schools - not including FIITJEE, where I spent an year to be able to go to CUSAT, where I spent 4 years to be able to get a job. But despair not, even though I did not have teachers whom I considered emulating - and this, to be sure, is not necessarily something lacking on their part - I had lots worth remembering.

Schooling started with LKG and UKG at Velammal, Anna Nagar Chennai. I hope you will understand that I do not have any memories of my teachers from that time. I am sure  even my teachers from those time do not remember a (shall I say cute) little boy with two ponies jutting out from his head, as if Lord Shiva decided to have two outlets for Ganga just to make sure the pressure did not get to him. In case you are interested, one memory I have of that place is  feeling jealous on seeing other kids with three box tiffins when I was sent with one. The other one is not something to be proud of and I apologize to my parents for starting the process of letting them down at such an early age. Basically, I did it in my pants .... in school. When the teacher asked me to sit down after my due greetings, I refused (I remember this), and before long I was in the bathroom being given a thorough wash. Thereafter, I was put alongside my half pant right near the main gate for both of us to dry. It did not help that parents had starting filing in to collect the apple of their eyes. My granny still recounts the horror of seeing her apple standing naked waist down.

Next was Fatima in Malad, Mumbai. Here I have to apologize again, in fact more, because I do not even have personal experiences to fall back on. You can start getting an idea of how simple (you can read pointless) my school life was. I do however remember my father dropping my sister and I on a Lambreta. On many occassions he used to stop at a stationery shop on the way to buy scented erasers for us. To be sure, during those times we called them rubbers - of course, it was before the liberalisation era of 90s when rubber was something you used to rectify a mistake and not to avoid one.

Cut to Prakash in Ahmedabad. One of the best school days I had. In fact, this was also my Gupta period when it comes to teachers. I had a teacher who, while teaching us Geography, told us that the earth would be subsumed by an exploding star after millions of years. Her simple act of going beyond the syllabus ensured that I remain worried for the next 2 days. Of course, times have changed now. I give a damn even if a star explodes this very moment - I have got life insurance, you see. We had a teacher, and my classmates know whom I am talking about, who was known for his temper. He was known to have thrown a compass at someone in his class. When I attended, he just threw a duster. And this was SUPW class. This was also the time, when I met a beautiful young teacher who came to teach us Hindi for a year. One of those young liberal teachers who students take a liking towards. Guess what, I even attended her wedding along with my parents.

Next stop was an year long experience at Kendriya Vidyalaya, Bhandup, Bombay. I remember only one teacher - a tall lady from Delhi with a bob-cut hairstyle. She taught us English and I was relatively good in that subject. And yes, she was a very good teacher. Contrary to all expectations it was in her subject - English - that we first did something practical. We created a radio show. She once asked all sections of class 8th to read my essay on "Recess". I had a crush on her. But all that did not last very long. Within a year, along with my dad's transfer came mine.

I joined Maharishi Vidya Mandir, Sitapur Road, Lucknow. A boys school. Every tuesday we attended school in Kurta-Pyjama and Kolhapuri chappals. When I rode my cycle to school on tuesdays, I looked like a journalist in the making. Everyday we used to spend 15 mins in the morning and evening on Transcendral Meditation. I was in 9th. The last thing on my mind was meditating. A lot of us dozed off while sitting on their benches. Each and every teacher, barring one who was very young and left very soon, kept one or two canes with him. Please understand, each and every teacher. It seemed as if I was in an encounter zone. I had a Chemistry teacher who seemed to have picked up a tip or two from the army training manual. Let me give you an example of his modus operandi. Assume he is sitting in the teacher's chair and you are speaking with him about something - most probably trying to see if you can get that extra mark just by that Puss in Boots Innocent Face. Of course, the rest of the class is murmuring. Of course, there is strength in number and this murmuring of 60 students creates a cacophony. What does our teacher do? He cool headedly asks us "Who was speaking?". We, the future of India, remain silent. This is not a scene from a Bollywood movie, mainstream or otherwise. So he starts giving each and every student in the class 30-40 canings ... on the palms. Of course, the cane breaks midway and he sends a student who is yet to undergo this experience out into the fields to get a new one.

Things were not so bad though. We had a teacher who though equally brutal used to smile. "Killing me Softly" had a new meaning for us. Let me give you a sneak preview into his ways. Assume he gave us an internal test of 30 marks and the passing marks were 20. Now, you are me and I am like most of the class. So we score below 20. Now, here are the rules read out when the answer sheets are being distributed. For each mark less than the passing marks, you get one caning on the palm. However, please do not misunderstand our teacher to be a cruel one. He gives us an option. Either take one on the hand or two on the bum. I think I took the latter option only because I already knew how it feels to be caned on the palm.

