To laugh often and much; To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; To earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; To appreciate beauty, to find the best in others; To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child , a garden patch, or a redeemed condition; To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.
- Ralph Waldo Emerson

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Viet Nam redux

A Facebook post by a respected ex-Army man sharing a memoir of a US veteran who had served in Viet Nam started a chain of thought...

There are of course legends still floating around of US veterans recounting their tales of valour (and, in many cases, of hardships) which had led to perhaps a whole generation of US servicemen suffering from psychological difficulties, in some cases leading to cases like the one depicted in Stallone's 'Rambo'/'First Blood' movies, of people almsot 'looking for' troubled places to put their hands in.

Which takes one back to the country itself putting ones hands in places it may've been better advised not to.  Many of those talking of the US servicemen in Viet Nam fighting for 'freedom' seem to be disconnected with reality.  The fact is: the US was fighting a war not remotely affecting its core interests, much less its own freedom.  It was virtually fighting to support one faction of Viet Nam polity against another, unfairly putting US servicemen at risk of life and limb in a war not of their own.  Which of course later on resulted in a public backlash when the body bags started coming home, eventually resulting in the US withdrawing from the theatre.  More importantly, what did it achieve, beyond the abiding hatred of a large section of Viet Nam people, with memories of napalm bombs and worse!  Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) eventually became a part of unified Viet Nam under communist rule (and, in the first place, there may've been nothing patently wrong with communist rule - at least not of the same measure as with the Pol Pot regime in neighbouring Cambodia - except on spurious ideological grounds).  So it was all in vain, it'd seem, even from the blinkered standpoint of US politicians of that time.

And coming to Pol Pot, if ideology was supposedly the trigger for US's Viet Nam war, why didn't it spur the country to intervene in Cambodia, where millions of people were being massacred - amply demonstrated by the famous 'skull tower' and former prisons where photos of those shot were kept meticulously!  Also, North Korea was perhaps nearer to US shores than Viet Nam, but it was 'allowed' to go the communist way (still acting as a thorn in its side).

Which brings one to the fulcrum of the whole argument: interventions of US (and indeed most of the Western countries) post World War II have been mostly clumsy, reeking of bullying and selfish interests, and have led to unintended results in most cases, affecting the interests and stability surrounding countries (and interests of US in certain cases).  In Africa, a host of dictatorial regimes were allowed to continue for very long, suppressing indigenous peoples and their aspirations, with liberal supply of arms and much more by US and Western countries like France (which holds itself up as the epitome of liberty and equality but revels in bombing host countries like Chad, besides indulging in rampant economic imperialism in Western Africa, esp. in so called 'Francophone countries'!).

But the ill effects of US intervention have been most palpable in Asia.  Take the propping up of Gulf dictatorships (and concomitant obscurantism) just to ensure a steady supply of crude oil.  Take the over the top invasion of an already weakened Iraq on the basis of spurious, manufactured 'evidence' of WMD (weapons of mass destruction) presented to UN, which led to perhaps the only secular regime in the region being toppled.  Which it probably deserved to, in the light of its misadventures, but with no substitute political alternative in place, the country has seemingly just fragmented into multiple power centres and led to the rise of the IS monster to fill the gap.  And less said about Afghanistan the better, what with the US establishment tending to look at the hyphenated 'Af-Pak' relationship as a whole rather than analyzing each on its own merits.

Which, inevitably for India, throws up the Pakistan question.  What is it, one wonders, which mesmerizes US polity and blinds it to the dangers of a renegade regime armed to the teeth, including with nuclear weapons.  All hopes of keeping the Pakis humoured with financial aid (historically started as a measure to fight Russians in Afghanistan) and away from trouble have well nigh evaporated, with Pak meddling repeatedly in Afghanistan, directly and indirectly, and continuing its shadow war with India, in Kashmir and elsewhere (like Bombay 26/11).  But US still persists in 'engaging with' (read: appeasing) Pak instead of sending it a strong message to cease and desist from its nefarious activities.

Just like in case of 9/11, where at least one of the bombers came from Pak, the more recent San Bernadino shooting also involved a woman indoctrinated in a Madarsa (religious school) in Pakistan. It seems the chicken are coming home to roost, and innocent American residents are beginning to pay a heavy price for the misadventures concocted by self-serving politicians.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Educated unemployed of India - the looming multitude

A recent article by CNBC's Neerja Jetley ('India's lost generation: A systemic risk?') laments that "Nearly 47 percent of Indian graduates are unemployable in any sector, irrespective of their academic degrees".  It goes on to lay the blame on the fact that "As little as 10- 12 percent of the 15-29 year-old age group in India receives any formal or informal training compared with to 28 percent in Mexico or 96 percent in South Korea".

