Monday, February 12, 2018

Witness to unfolding moments of life

There is nothing more beautiful than an unfinished tale as life, like democracy, is a fight that ought to be played by each one of us with all the weapons that one can find.

There are multiple encounters, stories on nature of human thoughts and emotions unfolding under the clouds of uncertainty and change. Drawn from different segments of society, with drifting perceptions on life and belonging, the seven characters in Clouds weave a grand story of city and village in the dream world of Bombay. The divorced Parsi psychotherapist Farhad finds love in Zahra; and discovers accidentally before taking a flight to San Francisco that Hemlata had experienced love (and marriage) as a kind of moisturizer whose effect didn’t last long. Elsewhere in the city, the ailing Odia couple of Eeja and Ooi relive their golden past in the company of Rabi who is a proxy to their son Bhagban, whose electoral battle is aimed at securing political power to lead the democratic struggle of the Cloud people from the stranglehold of a mining company. Each of these half-a-dozen characters create stories that cast distinct reflections on life, lifestyle and survival.

Brilliantly evocative, Clouds is an encounter with mortals, their transient loneliness, entrenched traditions, and changing cultures, that cast a mesmerizing spell on what one may think about life. There is nothing more beautiful than an unfinished tale as life, like democracy, is a fight that ought to be played by each one of us with all the weapons that one can find. ‘If you don’t fight for your share, somebody else will take that they can use.’ As much as love and private life of human beings, religion and politics has been transformed into products that can be bartered.

Within the moralistic, fatalistic and somewhat monotonic frame that defines most Indians, the author draws imaginative contours of regional identity amidst growing cosmopolitanism. The characters don’t preach what they perceive but leave it for the reader to take away meanings from their respective stories. Built upon the scaffolding of Arjee the Dwarf, Chandrahas’ first work of fiction, in which a desolate young man sees the image of his own condition in the clouds that hover above, Clouds is a novelistic structure of multiple narratives which are trapped within the limitations of its perceptions. After all, man’s best and even his worst is neither bright not dark, but always in self-doubt. Life is made of a cloudy nature, of dreams and shattered realities. Within the plenitude of life, each of the half-a-dozen characters generate surprising patterns about isolation and (dis)continuity of human existence.

Taking pleasure in the variety of human encounters, Chandrahas creates a fascinating mosaic of conversations that are as much real as reflective of human nature. His style is fresh, revealing and entertaining, intense and mild, unfolding the otherness of others through stories of love, sex, faith and belief. Clouds offer the continuity to the uncertainty of lived experiences. No wonder, under clouds the look and color of the world is only a trick of light. The truth of human condition lies within the horizon of its perception, whatever be it. Truth is anything but a subjective reality, caught in the time warp. Nobody can be as happy as they think they can be!

Farhad fleeting sexual encounter with Zahra fulfills a bodily desire, the search for happiness remains a work in progress; Hemlata’s self-doubting single status deserves to be heard, engaged with, and respected; Baghban’s quest for political identity comes at the cost of his ailing parents, and their unstinted faith in Lord Jaganath; and, Rabi’s self-sacrifice in favor of the Cloud people bequeaths promise of a cosmopolitan future. Each character is a victim of his/her decisions, in a world of unattainable future. It is a work of fiction that has politics and development at its core, transformation and change viewed through the inevitability of human existence, and death. In his figment of imagination Chandrahas draws contours of reality, of lived encounters that carry the everydayness of emotions about somewhat failed expectations from life, and yet characters tread on in search of understanding the moods of the city, its people, and their politics.

‘Amazing how ruled, regulated, routine our lives become without us knowing it, even inside what we take to be our spaces of pleasure and freedom’. In Clouds, there are footprints of an emerging new talent. If there was another kind of storytelling waiting to be discovered, Chandrahas Choudhury has brought it up with his deft touch of perception and imagination. He is an author whose work will be keenly awaited.

Clouds
by Chandrahas Choudhury
Simon & Schuster, Delhi
Extent: 280, Price: Rs. 669

First published in Deccan Herald dated Feb 11, 2018.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

To be on cloud nine!

....from clouds come our intelligence, our dialectic and our reason; also, our speculative genius and all our argumentative talents.

It is perhaps the only instance when science surrendered to symbolism, and for some good reasons. The expression ‘to be on cloud nine’ has been in vogue since 1890 discovery that the highest-rising cloud was the ninth and last on the list. But later scientific research proved it to the contrary, identifying cumulonimbus to be tenth, and the last cloud. Despite such finding, the World Meteorological Organization sustained euphoric status to cumulonimbus as the true cloud nine. As a result, numerical expression cloud eight for ‘drinking too much liquor’, and cloud seven for ‘seventh heaven’ stays!  

However, there is more to clouds than just these numbers. From the realm of literature and arts to the domain of astronomy and science, clouds have emerged from the muddle of uncertainty into the world of scientific certainty in the context of climate change and cloud computing. Capturing their picturesque journey from ‘an ultimate art gallery above’ in the words of Ralph W Emerson to the ‘center of digital life below’ as propounded by Steve Jobs, Richard Hamblyn provides a multi-faceted narrative on nature’s most versatile creation. Packed with colorful pictures, Clouds could easily be the most comprehensive and authoritative text on the subject. And, indeed it is!

Hamblyn, an English lecturer at the University of London, has attained undisputed mastery on the subject, having already published two books on clouds - The Cloud Book and Invention of Clouds. While the first book captures all things to do with the origin and development of clouds, the second is a cultural excavation on understanding the science of clouds. In his third book under reference, he has brought clouds down to earth and unveiled their mysteriousness. Throughout human history attempts to understand clouds and their behaviour has been a subject of delight and fascination, offering limitless source of creative contemplation, from Socrates to Seneca and from Kalidas to Ruskin. Each attempt has helped in presenting a different story.

Clouds emerges is a magnificent collection of these stories – from their wooly journey through art, literature, music and photography to their sinister manipulation for military use and anthropogenic modifications. American (failed) attempts at precipitating flash floods during the Vietnam War are part of the legend. Such secret military trials have invoked widespread concern from international community to declare clouds as ‘a resource that belongs to no one’. Legal remedies for trespassing territories for appropriating clouds through artificial seeding would need to be curtailed as competition over access to rainwater escalates.

Since science is only beginning to understand the role of clouds in shaping future conditions on earth, a warm atmosphere may reorganize the day-to-day behaviour of clouds that could either amplify or mitigate climate change. The trouble, warns Hamblyn, is that clouds have a habit of behaving in complex and surprising ways. The fact that our warming climate is producing ever more lightening strikes is one of many surprises that clouds have in store. Each 1 degree rise in temperature increases lightening activity by around 12 per cent. Will clouds turn out to be agents of global warming or will they end up saving the day by reflecting ever more sunlight back into space remain unanswered? 

It is evident that clouds are challenging human intelligence. Philosophers like Aristophanes, who always had their head in clouds, had long professed that ‘from clouds come our intelligence, our dialectic and our reason; also, our speculative genius and all our argumentative talents.’ Wondering if clouds were objects or phenomenon or processes, Leonardo da Vinci had described clouds as formless triggers of visual invention, their fleeting magnificence and endless variability provides food for thought for scientists and daydreamers alike. The current predicament with clouds is taking us back in time to re-imagine and re-understand clouds. There may be clues in arts and literature to make a fresh beginning!

Hamblyn contention is that the law of unintended consequences needs to be kept in mind while embarking on geo-engineering projects that temper with atmosphere, and clouds. Clouds are too sensitive not to be taken into account in such anthropogenic adventures, he cautions. In short, it is clear that there is no way of knowing what is really going to happen to our increasingly changing  atmosphere, and just as in centuries past, clouds were employed as ready metaphors of doubts and uncertainty, it looks as if they will continue to be so for centuries to come. 