After 2 years and a board exam, I realized that there are better schools around. And I joined City Montessori School, Mahanagar, Lucknow. The school boasts of being the largest of its kind in the world and its founders are well-respected by everyone except their own students. We used to pray for them to not attend our functions - because their speeches lacked something called a concluding part, or a conclusion for that matter. Of course, our prayers were not answered and that played a major role in my religious beliefs today. We had a Chemistry teacher who told us what to write in the board exams. He told us "Write what I am writing on the board irrespective of the question you are asked. If you write anything else, I will not take responsibility". There was a teacher who did pass a friend for a bottle of liquor - we were grown ups. I guess these were the things that remained to be learnt from teachers in my last year in school. Fortunately, we had an excellent and amazing teacher for English literature. He made Wuthering Heights, Twelfth Night and Great Expectations interesting to us. We actually learnt from those books.

This, people, is an abridged version of My teachers' Experiments With Me. For all the talk of "Aacharya Devo Bhava", I think we forget that a lot of teachers are teachers because teaching is a profession. I mean, how many people have you met who are software engineers because it is their passion and not because this is the only job their degrees could get them. So let us take it easy and get ready for Children's Day.

For those who are interested, here is how it all happened to me chronologically.

1987-1989 Valiyamal
1989-1992 Fatima
1992-1996 Prakash
1996-1997 KV
1995-1997 Maharishi Vidya Mandir
1997-1999 CMS
1999-2000 FIITJEE
2000-2004 Cochin University


Kya Hua?

Returning from office, it was the start of a regular evening walk from the main road to home for Aman. Not too long back, he had started pooling with a colleague and the fifteen minute walk was a welcome side effect.

Hardly had he walked a few steps, when he noticed a small group of people crowded around something that lay on the ground. Such sights were not new for Aman. Situated strategically near a liquor shop and a municipal garbage can, the stretch was the the de facto public toilet for people in the vicinity. Consequently it emanated a perennial stench of urine. He had often seen people - men & women alike - in their most drunken state. Some walked in a dangerously unpredictable manner; some of them, stumbled down, struggled to get to their feet; others, drunk way beyond their capacity, lay on the ground - possibly enjoying one of the most peaceful sleep they may have had in a long time.

Usually, Aman used to walk past wondering about what he saw and thinking about the motivations that made someone forget everything and find solace, laced with humiliation, in liquor. On many occasions, he had wanted to help them get to their feet, but something held him back. Maybe the sight of everyone else going about their work provided a normality to the scene which made helping the person look like an aberration.

Today though, he stopped and peeped through the cracks between people milling around. He saw the back of a woman, in a green saree, lying on the ground. What made the, otherwise routine, scene unforgettable, was the sight of two children sitting right beside their mother - expressionless. The elder one looked around 3 years old, his own daughter's age, Aman realized. Clutching a half eaten samosa, she stared blankly, trying to avoid eye contact with the strangers who stood staring at the immovable mass that lay unconscious on the ground. The younger one was too young to fathom the situation. Both the children stuck close to their mother putting one hand on her trying to gather strength from her mere presence. None of them cried. Maybe too scared of the crowd or maybe too dazed to know what was happening. Maybe unfazed by normality of what was happening or maybe just on the verge of breaking down.

As Aman stood there, he couldn't help but notice a pattern that manifested itself. Almost every other moment, a person would stop by near the crowd, inquire with someone who seemed to have been at scene long enough; and pose a question in the exact same two words "Kya Hua?" (What Happened?). To which they were told that "a woman got very drunk and lay unconscious but had two small children with her". Some people wanted to know if the woman was dead, unable to comprehend the fuss over a living person. Most, in a strange display of humanity, exhibited relief that she was alive and moved on.

Normal situations of emergency warrant a call to 108 - the number which could summon an ambulance, a fire engine or the police, depending on the nature of the emergency. In a country like India, the high number of casualties, across any kind of eventuality, force upon emergency services the need to prioritize peoples' miseries. In such a context, the case of a person lying in drunken stupor is very interesting. Some years back, Aman had used 108 to summon an ambulance for a man who was lying on the footpath, drunk! Unfortunately, what he viewed as a responsible act was seen as wastage of precious resources at the cost of more genuine emergencies. The ambulance doctor explained to Aman that calls like his prevent emergency services from reaching those who actually need them, in a sense implying him to use his discretion next time around. The man in question would wake up in the morning, stagger to his feet, dust his clothes and walk away, maybe at the cost of a life he prevented from being saved.

This time, though, it was different. While we could ignore the woman, as we did usually, her two children presented a dilemma to which none had an answer. Hoping to outsource our problems, as is our wont, Aman called up the emergency number assuring himself that the current situation warranted their presence. Strange as it may sound, if they could somehow get her to stand up and take her children home, it would bring a sense of proper closure to those present. This is a variant of the head in the sand approach that the ostrich takes. As long as we do not have to witness anything wrong or sad, it is easy to keep such things beyond the radar of our psyche.