I think the piece misses a couple of aspects.  First off, the problem doesn't start with lack of training in later-school years.  It starts with elementary education itself.  A World Bank report says that "44 percent of students in grades 2–5 in government schools cannot read short paragraphs with short ...language... Many ninth graders tested in two states using mathematics questions from an international survey had problems with basic arithmetic skills".  And this is no surprise.  With teacher skills & training (and qualifications! - talk of political interference there...) being what they are, that's the kind of student literacy rates which can be exptected.

Secondly, the article says "Theoretically, a nation with young demographic has lower dependency ratio..." and then goes on to describe how 'demographic dividend' doesn't work in India.  However, one additional aspect is that the premise itself may not hold.  Even if it's true that "In 2020, the average Indian will be only 29 years old, compared to 37 in China and the U.S., 45 in West Europe and 48 in Japan, according to India's Ministry of Labor and Employment", many such 29-year-olds do have a full family to support, with both ageing/aged parents and (courtesy early marriages, especially in rural areas) spouses & children.

The article concludes by saying that "The poor education standards are recipes for social problems as incidents of crime escalate".  But the escalating crime is not only caused by the poor educational standards.  It's also a symptom of the haves-have nots divide, caused by the same unemployability that plauges the system.

Unless urgent steps are taken to stem the rot in an integrated fashion, by attacking each and every factor in the entire chain of causes and effects, social tensions are only slated to increase, with predictable consequences for both law & order and institutionalized corruption, notwithstanding efforts to address one or the other symptom in an isolated manner.

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Life and death...

The ideas in the recent blog post (Dealing with Terminal Illness) by Om Swami are quite in line with Tagore's Gitanjali Verse '...because I love this life, I know I shall love death as well...':

'I was not aware of the moment when I first crossed the threshold of this life. 
What was the power that made me open out into this vast mystery 
like a bud in the forest at midnight? 
When in the morning I looked upon the light 
I felt in a moment that I was no stranger in this world, 
that the inscrutable without name and form had taken me 
in its arms in the form of my own mother. 
Even so, in death the same unknown will appear 
as ever known to me. 
And because I love this life, I know I shall love death as well. 
The child cries out when from the right breast the mother takes it away 
to find in the very next moment its consolation in the left one.'

Wednesday, June 18, 2014


There is a cliched statement from the movies which goes something like this: "जब दो इंसानो  को मिलना होता है तो पूरी कायनात उनको मिलाने के लिए काम करने लगती है" (loosely translated as 'when two people have to get together, the whole universe works towards that').  The power of coincidence, that is...

One take on this thought is that whatever you believe in strongly (and send out 'signals' for) happens - see Making your dreams come true.  This is also the tack taken by Rhonda Byrne in her books 'The Secret' and 'The Power' which, however, are too materialistically inclined to be of taste to everybody.

I've felt this 'coincidence' sometimes while reading multiple books during a day (a quirk of mine).  I may come across the same, ummm..., 'theme' across (a) Bhagwadgita (Hindi interpretation by Swami Ramsukhdas), and (b) Bhagwadgita (different chapter/verse - English interpretation by Paramhansa Yogananda), and (c) Rubaiyat of Omar Khaiyam (interpretation by Paramhansa Yogananda).

Today again I felt the same thing happen.  I was sitting with a colleague (and a good friend) and listening, for the umpteenth time, to his grumblings about the workplace, bosses, et al.  (To give him credit, he also sometimes acknowledges that it's no good to grumble, and one should 'either shape up or ship out' - but then he reverts to the same mode of grumbling.)  Well, I've been thinking for quite some time to share some feedback with this colleague on his negative mode of thinking (not the least because some of the negativity seems to rub off on me too sometimes!).  It so happened that today, on the verge of starting to provide such feedback, I refrained from doing so, remembering an old adage that feedback (even if constructive) is best given when sought, in most situations.  And this is regardless of how much one thinks it'd benefit the receiver of such feedback, since the very act of sharing feedback may arouse certain negative feelings/resistance in the receiver if s/he is not receptive in the first place.