The crucial issue is that life without clouds would not be physically possible. Far from just being a source of water, these have larger role in keeping the earth hospitable to living beings. Clouds provide insights on history and science of clouds, and acts as a guide to pursue mankind to get a sensitive handling on the wooly product/process hovering between sky and the earth. Cogent and colorfully illustrated, this is the ultimate guide to the past, present and future of clouds. 

Clouds: Nature and Culture
by Richard Hamblyn
Reaktion Books, London
Extent: 251, Price: $25

First published in AnthemEnviroExpertsReviews.

Friday, January 12, 2018

An exercise in hortatory optimism!

The world needs a new economic system that unleashes altruism as a creative force by assuming that human beings are born entrepreneurs and not mere job seekers. 

At an address in Prague in August 1996, Lech Walesa said that while the transition from capitalism to communism was easy, the transition from communism to capitalism wasn’t. “It is easy to make fish soup from the aquarium with living gold-fish, but just imagine what a challenge it is to try to make the aquarium with living goldfish out of the fish-soup,” he said, adding that this was what was being attempted in his native Poland.

Walesa’s fellow Nobel prize winner, Muhammad Yunus, has now drawn up a proposal to make soup out of an aquarium. Riding on the contested success of the micro credit movement, he presents a case for reinventing mainstream economics in A World of Three Zeroes. The proposal for the new economics aims to create a world with zero unemployment and zero poverty in an eco-friendly world that will have zero net carbon emissions.

In a realm where money begets money, Adam Smith’s invisible hand hasn’t served the poor which led economist Thomas Piketty to argue that progressive taxation alone can remedy growing income imbalance. Yunus’ contention is that neither of the two (progressive taxation or the invisible hand) will change the picture. He believes the solution rests on unleashing the entrepreneurial skills of the bottom billions in creating a mass base for building models of ‘social business’. The world needs a new economic system that unleashes altruism as a creative force by assuming that human beings are born entrepreneurs and not mere job seekers. In his hortatory writing, the author calls for a hybrid business model that is neither quite for-profit nor quite non-profit but one that partakes virtues of both in leveraging the innate human desire to be selfless.

Drawing inspiration from several of his social business models currently operative across the world, including Golden Bees in Uganda and the Human Harbor Corporation in Japan, Yunus is convinced that the old ways of addressing poverty and unemployment through charitable efforts and government programs cannot generate the desired 40 million jobs every year. The idea seems to have merit, and is the reason leading global companies like Renault, McCain, Danone and Essilor have contributed funds to run social businesses for providing multiple services to the needy in poor suburbs in both developed and developing countries. The bottom line, the author argues, is to give people the resources and know how such that they can grow and become part of the economic mainstream.

The proposition is promising but, like the micro-credit model, the idea of the social business smacks of overt optimism. That both are borne out of the capitalist economy can in itself be their undoing. Since the idea of social business is but an extended version of the micro credit model of entrepreneurship, its performance has a direct corollary on the future of social business. Despite claims, the short-term gains from micro loans have not translated into the creation of long-term assets. This has trapped a large number of poor recipients into a debt cycle. Barring a few exceptions, the majority of microfinance institutions have been on a profit-making spree at the cost of poor lenders. This is why it has remained a low-hanging fruit of the capitalist economy. Under the circumstances, will social business be any different?

Yunus’ intentions are noble and his approach is balanced and practical. The case for social business has been persuasively made but the precondition of a near ideal sociopolitical ecosystem to nurture it seems preposterous. Left on its own without a regulatory framework, there is a risk that unscrupulous capitalists will exploit the opportunity to colour their profit-making business as a ‘social business’. While no society is driven by greed alone it is also true that economics has remained the science of self-interest. It seems unreal to expect economic man and capitalist market to turn away from profit maximization.

The capitalist economy continues to build its social image through charities. But the trouble with a charity dollar is that it can be used only once while a social business investment dollar is recycled indefinitely. Yunus is convinced that a dollar invested in social business can contribute significantly to transforming local and national economies. Clearly, there is a need to rethink the tenets of free-market capitalism and the marketplace itself. Add to this the question of the coexistence of social business within the dominant world of the capitalist economy, and the risk of the former being usurped by the latter.

While it is true that only re-envisioned economics will recognize humans as natural entrepreneurs, best served not by jobs but by opportunities to make their own ventures in the marketplace, the challenge of re-imagining mainstream economics can only be seen as a work in progress. Yunus generates excitement about the potential of turning things around but there are more questions than answers in his vision. Though the humane proposal for economic reform is far from practical, A World of Three Zeroes does provide provocations for a wider engagement with development economists and specialists.

The review was first published in the Hindustan Times, dated Jan 13, 2018. 

Thursday, December 28, 2017

The quest for power, and the lure for more..

Of over two dozen titles that I chanced to read during the year, the three titles drawn from history, philosophy, and ethology interconnect to create a better understanding of us and our times.


Childhood curiosity about the Queen who had said ‘Let them eat cake’ in response to the widespread bread shortages during one of the famines that occurred during the reign of her husband, Louis XIV, in the 18th century France had prompted me to read Marie Antoinette’s Darkest Days (Rowman & Littlefield). Historian Will Bashnor has brought the shocking facts of the Queen’s last days before she was sent to the guillotine, which during the French revolution was called the 'national razor'. It offers a riveting account of her tragic fate, with the jury predisposed on its verdict. The narrative captures the compelling conditions in which the royal prisoner, registered as Widow Capet No. 280, was torn from her family, especially from her eight year old son who was made to die under most tragic solitary (dark) confinement. The book records the most significant event in world history, but is a painful reflection on the justice system on which Napoleon could not resist commenting, “The queen’s death was a crime worse than regicide”.
The quest for power and the lure for riches can drive anybody nuts, be it the ruler or the ruled. Yet, there remains a conflict between the virtues of simple life and the merits of extravagant living. Frugal simplicity may be a boring idea amidst the quest for more, but the need for frugal living is more pertinent now than ever before. Philosopher Emrys Westacott has pulled together over two thousand years of moral philosophy, from Socrates to Gandhi and from Buddha to Thoreau in The Wisdom of Frugality (Princeton), to drive home the contemporary relevance of an idea that counters the apparently irresistible economic imperative to grow. One of the central preoccupations in the book is why, if so many smart people have championed frugality, it hasn’t become the global norm. No wonder, therefore, luxurious living continues to be viewed as morally suspect but not without being equally envied and admired. The book rightfully concludes that the idea and appeal for frugality is more than just nostalgic because the very survival of mankind rests on simple and less wasteful existence, thus giving ancient wisdom a new relevance. 
   
We might consider ourselves to be the wisest on the earth, but in reality we have yet to outsmart animals. Renowned ethologist Frans de Waal pulls together amazing surprises from the cognitive world of animals in his fascinating book Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are (Granta). The book focuses on observations and behavioural experiments from the growing field of evolutionary cognition. It allows us to peer into the minds of non-human animals – such as primates,  corvids, dolphins, elephants,  and even the octopus. It puts to rest many myths around animals’ wisdom, including the story of the thirsty crow. Experimental observations have proved that if there are pebbles lying around a jar, the crow is sure to pick these up to source water from the depth to quench its thirst. Interestingly, the book offers a corrective on so-called human exceptionalism, and should be a must-read as much for young students as for the adults past their prime.   

Contributed on invitation from The Hindustan Times and published on Dec 23, 2017, the interesting books read during the year.   

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Can literary acumen swing political power?

There is little room for literary enterprise to flourish in the political arena as electoral politics thrives on wooing a divided society on lofty promises.

Can literary acumen act as a means to political ascendency in recent times? Alternately, is there scope for political prowess to be embellished by literary merit? Far from getting any further on it, the veracity of such questions will be frowned upon and the audacity of the seeker will evoke mirth and glee. Present day political life is marred by a moral decline and a slump in ethics, to say the least. And there is little room for literary enterprise to flourish in the political arena as electoral politics thrives on wooing a divided society on lofty promises. Acquisition of power is at the cost of everything humane, literature being an essential casualty.      