Near the scene of action, people constantly poured in like water heating in a vessel - the warmer molecules moving outside giving space to colder ones. One lady, in particular, looked very agitated - she either knew the woman in question or was too piqued by the sight of a woman lying drunk with her two helpless children. She slapped and hit the woman many times to get her back to senses. As a finale to her act, she picked up the woman, holding her hair with all available force and shook her violently. Horrified, the elder daughter broke down, the half eaten samosa still in her hand.

After a call punctuated with long silences, the ambulance arrived, sirens blaring, with a sense of authority. A young doctor disembarked, wearing a crisp white coat emblazoned with 108 and a motto which sought to assure people of their mission. Putting on cheap disposable plastic gloves, he took stock of the situation. His expression gave away that his apprehensions had indeed come true - this was a call which he could not do anything about and should have avoided.

The young doctor did try a few things to get the woman to respond but to no avail, something that he himself was not very surprised or disappointed about. He did seem amused and, then frustrated with bystanders who wanted him to do "something". The doctor mustering all sincerity in an effort to hide his irritation asked them to tell him what he should be doing and that he would do it. The driver of the ambulance doubled up as an attendant and was busy trying to disperse the crowd of curious onlookers. Finally, when repeated requests did not work, a lathi manifested it from inside the ambulance and was waved at the bystanders in an effort at some serious crowd control.

At this point, the woman too gained consciousness, jolted into sanity by another bout of vigorous hair pulling by the well-wishing woman. Aman too resumed his walk home. His thoughts went to the visibly drunk man who offered his unsolicited counsel "If you want to drink then drink at home". As someone who lived his life insulated from the perils of poverty, Aman wondered if people who drink themselves to unconscious levels do so out of irresponsibility or as a carefully deliberated choice in face of their ever-shrinking range of options.


five ingredients that zest my life

When you hear zest, you immediately relate to phrases like "zest for life", etc. I searched on Google and figured out that there was another equally interesting meaning - an ingredient for adding flavor. And isn't that exactly what Zest does in our lives - add flavor to it. Zest as a flavor is analogous to our lives in another very interesting way - Like food, life (or living) too is a necessity. But it is zest, whether in food or in life, which adds a flavor and, dare I say, meaning.

5 things that most add flavor to my life would be


[image courtesy: geniusquotes.net]
For me, People are at the top. The four that follow are, nothing but, products made by people. Be it my grandmother's Bhojpuri, or my mother's laughter, my daughter's whims or my wife's anger, the guy who cut my lane on my way to office or the traffic constable to let me go seeing my family in the car, that auto rickshaw driver who refused to take me home or the stranger who gave me a lift, people are the ginger-garlic paste of life - the staple addition to every dish. I am always reminded of the time when I was riding my wife's Scooty to office and I gave a lift to this person. The next 30 mins was spent in him trying to convince me that I should sell the scooty and buy a bike because that suits my image. It was such an interesting encounter that I wrote about it here.

Road Trips

[image courtesy stickywallpapers.com]

My own addition to the quote would be "And those who do not travel by road have read the book skimming a lot of words they could have understood only if they had stopped to consult a dictionary"

If there is a way to travel that allows you to immerse yourself in the experience it is a road trip. I have done quite a few of them till now and I hope to do many more before I hit the dead end. Some of the most memorable ones have been a 2500 km road trip along the western coast of India about which I have started writing here, or the road trip from Hyderabad to Goa and back with my wife and 6 month old daughter to attend the Tehelka Thinkfest, or the one from Hyderabad to Lucknow and back when my wife was 7 months pregnant - yup you read that right! So you now know how crazy we are and also why Road Trips comes just after People.


[image courtery lifehack.org]

Unlike Audrey, I cannot claim to have learnt everything that I know from the movies. I can definitely vouch for the fact, though, that the right selection of movies can instill in you a strong sense of appreciation of things in real life. To be sure, I have seen brain-dead movies too, whose only purpose was to prove that I had a mind that works. But I have also seen movies that so beautifully have conveyed some of most complex of emotions in a beautiful manner. I am sure all of us have movies that have inspired us, made us cry, made us realize our shortcomings, made us feel lucky, don't we? I think it is only apt for us to thank those who made films for our "entertainment". You could watch The Lunchbox, Carnage, Revolutionary Road, The Shawshank Redemption, Lagaan or even an Andaz Apna Apna to identify that zest that I am talking about.