Well, after the colleague went off, I started reading my emails.  One of the regular emails I receive is a series of 'suggestions', based on thoughts of well-known thinkers of their time.  And what do I see, as the thought for the day, but this: 'Absence of criticism' - "...resist the urge to speculate about... neighbours unless with a view to their benefit" (see If I can).  (This was shown to be based on Jain Tirthankara Mahavira's thought "May no one speak harsh, bitter or unpleasant words.")

Regardless of what alternative interpretation/s I (or anyone else) can put on the above thought, the fact remains that it was relevant to my prevailing thought process of sharing feedback.  For me, incidents like these seem to indicate that (a) the teachings of thinkers and epics, Bhagwadgita among them, are not based on dry philosophizing or 'speaking from the pulpit' but are based on, and meant to guide, the living of life itself, and (b) we're all perhaps part of the same 'macrocosm' (for want of a better word), while existing as (within?) our own 'microcosm'...

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Thoughts across language and much else...

What a coincidence!  I was going through verse 57 of the 2nd chapter of Srimadbhagwadgita (the 'Gita') last night - the Hindi interpretation with detailed notes by swami Ramsukhdas ji.  The shloka talks about the characteristics of a 'sthitapragya' (a person of equanimity), saying such a person should withdraw his indriyas (senses) within himself like a turtle.

Right after that, I started reading the Gita interpretation (in English) by Paramhansa Yogananda - verse 26 of chapter 6.  Eerily, this verse also turned out to be saying almost the same thing - how an aspirant Yogi should strive to keep his indriyas under control!

What a transmission of thoughts, across language, target audience (an ordinary devotee vs. an aspiring Yogi) and author (someone who spent his whole life in India vs. someone who spent the major part of his life in US).  But the underlying thought remains the same!

Were they both trying to say something (the same thing), communicating from beyond the boundaries of time and space?...

Monday, February 17, 2014

Indian habit of jugaad helps reduce healthcare costs considerably

Indian habit of jugaad helps reduce healthcare costs considerably

Friday, January 03, 2014

Subsidies and all that...

The Arvind Kejriwal-led Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) recenlty gained power in Delhi and announced certain sops for 'aam aadmi' (common man) forthwith, without even waiting to prove their majority on the floor of Delhi Assembly with the support of Congress (or perhaps wanting to 'do it quick' before someone could pull the rug from under their feet!).  Commenting on the subsidies announced by the AAP Govt., esp. the one relating to power charges, a couple of respected former colleagues expressed themselves as not wholly in favour of such subsidies, broadly on the ground that it was a wastage of precious public resources.

I've a bit of a contrarian view on this (though perhaps still to consider all aspects). Why are direct subsidies necessarily seen to be bad when they're granted to the common man or disadvantaged sections. What about the very many indirect subsidies afforded to the privileged few? For starters, does anybody talk about the huge subsidies by way of Govt. houses given to public servants (just compare the market rents in surrounding areas to the pittance they've to pay the Govt.)? What about the almost 'everything free' life of our so called elected representatives (someone once came up with a calculation for an average MP - it came to millions!)? And we're not even talking of the disparity in opportunities afforded at the two ends of the scale of affluence, an indirect subsidy in itself - remember that someone born with a silver spoon in his mouth has infinitely greater opportunities to progress, against someone born in more humble circumstances.

The going wisdom, honed by the traditional wisdom and conditioning poured into all our minds since eternity, seems to be that metrics like fiscal deficits are affected only by the direct subsidies granted to the economically disadvantaged, while the indirect subsidies are manna from heaven! But just consider: where does the effect of the largesse afforded to the privileged few land up - perhaps on the same plate, just as direct subsidies do? Eventually, it'd seem that the same 'common man' ends up bearing the burden of fiscal deficit from his pocket, either by way of increased taxes (which he can't evade like a smart businessman, being subject to witholding taxes from salary - another subsidy asymmetry!) or erosion of savings due to inflation (while the solution for businesses is simply to jack up the prices of goods and services, protecting their marging).

One argument could be that the advantages accruing to the entrepreneurial class is ostensibly due to the operation of risk-reward equation: more the risk taken, greater the reward.  But at whose cost do such supposed 'entrepreneurs' (many of whom may be the old landed class, rent-seekers rather than true innovators) take such increased risk.  We only have to look at the subprime crisis for the answers!  Closer home, how many industrialists have really been made to pay with a reduction in their lifestyle after their businesses failed - word is that most of the risk is actually borne by the banks and financial institutions, while the super profits/rewards go to the 'promoters'.  And ultimately the tab for the inefficient (and sometimes downright corrupt) lending practices of public banks has to be picked up by the same common man!