That literary enterprise of history, language and religion can be combined as an aspect of nation building is an essential take away from the lives of two nobles, the father and son who lived separately through the reigns of four Mughal emperors. Bairam Khan for his military acumen, and Abdur Rahim for his literary prowess, had stamped their extraordinary presence during the period of great literary and spiritual effervescence under the reigns of Humayun, Akbar, Jahangir and Shajahan during the 16th and 17th century. More than their unconditional loyalty, it was their political acumen and martial valor that had helped both to enviable positions in the royal courts. 

In his painstakingly detailed and historically accurate account, T.C.A Raghavan captures the political jealousies and ideological controversies that these nobles were prey to. How they maneuvered through the muddle without compromising on their literary talents is both intriguing and inspiring? Ability to compose and recite poetry spontaneously came handy for Bairam throughout his distinguished career. Adroit in encompassing flattery in its subtlest form in his poetry, the decorated regent could push many crucial political decisions in favor of the empire. Politics was not a disgrace for wise men during those days, but close proximity to the throne did cause repulsion and ultimate decline of Bairam Khan.        

Attendant Lords is a vivid narrative on the most important period in history, when the Mughals were not only consolidating power but were negotiating religious diversity through political upmanship. It is not just the Mughals who were pulling the diverse socio-cultural-religious narratives into a nationalistic discourse, history is replete with instances where powers-that-be have tried to reconcile such tensions in different ways. What made the Mughals different was their attempt at invoking sympathies from our across cultures, with an aim at demonstrating liberal behaviour towards the masses.

Bairam Khan’s dismissal and subsequent departure from the court had left a residual guilt in the mind of Akbar, who showered his kindness on child Abdur Rahim who was only five years old at the time of his father’s demise. Rahim grew up as a well-regarded scholar of Persian, Turkish and Arabic, and owed these acquisitions to the liberal scholarly atmosphere in the court. It had lasting impact on Rahim, on his approach to life, politics, and power. Subsequent to the ceremonious return of his abducted wife on the instructions of Rana Pratap, Rahim had lost all desire to defeat so worthy a foe and had requested Akbar to be relieved of his command on grounds of ill health. On being questioned by the emperor, Rahim is believed to have responded ‘his courage, pride, chivalry and patriotism distinguish him as one who should receive the emperor’s benevolence’. The campaign against Mewar was given up, suggestive of the sowing of the earliest seeds of Indian nationalism on Hindu-Muslim unity.

Given his background in history, Raghvan delves on historicity of the cultural effervescence of the period from a literary lens. Persian poetry was ‘an important vehicle of liberalism in the medieval Muslim world (and) helped in no significant way in creating and supporting the Mughal attempt to accommodate diverse religious traditions.’ Language, poetry and politics were aligned under the patronage of nobles like Rahim, who had himself emerged as a poet of extraordinary brilliance. From decorative to devotional, Rahim’s moral aphorisms rest on simple verses in which everyday life resonates. His verse Rahiman pani rakhiye, bin paani sub sun (Always keep water, for without it nothing exists) has an immortal endurance.    

Attendant Lords is a work of scholarship, navigating the lives of these two nobles in history, literature, and later in cinema. Akbari dispensation of interfaith harmony would not have been possible without Bairam Khan, which was subsequently nurtured by Abdur Rahim. Raghvan aptly concludes the biography of two important pillars of the empire by locating them in the present, ‘..it is their ambitions, accomplishments and flaws, interfacing with difficult choices, rightly or wrongly made, that give us the point of entry to use our own present to understand their long-past lives.’ It is no modest admission than to say that in doing so we do get to understand our own times better. 

Attendant Lords
by T C A Raghvan
Harper Collins, New Delhi
Extent: 337, Price: Rs 699

This review was first published in the Hindustan Times, dated Dec 16, 2017.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Mutable histories on crumbling edifices

Archival narratives were authored, and even tempered to insert specific affects by both the colonial government and later by the nation-state.

Monuments are cast in stone, but not their histories as multiple appropriations in time and space generate diverse narratives of their mute existence. Red Fort has lived through it like none other. From the seat of the Mughal Empire in 17th century to the nucleus of armed rebellion against the British in 19th, it has had its share of history before emerging as the ultimate symbol of a nation-state in the 20th century. In tracing contested history of five monuments in capital Delhi – Red Fort, Jama Masjid, Purana Qila, Qutab Complex and Rasul Numa Dargah – Mrinalini Rajagopalan brings fascinating accounts of their unexpected uses and ideological appropriations by state and non-state actors. 

Each of the five monuments had a brush with the unexpected in the course of their archaeological existence: the Red Fort got turned into a place for rebellion, and resurgence; the Jama Masjid served as a place for self assertion during the pre-independence period; the Purana Qila was considered to rest on the mythic city of the Indraprastha; the Qutab complex has had its share of religious skirmishes; and the little-known sufi shrine of Hazrat Rasul Numa was saved by locals from expropriation by the British. The basic contention of this eloquent study is that each of these monuments exists in the space between archive and affect, lending credence to the notion that the monuments are culturally mutable objects far from being symbols of their specific pasts. In this context, the inheritance of the past is rarely seamless and secular.

Drawing detailed portraits of each of the five monuments, Rajagopalan examines how archival narratives were authored and even tempered to insert specific affects by both the colonial government and later by the nation-state. Interestingly, while the colonial government sought to erase reminiscences of the humiliating losses suffered during 1857 rebellion from the ramparts of the Red Fort, the Indian government did not remove Nicholson statue, the British soldier who had crushed the rebels, as a reminder of our own weakness to serve as a good historical lesson. These affects reflect differing interests and varying motivations toward the same monument.  

Building Histories captures the archaeological history of the five monuments and the institutional preservation that began with the establishment of the Archaeological Survey of India in 1861, which was given additional impetus by the enactment of the Ancient Monuments Preservation Act by Lord Curzon in 1904. As a distinct departure from its past history of looting, pilferage and destruction of historic structures, the colonial government had an image makeover post-1857 as it started protecting monuments on behalf of its subjects. Could it be an institutionalized atonement for a previous history that included destruction and vandalism of country’s cultural heritage? 

The book is more than an archaeological treatise on the five monuments, as it raises question on what historical lexicon may suffice to accommodate many voices and affects that continually make and remake these structures. Mrinalini Rajgopalan, an assistant professor in History of Art and Architecture at the University of Pittsburgh, opines that Delhi’s rich Islamic structures are deeply vexing to those who seek to reclaim India as a geography defined solely by Hindu culture and history. The November 2001 abortive attempt for reclaiming the Quwwat-ul-Islam mosque in the Qutab complex as a Hindu temple is a case in point. Such parochial reframing of nation and history has been frequently played out on the monuments in the capital city. 

Each monument may be a bearer of specific truths regarding the past, and yet it remains vulnerable to multiple interpretations as the text that sets the regime of truth changes hands over time. No surprise, therefore, that prevailing anxieties between state and non-state actors builds new narratives to justify the imagined past. The creative appropriation of the medieval ruins of the Qila Rai Pithora in south Delhi in 2010, as the remnants of an ancient Hindu empire of Prithviraj Chauhan, has been a way to contain the history and interpretation of the monument. However, there is more to the Qila that is located at the entrance to Delhi, and which has been witness to many ups and downs of the history of India.  

Rajgopalan examines such contestations to argue that since the past could not be retrieved by the contemporary observer, there is a need for each of the monuments to remain a sacred and immutable relic of the past. What worries her is the continuing seduction to redefine the archival past in a bid to avenge past Islamic domination.  

Building Histories narrates extraordinary stories of the each of the five monuments – many of them previously unknown – in making a strong case for pulling archival histories out from the influence of popular emotions. Within the archival representations and affective appropriations of the monuments, the book echoes the need for more nuanced history of architectural objects. 