[image courtesy imagesbuddy.com]

A large chunk of us may have moved to Kindle, but that only reaffirms the joy that reading brings to a lot of us. Depending on what you like reading, a book can take you on a journey where you would like to get lost. I, personally, like reading a lot of non-fiction. And when reading non-fiction, I realize that when people say "Truth is stranger than fiction", they are not exaggerating a week bit. I grew up reading classics (fiction) like Adventures of Tom Sawyer, 20 Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, Wuthering Heights, Hercule Poirot, Sherlock Holmes and many more. As I grew older, though, I gravitated towards non-fiction and read almost all books by Dominique Lapierre and Larry Collins. Their books are a must read if you would like to know about some of the most historic moments in history and that includes their detailed & acclaimed book - Freedom At Midnight on India's independence. The latest that I am reading is the Pulitzer Prize winner Emperor of Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee - which is, in his own words, "a biography of cancer". Reading books have allowed me to live a lot many other lives, which would have been impossible if I were to live only through my own life.


[image courtey: englishcoursemalta.com]
"What? Languages?", you may ask. How can languages be among my zests, or anyone's zests, for that matter? Well, even I would have thought so if I had not studied in Kerala and if I did not belong to a family that traditionally speaks Bhojpuri. I lived in Kerala for 4 years as an engineering student and within a couple of years, I was able to speak Malayalam quite fluently. And the way it opened up avenues for me to connect with people was simply amazing. When I spoke their language, they considered me one of their own and to be treated like that is truly a great feeling. Only yesterday, colleagues in my office were amazed at the fact that I could speak Telugu. It felt as if I am not an alient anymore but one of them made of the same flesh and blood. Last but not the least - Bhojpuri, which is such a beautiful language and which allows me to connect with my grandmother at a much deeper level than a formal Hindi would! And so it is language that closes this list for me.

I hope you enjoyed reading the list. Do share yours too with me through the comments. Also let me know about what you felt about my five.

This post is a part of the #ZestUpYourLife activity in association with TATA Zest and BlogAdda.com

a moo-ving case for bovine intervention

While people the world over - of course, excluding those representing democratic governments - were expressing displeasure over Israel's military action against Palestine, there were other, equally cringe worthy, attacks being made on specific people's right to experience "bovinity". No clues for guessing who it was - all clues are in the tweets below. Madhu Kishwar literally kicked up a "storm in a milk cup" when her dear cow was taken away from her. Not to be cow-ed down, she took to ruminating on twitter blaming this injustice on the municipal authorities driven by slave mentality.

The lady has clearly told us that there is a cow in the room and it cannot be ignored anymore. More importantly, the whole issue is about keeping the cow moo-ing in the room.

I, for once, rubbed my hands in glee. For the funny person that I am known to be my blog never got to see my funny side. It has always been about cribbing or philosophizing. But this "pet peeve" of Madhu Kishwar set my mind thinking and opened a "whole new world of possibilities" of what could happen if keeping cows as pets became as ubiquitous a practice as dogs and cats.

[image courtesy: cowism.com]

First, and foremost, the morning routine. The cows that I have seen normally do number 1 and 2 both standing in the same place. This cannot be allowed in western influenced homes. We need fit cows. So every morning and every evening, someone needs to take their cows out for a walk. Of course, there has to be a leash. And you will need to ensure that the cows do not settle down in the middle of the road, as is their wont.

The next thing you will need to take care of is cleaning up after them. This puts us in a very tight spot, as you will see. Traditionally we have been a dung picking nation - we have made cow dung cakes and these cakes have been used as firewood, the dung has been used to sweep floors and walls of our homes. So ideally we are not averse to "handling" cowshit, and in the same context bullshit too. But things have changed now. We can't be seen picking up cow dung off the streets, pavements, porches, gardens or whichever place it is that has caught the fancy of your bovine pet.

I see ladies and gents alike look the other way when their dogs are relieving themselves of the big one - acting the same way as they would for any crime that were accidental witnesses to. Not very long ago, I saw a lady being taken for a walk by three dogs. And one of them graced the pavement with the outcome of his metabolism. I had to remind the lady of the society rules. Now, remember, with cows, things get murkier, literally. In case of dogs or cats, you can stoop to conquer and like a watchful eagle nailing a rat, you will be done before anyone noticed. Unlike their canine or feline counterparts, the goods of a cow are not amenable to swooping and you need a dust pan more than (or along with) a plastic bag.

The third thing to take care of would be to buy a vehicle big enough so that you can carry your pet around to people's houses. In any case, do not forget the rope. Just tie it to the security guard's table on the ground floor. If your friend stays in one of those luxury apartments with big elevators, problem solved. Take it right up.

I can only feel happy thinking of the Gupta period of pet ownership when people would be walking in Sanjay Gandhi National Park in South Delhi discussing silly nothings while their Ponwars, Dangis, Khilaris ruminate over "Who Stole My Fodder".


packing a sumptuous lunchbox ...

... without masala is possible and Ritesh Batra exhibits this with aplomb.