So what's really the harm in the poor common wo/man being compensated at least a little bit by being granted some direct subsidies. And make no mistake - the common wo/man is yearning for it!  With the information asymmetry slowly withering away, mainly due to electronic media and especially internet, aspirations are rising all around.  And we the middle class have started to feel the pinch lately, much later (in terms of social development) than many other developed societies - labour wages from farms in Punjab to construction sector in Mumbai have been rising due to the 'NREGA' effect (supply of labour stemmed due to rural employment scheme in their villages), as have the salaries of domestic helps, many of whom used to come from such rural areas.  One pernicious effect brought on by the rising aspirations has been the unsavoury social incidents like honour killings and worse, epitomising the 'clash of two worlds' (mainly rural and urban), where economic conditions and mobility change but social mores do not keep pace.

When some people talk about wastage of public resources in subsidies, the underlying thought seems to be that since the resources are collected from the middle classes (not counting the really rich who have ways of either 'passing on the burden' or evading it!), they should be spent on the same classes.  However, taxation theory also says that the objectives of taxation are not only public/common welfare, but equalization of wealth to an extent by transfer of resources.  We wouldn't want forcible and sudden transfer of wealth (like Dr. Zhivago's house in 1920's USSR being marshalled for housing the poor!), would we?  So taxation and grant of subsidies seem to be the other way in which this is done!

I say subsidies "granted' and not "availed", consciously, because as anyone with an iota of exposure to real life knows, here the lion's share of even those direct subsidies is cornered by many of the same privileged classes who also get a plethora of indirect subsidies, by way of rampant corruption and administrative overheads.  The public distribution system (PDS) of India, which provides 'ration' food for the common man, is a prime example of leakage, as is the MGNREGS (the rural employment guarantee scheme).  The real debate should perhaps center around such inefficiencies and corruption around the subsidy schemes.

I believe AAP's recent electoral success is due to the fact that the other political formations have lost touch with these realities at ground level. And this applies especially to Congress, full of lawyers and economists whose only occupation seems to be to fulminate over esoteric things like balance of payments, monetary & fiscal deficits, market/& FII sentiments, 'confidence of the international community' (whatever that means!) and the like. Issues which don't make sense and not an iota of difference to the life of the common wo/man, who's more concerned on a day to day basis about balancing his/her household budget and keeping his/her head over water.

I fervently hope the common wo/man relegates all such political parties/formations to the dustbin of history and brings in more AAP-like people who're in regular touch with ground realities. But that's only a hope - I'm realistic (or cynical!) enough to realize that there are a host of factors like caste, religion, musclemanship, corruption etc. at play to thwart such a grant vision and perpetuate the status quo. My remaining hope is that perhaps AAP's victory would spur some in the current bunch to see the writing on the wall and take up common people's issues.  Perhaps a small start has been made in this direction by Sanjay Nirupam, the Congress MP, who's now demanded that Maharashtra Govt. should also look at ways and means to reduce power charges the same way that AAP has done in Delhi. Amen!

Friday, November 22, 2013

Books, books, books...

A friend recently asked me about my reads.  Going through my past reads mentally, I realized they are a ‘peculiar’ list of fiction & non-fiction.

On economic/financial topics 
  • I’m a fan of Nassim Nicholas Taleb, one of the most cerebral writers in my opinion (I devoured ‘Black Swan’, read up part of ‘Fooled by Randomness’).  Surprising to know he was a ‘quant’ i.e. a financial market trader!
  • I also read up ‘The Big Short – Inside the Doomsday Machine’ by Michael Lewis on the 2008 US banking crisis, which reads like a thriller! (I also started on 'Freefall' by noted economis Joseph Stiglitz on the same subject but found it too dry!).
  • The World is Flat’ by NYT columnist Thomas L. Friedman, about interpreting the global economic liberalization and ‘connectedness’.
  • Some others like ‘Economic Naturalist’, and ‘Freakonomics’, giving an everyday twist to seemingly complex economic phenomena.  
  • My readings on business topics include books like ‘Execution’, ‘Good to Great’, ‘Rich Dad Poor Dad’, ‘24 Carrot Manager’,etc.
  • Books on general interest topics like 'Eats Shoots & Leaves' (a hillarious take on incorrect language & punctuation) and by the same author 'Talk to the Hand' (on the prevailing general misbehaviour patterns), 'The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari', etc.