Building Histories
by Mrinalini Rajagopalan
The University of Chicago Press, Chicago/London
Extent: 244, Price: Rs. 3,857   

First published in The Hindustan Times online on Nov 11, 2017

Friday, November 10, 2017

The cultural sociology of sanitation

Swachh Bharat will remain a work in progress unless the cultural sociology of open defecation gets addressed.

Amidst the Swachh Bharat hype of ridding the country from the scourge of open defecation, the ground reality of transformation remains shrouded in statistics. The notion that lack of toilets force people to literally shame themselves in the public has not stood the test of time since toilet building program began over four decades ago. Despite claims to the contrary, open defecation is declining sufficiently slowly, suggesting instead that the day of reckoning is unlikely to match the deadline set by the government. The massive loo-building program needs to flush the notion that a toilet built ensures its usage. 

Why it is that access to toilet does not inspire people to avoid having a field day? Is the state’s idea of a toilet different from peoples’ perception of sanitation? Are social and cultural notions so deeply entrenched that the masses fail to draw a distinction between purity and pollution? And, why sanitation prejudice runs so deep in peoples psyche that they belittle any attempt by the state at correcting the ‘dirty picture’? 

In delving into the stinking subject Where India Goes comes out clean with new insights on why toilet has remained an incomplete solution to poor sanitation, as it neither relates to more poverty nor to less education. If that were not to be the case, neighboring Bangladesh would have been eons away in achieving total sanitation. Instead, the poverty-stricken neighbor is close to attaining total sanitation coverage. No surprise, therefore, India continues to top the global open defecation ranking, becoming a unique country where people walk a short distance away from home to squat and relieve themselves. And, it has come to stay as a typical Indian syndrome. 

Clearly, one size doesn’t fit all as the toilet alone has not been the solution to the prevailing social ill. Should it be otherwise, a great many people who could afford it would have built one and those who already own one would have used it? A socially iniquitous society neither takes subsidized uniform design of a toilet kindly nor does it take any pride in emptying a latrine pit.  Such behaviour presents the real challenge that the policymakers have so far continued to ignore. Else, the current pace of building ‘a toilet a second’ would have attached greater significance to addressing the ecosystem of behavioral change. Ironically, less than 1 per cent of current total toilet construction budget has been set aside for this purpose! 

The researcher duo of Diane Coffey and Dean Spears have put together an important and timely book, with an easy to read narrative, which argues that caste factor is the biggest stumbling block for open defecation to be overcome anytime soon. Drawing heavily from field studies and data analysis, the authors contend that the power of the state over open defecation is limited because it not only lacks the human resources needed for behavioral change but also because the social forces against it are strong. Seeking collective action from a fragmented society is an altogether different ball game that the state has yet to start playing.

There isn’t an easy solution in sight though, and neither have the authors suggested a prescription. Far from it, the University of Texas researchers working under the aegis of non-profit Research Institute for Compassionate Economics have located the pieces that need to be pieced together to solve the sanitation puzzle. To begin with, it will make sense for the government to reflect on its website the number of actual toilet users against the numbers of toilets built. Such a shift will usher a sense of accountability, and a tool for assessing change and measuring impact. Because, the goal is to eradicate open defecation with toilets as the brick-mortar means of achieving it.   

Having missed the deadline of eradicating open defecation a fewer times in the past, there is little to counter Coffey and Spears’ prediction for its repeat yet again. Let the government not shy away from accepting limited impact of its drive because plan to find reasons for rejection of affordable toilets have yet to be drawn. Creating options in toilet designs to accommodate peoples’ beliefs, including the convenience of mechanical emptying of pits, should be taken up in right earnest. Unless the targeted approach is replaced with an action and research initiative, location-specific challenges will continue to limit impact.  

Where India Goes is a timely reminder on what has not worked, and a list of actions that could spur change. It is a book for planners who are guided by their political masters to meet targets, but are forced to hit the ground while running for achieving the over-ambitious goals. Without addressing the cultural sociology of open defecation, the political rhetoric of Swachh Bharat will remain a work in progress. A critical policy shift cannot be left to the politics of toilet building alone. 

Where India Goes
by Diane Coffey & Dean Spears
HarperCollins, New Delhi
Extent: 271, Price: Rs 250

This review was first published in The Hindustan Times dated Nov 11, 2017.

Friday, October 20, 2017

The rise without a fall?

By creating an assured market of committed consumers; Baba Ramdev has capitalized on consumer desire by marketing tradition as a product of modern convenience.   

Chance opportunities and trivial advantages can make a lot of initial difference to any initiative. It can even convert unobtrusive action into potential business opportunity. That is what explains the prodigious journey of Baba Ramdev, from a small time yoga guru to a big time business brand. Everything seemed to have worked in his favor, from his unstinted faith in the curative powers of yoga to his innate desire for promoting collective good, as he packaged healthcare and spirituality into a marketable product worth over Rs. 10,000 crore. Its phenomenal rise has turned out to be the most disruptive force in the consumer market.  

How could a yoga guru derail the bandwagon of established consumer brands? How has the detached guru become a phenomenon in the world of profit? More by default than design, the breath control exercises were positioned as a quick fix antidote to the fast-moving-consumer-ailments like diabetes, obesity, and blood pressure that helped the yoga guru build a vast following of middle income constituency straddled with mounting medical bills. The healing crusade was bound to prosper as the thirty minute breath control exercises enlivened the hopes of those who sought healthcare without frequenting the doctors. 

What began as an instinctive move to demystify age-old yogic practices ended up capturing the collective psyche of health conscious people across the country! The evidence-based real-life stories beamed through television spurred demand for its cheap ayurvedic formulations. Television indeed created a springboard for the high-profile yoga guru to build a huge spiritual enterprise. Control over airwaves connected him to the world of marketing and finance, the new links created political economies that support and sustain such enterprises. The remarkable journey of the yoga guru is as exceptional as the enterprise he has created. 

The Baba Ramdev Phenomenon captures the incredible journey of a school drop-out Ram Kishen becoming the irresistible Yoga Guru Ramdev. With a current strength of 10 lakh active followers, brand Patanjali aims to clock sales of Rs 40,000 crore by 2018-19, and reach an imposing figure of Rs 100,000 crore by 2020. Given that the entire packaged consumer products market in the country is an estimated Rs 3.2 lakh crore a year, and that brand Patanjali sales have more than doubled each year, garnering a significant share of the market may not be improbable for India’s buzziest brand. Operating at 10 per cent profit margin, as opposed to 20 per cent for most other brands, brand Patanjali is out to invert the consumer product market anytime soon. 

Other than astute upmanship and smart business acumen, what may have worked in favor of brand Patanjali that other leading brands find it hard to emulate? Three aspects are worth taking note: first, much before launching its ayurvedic and herbal products Baba Ramdev had created an assured market of committed consumers; second, it capitalized on consumer desire by marketing tradition as a product of modern convenience; and third, by courting controversies frequently Baba Ramdev has continued to remain in the mind space of his followers.    

Easy to read, Kaushik Deka provides a racy journalistic narrative on the early life of the yoga guru, and his subsequent rise, rise and rise as a brand that is usurping a lion’s share of the packaged consumer products market. That it is doing so to end the hegemony of multinational companies has evoked feelings of national pride among its loyalists. Having risen from grassroots with hands on experience, both Baba Ramdev and his associate Acharya Balkrishana are trained to engage in the entire production process, and therefore offer their moral and spiritual responsibility for every product produced by Patanjali. This lends additional credibility for their products in the market.  However, the book leaves you seeking more behind yogi’s demeanor.  

With market for herbal and ayurvedic products growing, and competition in the packaged consumer products becoming cut-throat, it will be interesting to see how long can Patanjali hold its place in the market on the strength of its emotional nationalistic appeal. That Baba Ramdev has successful created a niche for brand Patanjali in the social and political landscape of the country is one part of the story, how far can yogic practices continue to backstop its growing business model is another story worth pursuing? Interesting would be to see if brand Ramdev can defy the dictum ‘what goes up must come down’?