[image credit: http://rahulda10.wordpress.com]
Before I write about the movie, some background into why the delay in getting around to watching it. I was very excited after seeing the trailer. I would be honest, back then I was more excited because of Irrfan Khan (IK), Nawazuddin Siddiqui (NS) - two actors for whom I hold the most respect - and for the story that I could tease out of the trailer. I did not know Ritesh Batra as a movie maker then. As customs demanded, I duly shared the trailer on Facebook and "earned some Likes" (the upper case L denotes the Facebook adaptation of this phrase - how smart!)

A bit about the kind of movie goers my wife and I are. Many of us know those happy couples who make sure they watch at least one movie every weekend. Pray, some of you may be those couples. I envy you. My father has a friend like that. I have friends like that. Unfortunately, my wife and I are not one of those happy couples. Before this blows up, let me clarify that we are happy as a couple, just that are not happy watching everything that is served on a friday. And I do understand that this is not necessarily the mark of a true film lover. A true film lover has a much wider range and does not judge a movie without watching it, in fact does not judge a movie at all. Not that we have not had our share of misadventures. We have learnt our lessons the hard way including that time we walked out of Raavan mid-way. That the tickets were free helped us make a quick decision. Or that time when I went to watch Ram Gopal Verma ki Aag along with colleagues. Here is a gem from one of those who accompanied me "I will never order food during a Ram Gopal Verma movie. It is just so dark that you cannot eat your food". Or that time in college, when law of diminishing marginal utilities caught up with us when we tried to wrap up One 2 Ka 4 immediately after watching Russel Crowe's Proof of Life. I know I have digressed.

Coming back to The Lunchbox (TL), wife and I both agreed that this is a movie to watch. Of course, it has been sometime we watched a movie together in the theater. My 3 year old daughter's impatience with movies which are not animated or do not have animals (preferably named as humans) ensures that she stays away from the movies we like. So the plan as it rolls out is, one of us watches the movies first and then the other follows. I always ask Ipshita to go first and this is for a purely selfish reason. I do not want to be in a situation where I have watched it and she has not. Plus with the uncertainties of life with a small baby, it can only get worse if she doesn't get to watch it at all. So Ipshita went with a common friend. Watched it. Loved it. And I was happy - genuinely happy. Of course, Murphy caught up with me and I could not watch it in theater and that, my friends, is how I got to watch it yesterday in one of those moments where you do not want to "achieve" anything but to watch a good movie.

One thing that stood out, ironically, was the subtlety displayed by all the main actors - IK, NS and NK (Nimrat Kaur). Like those who cook food at their own pace to bring out the flavors, Ritesh builds the plots at a very easy pace - be it Ela and Saajan's relationship or that between Sheikh and Saajan.

At its easy pace, the movie is able to latch on to those small things that we encounter in our every day life but fail to appreciate because of its "routine-ness". The relationship between Ela and Aunty is simply beautiful. I especially loved the part where they listen to music together. What a beautiful way to share their space. To an engineer like me it reminds of a Venn Diagram - there are overlaps but their are independent areas too.

In the scene in which Ela  tries to approach her husband for a second baby, I found the emotions very tense. As though the husband was a bomb waiting to explode. Of course, it was handled very delicately and the Ela's emotions diffused with the husband's "Please Aloo Gobhi mat banaya karo" maxim.

The scene in which Saajan receives an empty box is beautiful - without a word, it screamed "I need an answer". And, of course, it is a respite from those memory testing movies where the villain has to clearly spell out the conditions under which he killed the actor's father so that the actor finally knows. I think someone needs to tell certain people in Bollywood - we normally do not speak our heart out in as clear terms as you show and definitely not in the way you depict.

The parting scene between Sheikh and Saajan at the former's marriage is especially touching. There are very few scenes of friendship between men that I have seen that display it without being loud. That in this case it was not even a friendship of peers but more of a guardian-ward relationship makes it even more beautiful. That it was a scene between two of the most amazing actors in Bollywood makes you thank Ritesh again and again for choosing to make a movie like TL.

Nawazuddin's accent is very very affable - something about it made him a person next door and not an actor. I am especially talking about the way he spells his Rs or rather does not spell it. I do not think that is his usual accent. Irrfan Khan's "My wife is dead" in a deadpan voice is reminiscent of Arnold's "Come with me if you want to live". That time when Irrfan asks the auto driver for the name of the lady who commits suicide is tragicomic.

IKs' realization that he is old and then the next realization that he is not that told is beautifully shown. The way IK becomes acceptable to his young cricket playing neighbours displayed so beautifully by the window. Simply amazing.

The first question that I wanted to ask Ritesh was whether he wanted Saajan to meet Ela in the end. Also if he has seen Bridges of Madison County. Rhetorical question maybe, of course he has. And if he saw any resemblance in the situations of the female protagonists.