On fiction, during my college/early career days, I used to read authors like
Then, after a longish hiatus, I again took up some classics 
But I also read up
  • Lord of the Rings’ trilogy (after having watched the movies) - (a) found the books contained far more content than the movies, and (b) the allusions to human nature and behaviour were timeless.
  • Almost all of Sherlock Holmes, the cerebral detective of early 20th century London.
  • Quite a few Agatha Christie detective stories, including a large collection of 'Hercule Poirot' and some of 'Miss Marple'.
  • The 2nd and last three of Harry Potters series (have watched the full series of course).
  • Quite a few of Dan Brown’s - ‘Da Vinci Code’ of course, ‘Angels & Demons’, ‘The Lost Symbol’, ‘Digital Fortress’, ‘Deception Point’ - before I lost interest in the genre.
  • Siva trilogy by Amish - I think the last one ‘Oath of the Vayuputras’ was somewhat of an anti-climax, though perhaps in line with the created mythology.
  • A few of the 'Ramayana' (e.g. 'The Vengeance of Ravana') and 'Mahabharata' (e.g. 'The Forest of Stories') series of Ashok Banker
  • Sci-fi series by Isaac Asimov - reading one of the ‘Foundation’ series these days.
  • And Arthur C. Clarke - a couple of the ‘Odyssey’ series, and his ‘Rama’ series which starts with pure science fiction but by ‘Rama Revealed’ metamorphoses almost into theology (the same can perhaps be said of '3001: The Final Odyssey')
  • Amitav Ghosh’s ‘Sea of Poppies’ (which alludes to the Opium Wars around China in 19th century); also started on the sequel ‘River of Smoke’ but couldn’t finish, before I had to return it to my online library)
  • A few of Jhumpa Lahiri's books ('Namesake' - also watched the movie, 'Unaccustomed Earth'), including the Man Booker longlisted 'Lowland'
  • Also Booker winner 'Life of Pi' (recently made into a movie).
  • A few thrillers like 'The Fourth Protocol', the first two of 'The Girl...' millennium series (got put off later) and the first of the Japanese 'Ring' trilogy.
  • Some Indian 'chiklit' novels, including a few by Chetan Bhagat - 'Five Point Someome', 'One Night at the Call Centre', 'Three Mistakes of My Life' (the three made into Hindi movies, with 'Three Idiots' partially based on the first one a huge hit, and 'Kai Po Chhe' based on the last one also a moderate hit); 'The Incredible Banker'.
Apart from ‘series’ books, I’ve read a whole lot of others, for instance
and so on,  which I’ve lost count!

That's for English. I also used to be an avid Hindi reader, though not necessarily established tomes, but in olden times I've read a few of Munshi Premchand.

And in Bangla, I've read up
  • Satyajit Ray's series of 'Pheluda' detective stories - very evocative of the place where the stories are set (for instance, even 20 years later I found Kathmandu to be quite similar to the place described in 'Joto Kando Kathmandu-te'!).
  • Ray's 'Professor Shonku' stories - about the eccentric scientist dealing with strange inventions and phenomena.
  • A few by noted litterateur Bibhuti Bhushan Bandhopadhyay - 'Pather Panchali' (made into the famous trilogy of movies by Ray), 'Adarsha Hindu Hotel', 'Ichhamati' (started) - simple stories but incredibly evocative of early 20th century rural Bengal/Bangladesh.
  • Nihar Ranjan Gupta's 'Kalo Bhromor' stories featuring the intrepid detective 'Kiriti'.
  • And Sharadindu Bandhopadhyay's detective 'Byomkesh Bakshi' (made into a popular TV series and also a few movies recently).
  • Stories of well-known Bangla novelist Sunil Gangopadhyaya (including the ones serialized in 'Desh' magazine).
These are the ones I can recall right now.  Doubtless, there are countless other books I'd have read over the years and lost track of.

When my interests 'bent' towards a certain direction, I started with 'Autobiography of a Yogi' (an international bestseller) and a host of other books by the same author (including interpretations of Bhagwadgita and 'Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam' which come up with quite surprising insights).  But then that's a completely different journey...