The Baba Ramdev Phenomenon
by Kaushik Deka
Rupa Publications, New Delhi
Extent: 184, Price: Rs 295

This review was first published in The Hindustan Times, Oct 21, 2017. 

Friday, September 22, 2017

The divisive power of the virtual world

It is tragic how social media, in addition to creating consumer comfort of some sorts, is acting as a psychological primer for nurturing hate towards others.

Has internet got more power than people to undermine or divide democracy? The way in which media has gone ‘social’ in creating echo-chambers of like-minded voices; the chance for such an upturn may not be remote. Conversely, the world of algorithm is fuelling efficiency in the way we make choices and connect only with those whom we like. Why would then like-mindedness be such a threat when in effect it strengthens identity and solidifies views? Cass Sunstein, the celebrated author who proposed Nudge hypothesis for fresh thinking on managing health, wealth and happiness, lets the pigeon out of his thinking hat to suggest that hidden behind the purportedly consumer comfort is a subtle transformation which acts as a psychological primer for nurturing hate towards others.

As social media increases people’s ability to hear echoes of their own voices and social media technologies help them conform to their limited choices, people are pushed into excessive self-insulation that leads them to believe in falsehoods. Self-insulation does offer a degree of comfort though, and possibly a way of life too. But creation of a limited argument pool based on constricted viewpoints ends up undermining the ability to be engaged citizens. As these self-insulated groups continue to churn limited ideas, falsehoods are inevitable outputs which eventually contribute to a politics of suspicion, distrust, and even hatred. A vote in favor of ‘Brexit’ could not have been possible any other way, opines Sunstein.

Social media has come handy for politicians to create political polarization effects, Donald Trump used it effectively and so did Narendra Modi in their respective election campaigns. Curiously, it is now clear that the ‘likes’ on Facebook and the ‘followers’ on Twitter are not the best measure of popularity. The numbers don’t really add up, but do show the use of social media in engineering political polarization among electorates. However, the bottom-line is that the followers create a virtual constituency that adds a wide range of arguments in their leader’s favor, and often shift to a more extreme position against those opposing it. Trolling is the logical next step, built over the cesspool of guarded opinions.

Drawing from research in the fields of behavioral science and social psychology, Sunstein unfolds the implications of the subtle but powerful phenomenon of polarization. The trouble is that much before people get to know it, they are sucked into the prison of their ‘like’ group. Little is realized that such group identity not only undermines individual freedom, but has implications for democracy at large. After all, democracy needs proactive voices and not ‘inert’ citizens who have been silenced into submission for holding divergent views.  One of the most pressing obligations of a citizenry, according to Sunstein, is to ensure that ‘deliberative forces prevail over the arbitrary.’ In dissent lies the strength of democracy.

Sunstein actual experience of working in the Obama administration, however, was to the contrary as his Facebook page was filled with views that fitted with the interests of the administration. This was bound to be so as Facebook’s algorithms construct a picture of who you are, and what interests you. With social media becoming central to peoples’ search for news, however, their worldview is becoming restricted with a liberal dose of fake news finding a place of legitimacy. It is a threatening fact of life in the networked sphere. It is this change during the last ten years that prompted Sunstein to address the dangers that the internet poses for politics following his previous two books, Republic.com in 2001 and Republic.com 2.0 in 2007.

Invoking Amartya Sen’s remarkable finding that there has never been a famine in a system with a democratic press and free elections as a metaphor, #Republic suggests that freedom of expression is central to social well-being precisely because of the pressure that it places on the governments. If we value freedom, we must value the free exchange of ideas. It not only demands a law of free expression but also a culture of free expression, wherein people listen to what their fellow citizens have to say. Sunstein doesn’t acknowledge social media as enemy but provokes the readers to seek out diversity in order to fulfill the promise of ‘e pluribus unum’– out of the many, one.

To doubt if danger of polarization will ever materialize is to ignore the writing on the wall. At this time when false news is guiding predominant media discourse, and when outrage by cyber-polarized communities against dissent has taken a toll on unsuspecting lives, there could be nothing more close to truth than what Sunstein has propounded. If we do not fight against the closing-down of our minds to critical thinking, a deeply divided democracy fueled by hate will be our destiny. The risks of the ongoing evolution of social media are too difficult to ignore.

Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
by Cass R. Sunstein
Princeton University Press, Oxford
Extent: 310, Price: $29.95

This review was first published in wekend BLink of the BusinessLine on Dec 01, 2017

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

The knowledge economy at the grassroots

...the natives are so full of ingenuity that they make any new thing by pattern how hard so ever it seems to be done....

Rarely do these young men get noticed by pilgrims who throng the holy city of Haridwar for taking a dip in icy waters of the Ganga, and offer their obeisance by throwing coins in it. What is salvation for some is sheer survival for the others. Holding a transparent glass pane and standing through the day in water, these men search for coins that lie at the bottom of the flowing river. By pressing the glass pane against the turbulent flow the coins lying at the bottom get clearly located. Fluid dynamics they would not have even heard of but they know the value of the idea that has eased their lives. Ask them, and they won’t even know who has been behind this innovation.

This is one amongst innumerable innovations that abound in everyday living of a largely impoverished society in India. From handy tips to improvised tools and from enhanced techniques to adaptive practices, there is a rich repository of innovations on offer. Think of the multiple variants of ‘scare crow’ to protect mature crops or the ‘belled rat’ that drives away others of its species. Even the buttermilk churning washing machine and the motorcycle-cum- tractor have been locally evolved, to make life easier for million others. What fuels innovative desire in ordinary people, and why are such innovations gifted anonymously to the society at large?

There could be many explanations for this. Simply put, improvisation is the mother of survival and a lost opportunity remains an unforgiveable waste. Resource constraint is viewed as a challenge by the poor, firing imagination in the most ordinary of minds. As a result, people do not succumb to the constraints but transcend them by improvising on inputs and reducing costs. An English traveler during the Mughal period had recorded that ‘the natives are so full of ingenuity that they make any new thing by pattern how hard so ever it seems to be done.’ It will suffice to say that an Indian is inherently an entrepreneur and willingly a devotee, nurturing a DNA of innovation for the larger good of the society.

Yet, in the welter of contradictions it may be risky to paint a nation of people with a single brush. By default people are innovative but they are spaced by socio-cultural differences, and thrive in diverse ecosystems of challenges and opportunities. Few ecosystems mould some of them into entrepreneurs, while a large number is left unattended on the margins. In his quarter century of efforts at documenting and celebrating informal knowledge produced at the grassroots, Anil Gupta displays a seriousness of purpose in fostering voluntarism to scout innovations from the grassroots. Else, the double-decker root bridge from Meghalaya, an efficient brick kiln from Andhra Pradesh, an innovative tree climber from Kashmir, and the bamboo windmill for water lifting from Gujarat would not have earned social recognition.

Grassroots Innovation chronicles the personal journey of the author in building an institutional architecture that has ensured respect, recognition and rewards for unsung innovators spread across the country. Each of the more than 200,000 ideas, innovations and knowledge practices have been registered at the National Innovation Foundation (NIF), set up by the Government of India. Out of the registered innovations, NIF has filed for more than 730 patents and about two dozen plant variety protection applications on behalf of the grassroots innovators.

What began as a voluntary effort through the Honey Bee Network has grown vertically; the process of translating an innovation into a good or service that creates value for the inventor through the payment it may receive from the potential customers has been set in motion. Though the process has been carefully designed, it seems these are still early days for the entire value chain to be fully operational. Part of the problem rests in keeping the cost and also the supply chain of these easy-to-use innovations frugal. One may baulk at this characterization but it does throw up a challenge more for the promoter of innovation, than the innovator himself. After all, grassroots innovators have rarely been inventing products or processes for the market.