As is customary after watching a good film, I started scavenging for the film maker on the internet and hit up on this short film by him which was part of the Sundance Festival. Called Masterchef, it's theme too is centered around making of food. Take a look


Ethics, Ivory Tower & Hypocrisy

[When I first wrote this post, it was late in the night and my thoughts were floating like snakes in Kekule's mind. Now that I am awake, I hope to edit it in a way that it makes more sense to those who read - just like Kekule came up with the Benzene structure after the snakes aligned :)]

In the past few days, I have discussed with friends and colleagues on ethics and ethical dilemmas. In almost each of these conversations, people have questioned my stand with a plain statement (which masks a rhetorical question) - "You are in a position where you can practice your ethics but not everyone has that comfort" or "You are saying this now sitting in an AC room but you may act differently when facing real life".

While not going into the exact point that was being discussed in each of these conversations, the point made by such people is definitely worth pondering. How valid (read honest) are one's ethics if they have not been created keeping in mind the entire gamut of possible life situations they MAY have to go through?

While it may sound obvious, my ethics have been built from my own experiences and they have definitely changed over a period of time. I have not really given a thought to their validity in all cases irrespective of the probability of their occurrence e.g. stealing is bad we say but will we not steal to feed our families in times of crises? Such questions which try to filter everyone's ethics through a "trial by fire", more often than not, just serve as an excuse for not adopting a different (I did not use the word better) set of ethics.

There are a few facets of this discussion that can help us gain some clarity on this subject and help remove the clutter that is our own creation. First, when I practice a certain set of ethics or hold a certain "ethical" viewpoint on a subject, I do not (at least try my best not to) judge a person not holding the same viewpoint e.g. even if I am vegan, I do not judge a person who consumes meat as someone barbaric. I do want to try and understand his/her viewpoint on what they think about killing animals for food, but again, not judging them.

Second point, does someone's ethics HAVE to confirm to all possible situations that one may face in life. How does one even arrive at an exhaustive list of such situations? And do we account for the probability of occurrence of a particular situation? Can we not take a cue from Pareto's analogy and create our ethics for 80% of the situations that we face in life and not for the 20%. Is it even right to say that unless my set of ethics confirms to all possible situations, I am not even going to start practicing what I know for sure is the right thing to do - just because a particular tenet may fail me at a later point of time.

Also, is it right to call a change in my ethics when faced with an unaccounted or previously un-encountered situation an act of hypocrisy? I do not think so.

I feel a lot of problems arise when people start preaching what they practice e.g. I can be vegan but I do not necessarily have to force others to be one. Also, when we start judging people who do go by the same set of ethics that we follow.

While my search on the internet did give me a lot of matter on the subject of ethics, including ethical dilemmas, I could not find anything worthwhile on the topic of "validity of ethics in extreme situations". If you know of someone who has written about it, please do let me know through the comments section.

A few resources on the internet can get you started on the topic of Ethics - BBC has a micro-site with chapter like layout (though I cannot vouch for the depth in which they deal with each topic), there is http://www.friesian.com and of course there is Calvin and Hobbes who have made a point very close to what I made - my ethics are for me and not universal.


The case of "killing" plants vs killing animals; It's the Sentience...I "feel"

Ever since I have started carpooling with a friend, we end up discussing a lot of issues, some of which we may not really concur on. One of this is the idea of killing animals for the purpose of food. Before non-vegetarian readers rally against me, let me make it clear that some of my best friends are non-vegetarians. Consumption of meat is not an issue on which I target individuals but one where I try to understand people's motivations (or the lack of it to change their lifestyle).

The conversation started by a question I posed by speaking out aloud "I wonder if it is possible for us to not be able to relate to the pain of an animal that we slaughter (not necessarily by our own hands) for food". In case you are wondering, I do not use parentheses when I speak - that is just meant to preclude any thoughts that may run off in tangents.

My friend, in the spirit of a good discussion for the next 30 mins, indulged me and joined issue. A lot of points were discussed and it ultimately rested on a piece that often comes up in the discussion between vegetarians and non-vegetarians - "Plants too are living beings and by hurting them one really is not practicing the tenet of not hurting beings". I tried to draw a line between taking the life of an animal like a sheep or plucking a tomato (or cutting a tomato for a salad). However, I was not able to articulate it properly because I do not think I knew a lot in this field.

I accepted my lack of an adequate response to this point but came home and searched for information on the internet. Like all things that you search for, this question too was discussed umpteen number of times across different fora. The main point that differentiates plants & animals is the capability of sentience in the latter which is missing in the former.

What is sentience? Wikipedia introduces it as
the ability to feel, perceive, or to experience subjectivity....In modern Western philosophy, sentience is the ability to experience sensations (known in philosophy of mind as "qualia"). The concept is central to the philosophy of animal rights, because sentience is necessary for the ability to suffer, which is held to entail certain rights.
And that, my friend, differentiates "killing" a plant from killing an animal. An animal, individually as well as as a species, has preferences, tastes, feels happiness, sorrow, anger among other things. Plants do not exhibit these characteristics. So, while plants are beings in the sense that they grow, employ processes like transpiration and photosynthesis, they do not have feelings towards another plant of the same variety or another variety. And that is why the argument that eating plants or their products is also an act of killing life is not tenable.

PS: While having this discussion or many discussions, I noticed that most of the times discussions involving laymen like most of us, concentrate more on comparing a stand with other similar ones instead of evolving a stand objectively e.g. many times people have tried to show me how I may still be hurting animals while discussing the concept of consuming meat - not necessarily with the intention of helping me improve on those counts but most probably with the intention of nullifying the steps that I am already taking in that direction. In fact, this is a style is followed in most discussions that center around one's principles.


The Violent Streak in us

The week gone by has brought a lot of bad news - sexual violence against women continued unabated bringing with it renewed ways of victim abuse and in the process revealed a sinister side of the male psyche that shocked a lot of us. A techie in Pune was killed by a group of Hindu fanatics who were enraged over some Facebook and WhatsApp posts which were insulting to their religion or religious figures.

What puzzles me is the tremendous appetite for barbarism and utter lack of respect for human life that we, Indians, display. Of course, this also reveals our hypocrisy because we do not leave a chance to remind the world that MK Gandhi, recognized as the epitome of Ahimsa, was an Indian too. Well, but that is where our relationship with him ends (even though he is the Father of the Nation).

The Dec 16th rape case which supposedly "shook the conscience of the nation", also threw up a lot of very uncomfortable but important questions - is rape the malaise or a symptom of malaise much more wide spread than the epidemic of rape itself? At least a few people whom I know were of the opinion that the girl did not make the right decision in moving around at night. It looks like a harmless comment to some but hides within itself, the inherent consent to the assumption that the society that one is living in is not just bereft of basic human mores but also lawless in nature. After all, why should you assume that traveling alone for a women at night is unsafe until you are convinced that the existing dispensation is incapable of providing security to its citizens and cannot be a credible deterrent to criminals.

Jason Burke of The Guardian wrote a brilliant essay titled "how India's other half lives" explaining the background of the six perpetrators of the rape. As the byline to the article said
The brutal gang-rape on a bus highlighted the routine abuse of Indian women – and how the nation's surge to superpower status has left millions behind struggling on the margins
As a country with burgeoning population and concomitant aspirations, we have somehow managed to articulate about almost everything relating to us - need to be a superpower, economic reforms, schooling, poverty - but have not paid sufficient attention to what constitutes or shapes our ethos or moral code. You could call it by some other word. Irrespective of where one belongs in the caste hierarchy or in the financial ladder, the status of women as equal to men has been grudgingly accepted at best and and violently resisted at worst. And the current education system is not helping redress this at all. In fact the focus in all pvt schools has been to create "leaders" (which is short code for MBAs, Engineers and new age glamorous jobs). Govt schools are the last resort even for those who have to stretch considerably to send their kids to a pvt school. This only serves to accentuate the divide.

Coming to the current case where two cousins (minors) were gang-raped and hanged (while they were alive) conveys that things haven't changed much on the ground. Viewed along with the recent killing of a techie in Pune by members of a Hindu extremist group over Facebook/WhatsApp posts, one starts to wonder - what really is the cause of the violent streak in Indians? Is it the grinding poverty, or is it the upbringing which, most of the times, reinforces stereotypes and ignores basic human values, or is it the utter lawlessness which has ensured an abysmal conviction rate of gender related crimes, of course for cases which get filed in the first place.

There really was a lot of hope among people after the Dec 16 incident that concrete steps would be taken by the government to tackle this. Not only did the earlier government fail miserably, even the current government doesn't instill confidence from its current track record. I wonder if this barbarism among citizens of a country is a recurring feature of any country's history and if, yes, then what are we doing to break the jinx?


What would you do ...?

A few months back, I got to know about this lecture series called Justice - delivered at Harvard by Michael Sandel. It came highly recommended and from the first episode on I was hooked on to it. Through a series of lectures given at the historic Sanders Theatre, Sandel takes us through a number of moral questions with ramifications in everyday life and much beyond that.

[Photo Credit: Sun Yat-Sen Business School

He starts off grabbing his students' and viewers' interest by putting forward a situation which translates into a question - "Would you kill one man to save five?" Turns out, the answer is not as simple as it may sound. I would have put the exact question that he puts forward but I would want you to enjoy the lecture.

[Photo Credit: Infosys Science Foundation]
The lectures do get dense as we proceed through the series, and it cannot be heard as one of those things that run in the background while you tend your daily work. True to its name, it is a lecture and therefore demands the attention that a lecture requires.