The overtly interpretive acrobatics by the author in lending philosophical perspective to the social capital of grassroots innovations has reduced an interesting narrative into an exercise in theorizing the sociology of innovative culture. It raises more questions than what the author had set out to address. If the resource constraints give wings of imagination to the impoverished for being innovative, will connecting them to the marketplace of opportunity not curtail their inherent freedom of expression? What is the relationship between the idea of freedom at the grassroots and the rational for institutionalizing marketable perfection out of it? In the end, are the high ideals of an innovative culture need to be tagged to a monetary value outside the society that nurtures it? It could be anybody’s guess if creating a marketable opportunity for grassroots innovations can nurture the backend ecosystem to continue generating useful ideas.    

Aamir Khan’s 3 Idiots had scored brownie points in using some of these innovations in challenging a system of education that nurtures clones of a kind. In contrast, Anil Gupta’s Grassroots Innovation struggles to bring clarity between thoughts and reality. Yet, it gives a tour d’Horizon of the enriching world of grassroots innovations. Part illuminating and part preachy, the lengthy narrative can be tough going for readers unfamiliar with the subject. It nonetheless throws light on some unusual questions on and about the mainstream knowledge economy.

Grassroots Innovation
by Anil Gupta
Penguin Books, New Delhi
Extent: 381, Price Rs. 599

This was first published in the Hindu BusinessLine weekend magazine Blink on Sept 23, 2017. 

Friday, August 18, 2017

Sorry for giving you the trouble!

Staying with the Trouble may not be easy, but staying out of it is even more daunting as it amounts to denouncing the world in the expectation of an ideal world.

Trouble is what everyone avoids getting into, and yet it clings and endures. Be it small or big, transient or lasting, personal or social, local or global, there is one for each one (and at times more) at any given point in time as there isn’t any easy escape from it. Come to think of it, we are all tasked with making trouble as well as to settle troubled waters. It is said that without trouble there wouldn’t be any glory either. With most of us living in troubling, disturbing and torrid times, what sort of salvific future can we expect out of it?

Staying with the Trouble may not be easy, but staying out of it is even more daunting as it amounts to denouncing the world in the expectation of an ideal world. But is there an ideal world? Conversely, the world at large is metaphorically rooted in a bony pelvis (cover picture) that metamorphoses into a butterfly through a skeletal vertebral column that has fleshed appendages on the sides. Complicated as it is, the image is indeed transformational reflection of dying and living, that is equally disturbing and reassuring. It seems to be conveying that only through troubles can man becomes both adult and mature. As a feminist scientist with extraordinary credentials, Donna Haraway creates Chthulucene, a simple word aimed at replacing anthropocene (human influence on the planet) and capitalocene (influence of capital on humans), as a kind of timeplace for learning to stay with the trouble by taking responsibility to wipe it out too.  

As human numbers are almost certain to reach more than 11 billion by 2010, with 9 billion of those added over 150 years from 1950 to 2100, the dominant discourse oscillates between two troublesome extremes on account of impact of rising numbers on the planetary processes e.g., climate change. If there are those who are optimistic that technology will fix all troubles, then there are others who wonder if there is any sense in trying to make anything better. Haraway considers those who have answers to the present urgencies and those who don’t as equally dangerous, and uses the concept of Chthulucene to cut through human exceptionalism and the utilitarian individualism of classical political economies where possible pasts, presents, and futures can co-exist. In discussing our problematic relationship with the natural world, the author proposes the flattening of interspecies hierarchy to cultivate response-ability.

The Chthulucene is proposed as an idea of non-hierarchical multi-species world of thinking and working together. Haraway uses the spider’s web as a metaphor for a vision of the world in which there is no hierarchy between humans and nonhuman animals, where instead all lives are interwoven to guide us to possibilities of coexistence within environmental disturbance. The spider tentacles, which means ‘to feel’, help them feel attachments and detachments, and are both open and knotted at the same time. At the core of the thesis is the idea of individuality that the book challenges, and instead demands sympoiesis, making together, rather than autopoiesis, self-making. It is in new ideas and new ways of thinking, wherein lie possible solution to the old ideas that are failing as evidenced by the inequities and mania of our resource extracting economies.

Using a curious mix of cultures and mythologies, the book seeks to identify and cultivate capacity of specific bodies and places to respond to world’s urgencies with each other at the core. What finally matters is what ideas we use to think other ideas. “I am not interested in restoration, but in more modest possibilities of recuperation, and getting on together”, stresses Haraway, whose idea of rejection of rigid boundaries in A Cyborg Manifesto, separating ‘human’ from ‘animal’ and ‘human’ from "machine’, had rattled contemporary thinking when it was first published in 1984.  As a distinguished professor in the History of Consciousness at the University of California, Santa Cruz, Haraway dares to propose a process of living and dying together as an utmost urgency with the natural system on the verge of environmental break down.

The book investigates the work of interdisciplinary artists and scientists who are inventing new ways of working together, and with other species. Take the case of the pigeons, treasured kin or despised pests, which were engaged in an experiment to collect and distribute information about air quality conditions to the general public? Such gathering of data helps generate ‘imaginative action’ to enhance collective thinking to address complexities. These are not easy solutions but an array of possibilities. Staying with the Trouble is a work in progress on ideas which are aimed at developing new sensitivities and means to fostering collective response-ability. 

One reason some of the ideas seem esoteric has to do with our collective failure to view beyond the horizon. Having gone through a workshop on Narration Speculative, wherein the participants were tasked to fabulate a baby’s journey through five generations, the author could sense the melting of predicted events (ice-cap melting, sea-level rise, and species extinctions) on a piece of paper. Once through it, Haraway came out convinced to give a call ‘make kin, not babies’ in order to invoke and practice a deep responsibility to all earthlings. If we are interested in taking care of the earth then there is no way other species can be denied their right to environmental justice? Haraway thinks that we could be truly prochild of we practice kinship with other critters, as opposed to the crazy pronatalist but actually antichild world in which we live. 

Staying with the Trouble is a tough book to read, as it has long and convoluted paragraphs. It is somewhat confusing as it brings multidisciplinary aspects within a single narration. It is a work of scholarship nonetheless, one that models the world on the strength of generative ideas to avoid despair in the face of ecological destruction.

Staying with the Trouble
by Donna J Haraway
Duke University Press, Durham
Extent: 312, Price: US$26.95

This review was first published in Blink
, weekly supplement of the Hindu BusinessLine, on Aug 19, 2017.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Unfinished assault on poverty

Aid-triggered economic reforms have accelerated growth but not without widening income inequality and increasing environmental distress.

The sheer mention of the World Bank evokes mixed reflections, from an unbridled aid agency that is in the business of fighting poverty to a financial trap that twists borrower’s economic sovereignty. It has further been charged for pushing developing countries into ‘perpetual debt’ by promoting the agenda of the ‘multi-national corporations’. Despite such mixed reactions, the 1946 Bretton Woods Conference created Bank has expanded its near-universal engagement with as many as 188 countries as its members. Yet, there is little doubt that in its seven decades of consistent lending for worldwide reconstruction and development the Bank has not been able to reach its goal of making poverty history. Curiously, why then has India continued to seek assistance from the World Bank?

Simply put, the World Bank needs India as much as India needs it. It may not be an exaggeration as India has been the greatest success story that the World Bank has been able to showcase on the impact of its aid. A cumulative aid of US$ 100 billion, which is less than 1 per cent of GDP, has helped the country cut its poverty rate to 22 per cent from a high of over 50 per cent three decades ago. The flip side of the story, however, is that aid-triggered economic reforms have accelerated growth but not without widening income inequality and increasing environmental distress. As poverty is deeply rooted in many social and structural factors, it is argued that financial aid and technical expertise can only have limited impact. 