I found the series remarkable in the way it takes us through actual theories/thoughts put forward by philosophers on issues of morality and justice and in the way it elicits responses and comments from the students sitting in the hall. Honestly, it makes me want to go to Harvard and study this.

In one such lecture, Michael Sandel takes the famous Queen vs Dudley & Stephens case where a group of shipwrecked crew resorted to cannibalism to survive. These sessions do not provide answers to questions - they provide fodder to the mind to ask more questions and find one's own answers.

There are also important point for someone who is interested in honing his political philosophy understanding as Michael Sandel takes us through the hoops of free will - does it really exist or is it really total in a society?, he talks about utilitarianism - its proposal of maximizing utility and the pitfalls in such a thought. I think this closely touches the concept of majoritarianism and is hence worthy of further study. He also introduces us to the veil of ignorance - a very powerful concept who modern usage was developed by John Rawls in A Theory of Justice. A Theory of Justice, in itself, is a work worth studying. I hope I get the time to do that. 

Listening to these lectures and many others has helped me realize that a lot of our opinions are based on perceptions, which unfortunately, more often than not are not rooted in facts e.g. our calmour for meritocracy is mostly based out of the idea that there is no better way to level the playing field than judge people on their abilities - forgetting that abilities and opportunities do not present themselves in the same way for everyone, if they manifest at all. Study of data and a deeper study brings us to some discomfiting conclusions.

Strongly recommended!


Welcome Mr Prime Minister

As the national electoral process comes to close after, what seemed like a very long wait, it is time to sit back and, yes, you guessed it right - write a blog post. While the campaigning was at its peak, I did feel like powering on my laptop to resume writing, but, I guess, my laziness, had the better of me.

The mandate that the BJP has received does not have a precedent, at least not in the last 30 years, which by public memory seems eons ago. The party is set to cross the half way mark all on its own. I am an Aam Aadmi supporter, but I think it would not be wrong to congratulate BJP for emerging as a the single largest party, and that too in such a way. And consequently, to Mr Modi for becoming the Prime Minister of a large (and hopefully great) country like ours.

While places - real as well as virtual - are agog with celebrations, I think it is a good time to also give a thought to what may lie ahead. For this, it is important to realize what has happened. A lot of people, almost 40 percent of the electorate, has voted for BJP and its allies. A point to note, apart from the fact that 60 percent have not, is that this 40 percent consists of a variety of people who have equally varied expectations from the government. Some of them are the pro-development middle class, some of them are the pro-job working class, some of them are the business class who adequately compensated for their lack in numbers with money in its various forms, some of these are, what we may call, BJP's bread and butter supporters - those who see in Modi the saviour of Hindus, Hinduism, Hindutva - good luck to those who try finding the differences between the three. If you have studied logic the way I have (which I assure you is primitive), it is hard to miss the inherent tension between the diagonally opposite expectations which each group comes with. Fortunately, for me, my ego is not bigger than my wish to see the country on the right track and therefore, I wish Mr Modi the very best in the tightrope walking act that he is embarking on.

Let us not forget that Mr Modi, whether you like it or not, by virtue of being PM of India, is also the PM for all those Indians who did not vote for him. And, ideally, he will need to address their concerns too. So the environment-wallahs, jhola-wallahs, the LGBT wallahs and many other interest groups - he will need to be cognizant of their concerns too.

A lot of us are actually rejoicing the fact that the BJP victory has been so "complete" that there is no opposition party left (it seems that you need 55 seats to be an opposition). Well, the absence of a credible opposition is not good news for a well functioning parliament and democracy. So that is something all of us need to be aware of.

The fact that BJP has come to power on its own, even without the support of its allies, is a good thing when it comes to taking decisions, especially related to reforms, which have been stuck for a lot of time. It also means that a lot of decisions that may merit discussions and invite disagreements, can be ramrodded through without paying heed to any argument.

Coming to AAP, it was indeed a tall order to expect more than 10 seats. I think that is what all of us, myself included, were hoping for. But the fact that we drew a blank in every state, including Delhi, and except Punjab, was disappointing as well as saddening. But looking at the positive side - there is no doubt that AAP can claim credit of being one of the major forces which changed the way elections are contested and the general discourse around elections. Today, I feel that maybe resigning from Delhi was a costly decision. I would still desist from saying wrong because, I think Arvind Kejriwal's brand of politics is different and it is painstakingly costly - it will test its supporters before it starts giving results. In the process, many will desert it disillusioned, many will write it off, many will jeer it. With the din of the Parliamentary elections dying down, it will be interesting to see how AAP manages to keep itself relevant in the political discourse and in people's minds. They have already expressed the intention of contesting assembly elections in Punjab & Haryana.

Last but not the least, a big thank you is due to the Election Commission and every single person who was involved in the conduct of this election. The exercise was indeed humongous and the effort unprecedented. Thank you.

The election story has finished. The real story has started. And this time, actually, not everyone is watching!