That being the case, what future a developing country should see in continuing its association with the global lending agency? In his comprehensive assessment of the political economy of World Bank lending, Nagesh Prabhu argues in favor of this institution that in addition to being dedicated to poverty reduction can create fiscal cushion to counter global market failures. Having made economic reforms a politically durable currency, how far can external aid help in pulling ‘other India’ out from the throes of unending farm distress remains an open-ended question?  

Reflective Shadows is as much a primer on the birth, formation, and functioning of the apex bank as an objective reflections on its lending instruments and policy. Being its founding member, India and the Bank have grown up facing different challenges at different times. While holding reservations on Bank’s criticism of the government’s over-emphasis on public sector during the first decade to opening-up the economy for attaining better ranking on Bank’s ‘ease of doing business’ index six decades later, India has come full circle in creating appropriate institutional and policy instruments to not only make the aid work but to attract foreign direct investment to keep the economy reasonably oiled as well. The World Bank influence seems evident! 

While there is little doubt that the Bank’s funding has made development possible in several sectors of the economy, how much poverty alleviation has indeed taken place on account of this aid remains inconclusive. But the fact of matter is that in the process India has graduated out from concessional lending from the International Development Association (IDA), one of the five institutions that constitute the World Bank Group, signaling its arrival as a global economic power. While the present government doesn’t seem much concerned about cut in this concessional aid, the author wonders how the country will tackle yawing gaps in infrastructure and institutional constraints to achieve faster growth and poverty reduction. 

Prabhu is somewhat contrived in his assessment on the country’s handling of its new economic status in the light of its pending development challenges. Aren’t there other lending windows to tap into, including the New Development Bank funded by BRICS? It would be interesting, however, to see how the Bank reinvents itself to remain relevant amidst growing competition. Despite the possible decline in lending in the future, the Bank’s accumulated knowledge is likely to come handy in providing software support on project management, technological innovations and institutional reforms. In addition, the Bank has its task cut out in assisting lagging states, some of whom are bigger than many African countries. For the Bank which has always sold ideas, and not just loans, each fresh challenge opens a new window of opportunity.

Reflective Shadows takes a sympathetic view of the World Bank, despite the presence of conflicting views on the impact of external aid on economy and poverty. While at a macro level aid does help bring about significant economic change, at the micro level it is considered to benefit the wealthy elite at the cost of the poor. No wonder, the impact of World Bank lending has been ‘somewhat mixed’, with almost equal number of hits and misses.. That sustained lending has led lagging states to embrace good governance with public accountability is the essential take home from the voluminous book, which is a valuable addition to literature on the unending role of the World Bank in fighting global poverty.

Reflective Shadows 
by Nagesh Prabhu
Oxford University Press, New Delhi
Extent: 584, Price: Rs 995.

Firs published in The Hindustan Times, dated August 05, 2017. 

Thursday, June 8, 2017

The rock upon which history rests

The abode of Samba in film Sholay (see picture) is nothing but the rock formation on which the country stands, formed some 3.5 billion years ago.

This rock formation is 3.5 billion years old.
Indica is an audacious undertaking, an exploratory journey in search of geological footprints in the evolution of the landmass called India. Trapped within these footprints are fascinating details about the interplay of forces that shaped nature and its products, fueling a renewed sense of appreciation in dead rocks and inert sands. For movie buffs, the abode of Samba in film Sholay is nothing but a massive rock till one learns that it is the rock formation on which the country stands, formed some 3.5 billion years ago. And, the wriggling creature of the size of a fingernail just beneath the upper few millimeters of sand on the Marina beach in Chennai is the cause for all of us having a backbone, although this small creature has remained unchanged since it first came to life 530 million years ago and remains the common ancestor of all organisms with backbones. 

Indica is packed with amazing revelations that take the reader back in time, but with a string connecting the spectacular past with our rather questionable present. One would be awestruck that the imposing Vivekananda Memorial resting on the ancient charnockites rock formation at Kanyakumari is actually the place where, some 180 million years ago, India, Madagascar, Sri Lanka, East Antarctica and Australia were joined together at what is called the ‘Gondwana junction’. And till that time dinosaurs had freely roamed the entire landscape, from Gujarat in the east to Tamil Nadu in the south. 

In his search to capture the grand story of the formation of India, Pranay Lal leaves the reader bedazzled with details about why rocks in one place are different from those elsewhere, why forest diversity is distinct across regions, and why majority of peninsular rivers flow west to east. As one treads through the picture-littered pages of this journey, one realizes that there is more to everything than that meets the eye. No surprise, therefore, that the book makes a compelling case for revisiting many such places that one may have visited without getting a deeper sense of their outward appearances, as also for their contemporary relevance.  

Revisiting Jaisalmer in Rajasthan would top the list to see those magical bowls made of ‘Habur stone’ that cuddle milk without addition of any culture, and to get a first-hand feel of the so-called stones which are instead microbe-rich fossilized remains of shelled creatures which inhabited the crescent-shaped beach that once was this desert town. But this was 120 million years ago, when Greater India was a large island, and in place of the towering mountain range there was sea shore that had extended from Rajasthan in the west to Manipur in the east. The excitement of witnessing the magical properties of the fossiliferous limestone of Habur notwithstanding, the challenge today is to protect this geological treasure from indiscriminate mining.     

It goes to the credit of Pranay Lal for digging out essential lessons in contemporariness from the country’s rich natural history. It is for this reason that one should visit the 30-foot statue of Lord Vishnu, the Preserver, reclining peacefully beside a pool in the Bandhavgarh National Park in Madhya Pradesh. More than the statue, it is the green cover on the pool that holds special message. The top few inches of water is dominated by cyanobacteria, the oxygen producing bacteria that made complex life possible over several millennia. The fact that these bacteria produce 60 per cent of the world’s oxygen even today are reason enough for us to protect all ponds and lakes such that more of such bacteria thrive, making Vishnu rest in peace. 

Spread over eleven chapters, Indica concludes the 4 billion years long journey of the planet with the arrival of Homo sapiens on the banks of the Indus. But it took another 50,000 years before the first human civilization arose along its banks. From then on, humans have only tried to lay control over nature and natural processes. That is indeed so, but in the story of evolution none of the living beings, including humans, have had any clear destiny or direction. Had natural processes not wiped out our competitors and predators, none of us and our ancestors would have been there. After all, humans are the most recent entrant in the evolutionary scene.

Eloquently written and profusely illustrated, the book offers a multi-disciplinary narrative on India’s deep natural history. The enthusiasm with which the author has shared his two decades of tireless pursuit can make a lay person connect with it as easily as a discerning reader. The easy-to-read text offers a lucid and accessible account of the complex science of evolution that is as much insightful as gripping. Indica has the potential to trigger renewed interest in geology and paleontology, the subjects that have long lost their sheen due to overt specialization. Pranay Lal has succeeded in demystifying the complexities of natural science much like what legendary David Attenborough did with his Life on Earth book series. Indica rightfully deserves a place on each book shelf. 

Indica: A deep natural history of the Indian subcontinent
by Pranay Lal
Penguin/Allen Lane, New Delhi
Extent: 468, Price: Rs 999 

First published in BLink, weekend supplement of BusinessLine on June 3, 2017  

Friday, June 2, 2017

Why rivers are where they are?

The United States may have leveled off its water use to 1970 levels in spite of both population and economic growth, the health of its rivers continues to remain alarming.

Its global prevalence notwithstanding, the state of water in nature reflects our inadequate understanding of its intricate flow dynamics. Despite abundance, its access eludes millions of living beings and the consequent stress on the ecosystem of which it is an integral part is only growing. That currently more than one billion people lack access to clean water and in near future the global demand for water will be twice as much are numerical manifestations of a deep crises. With nothing that can substitute this life nurturing fluid, the soul-stirring lyrics ‘i’ll give you answers to the questions you have yet to ask.’ from the album ‘where the river flows’ offer sound advice to ask right questions for getting past the prevailing hydrological muddle.

Sean Fleming may have listened to this album or the lyrics may have intuitively echoed to him in his quest for seeking interconnectedness between disparate disciplines to get answers to some unusual questions about and on rivers. Intriguing and exciting as these may sound, questions like ‘why rivers are where they are’ and ‘how do rivers remember’ propose exciting new ways of understanding varying levels of causality and complexity of the system and how these interact with one another. Plate tectonics may have carved a river’s course, but its meandering flow is an aggregate of multiple factors, from the changing climate overhead to the dynamic geomorphology underneath. The sum total is that rivers have manifest identity in sky, land and us.  

All rivers are alike in a broader sense, but have varied meandering curves, diverse aquatic fauna, and distinct morphological features. Unraveling this distinctiveness and the (unknown) variables that contribute to it are the challenges that confront hydrologists. Existing watershed models don’t provide all the answers and the modelers themselves don’t rate the results too high in getting a sophisticated description of river hydrology. Part of the problem, in the words of Belgian Nobel Laureate Ilya Prigogine, rests on our innate desire to reduce systems into sub-systems which only helps in learning more about less. Such an approach doesn’t do much good to our understanding of river hydrology; as the challenge rests on addressing uncertainty in an array of environmental factors that contribute to stream flow and the aquifer beneath it. Rivers are at the center of human civilization, and warrant compassionate understanding of their existence in time and space

Where the River Flows offers a paradigm shift in understanding the rivers. It calls for a radical shift outside of the disciplinary box, as rivers are but a reflection of profound interrelationships between landscapes, ecosystems, and societies. Fractal mathematics alongside chaos and information theory can be applied to generate a new set of data on the overall pattern created by the river system and the resultant decision-support system. As anthropogenic impacts like climate change accelerate democratically across the world, there is a need for as much finer details (will my farm get rain next week) as about big picture (will river topple its banks this coming season) of how the system works as a whole. This would be critical in understanding the common but differentiated pattern rivers generate under varying geo-morphological settings. 

But a counter narrative has kept pace as science struggles to get a better sense of river hydrology. Sustained tempering of rivers on account of damming, diversion and contamination continues to throw formidable challenges in sustaining healthy stream flows for human welfare and the environment. Be it the Mississippi, Ganges or Yangtze, the story of river degradation threatens to off balance the dynamic equilibrium between ever-increasing human populations and their relentless aspiration to stay adequately watered. The United States may have leveled off its water use to 1970 levels in spite of both population and economic growth, the health of its rivers continues to remain alarming. While every drop of water pumped out from the Colorado river is used at least 17 times, which may sound like a good news, its net impact on the Gulf of California has grossly disrupted the hydrological cycle as river water hasn’t reached the delta since 1960.  

Fleming’s scientific reflections on rivers emerge in the backdrop of such contrasting realities. Calling for an entirely new way of viewing the natural environment, he suggests processing of vast and complex information to reconceptualize the natural environment for recognizing problems differently, and in many cases identify altogether new problems. But can reams of hard data, quantitative modeling techniques, and classical statistical approaches get a better sense of a system that is not only dynamic but a living entity too?  Not without reason had Heraclitus said that ‘you can’t step twice into the same river’, highlighting that river is in a continuous flux. As the need for more accurate, precise, and consistent forecast move center stage in our dealings with the rivers, the need for factoring the cultural perspectives of riverine societies must get the desired emphasis. All it needs is sharpening scientific skills to convert human observations into quantifiable information. After all, there is a reason for humans to have evolved along the rivers!
    
Where The River Flows
by Sean Fleming
Princeton University Press, Oxford
Extent: 204, Price: $26.95  

This review was first published in Current Science, July 10, 2017

Friday, April 28, 2017

Did Athens make Socrates, or Kolkata made Tagore?

Geniuses could be the fruits of culture that encourages ingenuity, what is honored in a country will be cultivated there.

When celebrated artist Sardar Sobha Singh, known for his alluring Sohni Mahiwal portrait, politely turned down the government’s offer of relocating his studio from the sleepy but picturesque mountain village in the Kangra valley to the country’s best-planned city of Chandigarh, not many could believe that his studio window overlooking the majestic Shivalik mountains could be the reason. That he believed in the power of a place, and drew inspiration from it, was left unsaid then.

The Geography of Genius has revoked the unsaid by provoking queries: Does a place nurture a genius? Do places, like humans, have dispositions, likes and dislikes? Are places alive? Was Socrates Athens’s making or Tagore Kolkata’s creation? Intriguing are such improbabilities, though without any conclusive answers. But for Eric Weiner, the study of a place and its unique circumstances can explain why certain places serve as a superpower of ideas for genius to flourish. Travelling to Athens, Hangzhou, Florence, Edinburgh, Kolkata, Vienna and Silicon Valley, the author exposes himself to a buffet of intellectual possibilities that offer interesting insights on how nature and nurture might have synergised genius.

Guided by an African proverb which propounds that it takes a village to raise a child but a city to raise a genius, Weiner conducted psychological autopsy on the entire society in cities that produced a bumper crop of brilliant minds and interesting ideas. If Athens produced the likes of Socrates and Aristotle, Florence nurtured Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. Called ‘the Athens of the North’, Edinburgh had once watched Arthur Conan Doyle, Adam Smith and David Hume walk down its odorous streets. And, the chaos of Kolkata produced a diverse crop of genius including Tagore, Vivekanand, and Jagadish Chandra Bose.

These cities may have little in common; however, Weiner applies historiometrics to pull out some noticeable trends. In each of these cities, life was publicly exposed to a variety of chaotic stimulations. The agora of Athens, the streets of Edinburgh, the piazzas of Florence, and the street life of Kolkata offered a certain roughness, and even ugliness, required for being creative. But what has ugliness and chaos got to do with genius? Creative people not only search for ways to contain chaos, but periodically crave for it too. The yearning for chaos is known to have a neurological basis, more evident among genius minds. Beethoven’s notoriously messy desk and Einstein’s messy love life are important examples. Whether chaos acts as a trigger, or is integral to genius socialisation remains obscure.

It goes without saying that creative genius flourish in specific places at specific times. Setting out to discover why this is so, Weiner recreates the past by delving into the lives of key characters and the cultural undulations they went through. Laced with wit and humor, the narrative is packed with deft field reporting and sound sociological analysis. Along the way, he learned that creativity is contagious, and genius begets more genius in a social space. No wonder, in Athens it was the symposia with its diluted wine; in Edinburgh, the club created a place for verbal jousting; and, in Vienna, the coffee shop served as the idea incubator.

The Geography of Genius is a curious mix of travelogue, history and anthropology that is suitably peppered with interesting tit-bits to enliven the narrative. Geniuses are known to spend a lot less time with furrowed brows like the rest of us. Mozart, for example, was quite ribald in his letter writing, complaining to a friend, “Oh, my ass burns like fire!” Aristotle believed that consuming too much wine made you fall on your face, and too much beer landed you on your back. So, the Greeks always dilute their wine — two parts wine to five parts water. While wine may somehow relate to Athenian genius, why Greeks wore no underwear remains a mischievous mystery.

Despite the rich tapestry of information on creative ecosystems, Weiner offers no clues on why and how geniuses are formed. It isn’t easy though, as there can be as many arguments to establish it as the counter-arguments to demolish it. Geniuses are not factory-made, after all, to have a common pattern, as creativity doesn’t happen “in here” or “out there” but in the spaces in between. It is a relationship, argues Weiner, which unfolds at the intersection of person and place. One needs to slow down at such intersection to pay attention.

Geniuses could be the fruits of culture that encourages ingenuity. What is honored in a country will be cultivated there. Athens honored wisdom and got Socrates; Vienna valued music and got Mozart. These are happy accidents in time and space, and any attempt to clone such things can be futile. But The Geography of Genius offers as much fun as insightful reading.

First published in BLink, weekend supplement of BusinessLine, on April 29, 2017.