On Geopolitics

I attended a talk by the eminent journalist and Minister of State for External Affairs M. J.  Akbar. Made some notes:

– On the need to understand Geopolitics. Geography is well studied and so is history. But the marriage of the two is under-appreciated. Iran is closer than Bangalore to Delhi. Indonesia is a mere thirty miles off the Andamans. Are these factoids of any consequence? Of course. They are unobserved truths. West Asia, involved in a bloody conflict, is a mere three miles from the last (Greek) Island of Europe. We have seen how ready Europe was to refugees from these conflict-ridden countries.

– What is this vast landmass called Asia? The word itself was coined by Greeks, the first explorers of Asia. Asia is the wife of the Prometheus, the God of forethought and fire. All the faiths of any significance today have originated in Asia. India in particular, he said, has seen every faith from its roots. While the West used the seas as stages of military conflict, mercantile ships were sailing in the Indian Ocean ever since.

– All empires of the Medieval period fell – and what filled the vacuum? Nation states. Nation states, though far from perfect, gave stability and peace a chance. He referred to Paul Kennedy’s book The Rise and Fall of Great Powers. I’ve read the preface; the book analyses the strengths and weaknesses of the powers of the day relatively to those of others. For geographical expansion to be sustainable, there has to a commensurate economic and technological progress. [A pirated copy of the book is just a Google search away.]

– On pluralism and the Indian experience: empires had to allow pluralism; they have vast expanses, multiple languages and faiths. Nation states, generally smaller, are built on a single identity. What would a new nation, born out of the crown jewel of a great empire, look like? Indian constitution, he said, is the ideal blueprint for any modern nation, written by our ‘impossibly great’ leaders who were at the fore of the Independence movement.

The success of European colonialism was due to the weaknesses of the colonial states as well as the greed/ruthlessness of the colonising nation. Consider, he said, what Belgium did in Congo and Britain in Bengal to know the extent of the looting. Speaking of famines that were solely due to the British policies, he said the memories of famine unfortunately are not in our collective conscience. ‘Try dying of hunger,’ he said. Our forgetfulness of the horrific past also reflects in the way we treat our poor today, and the middle-class today is too possessive of its escape from poverty to spare a thought for the plight of the poor. “The Irish had one potato famine, and they made sure to not forget it. . . my hope is that the Indian scholarship one day does justice to its past.” Asked for his opinion on political interference hampering research in history, he said, “I can only agree with you.”

– India today, is in a unique position. To its east is a chain of countries which, notwithstanding authoritarian rule and demographic conflicts, are on the path to economic progress. This region has risen from the ashes of destruction following the decline of colonialism, and realised that economic progress is the path to prosperity. This is the phoenix horizon. To the west of India is, with a few exceptions, a vast region embroiled in conflict over faith. This is the toxic horizon. Pointing to the persecution of Yazidis by ISIS, he said previous regimes, as recent as the Baath’s, allowed multiple faiths to coexist. He went on to say that Islam, broadly faith, has never been a tool for political consolidation.

– Returning to geopolitics, Mr Akbar said that nations like Bangladesh, Indonesia and Singapore are looking up to India, a major economy and a thriving democracy, for ways to tackle the terrorism menace. Indeed, the Muslim population of India, Bangladesh and South East Asia is more than half of the world’s – another unnoticed truth. Reiterating the thesis of Kennedy’s book, he said that the answer to terrorism – primarily a military problem – must include ways to achieve prosperity and equity. And the populace of India seeks transformation in this generation. The future of Asia, he said, hinges on the future of India.

I think that ought to be the narrative of our nation in the coming years.

Four years at IISc

It was four years ago that I walked into this abode of learning, already burdened by my luggage and the excitement that led to my admission here. As a parting message Father told me, “Study well, but do not just that. Have a good time. I won’t interfere not just because it’s not good but I don’t know much about your program.” So I was to fend for myself.

Well, nobody knew about the program anyway. (Jobs?!) It was another experiment the institute conducted (daringly and with a vision, we’re told. No prizes for guessing that Dr Kalam was behind this.) The program was close to being shut down two years ago; how close is a matter of your taste for histrionics. Now that the results have started to appear, it seems that the experiment has succeeded in many aspects.

As much as I had thought and told myself that I was prepared for the high academic standards of this place and the impending culture shock of living in a city like Bangalore, I didn’t have it easy at all. But the institute and the city have been very accommodating. Then there was the business of growing up, about which (almost) nobody specifically talked to me, and which came really hard at me.

It makes me think badly of myself when I read the things every eighteen year old should have mastered. Similar things to survive and thrive in college: very reasonable at first glance but not so when you’re living on your own in this serious and grown-ups-only world: attend every class on time; make good notes; ask questions; study on time and prepare well for exams; actively engage with friends and the larger institute community; debate; organise events; cultivate a hobby; master a sport, and so on. Everything checked but agonisingly partially, like a half-raised hand in a large auditorium. Like also played. The mediocrity was too painful; at times I was gasping for breath.

That dread hasn’t left me yet. I guess it is here to stay. Maybe I should just ignore it and move on, like how everything moves on: tests, semesters, summers, and years.

Things get much lighter, not easier but lighter — manageable, when you have a good group of friends who’ll help each other. Sometimes just a quiet listener can be your saviour.  Having friends with a taste for books, movies, and well-cooked food is a blessing. Taking a walk with friends in the dark, deep, and lovely woods, though you have grades to keep, isn’t an indulgence. It’s a part of college, of growing up.

While I made some very good friends, remarkable people all of them, and have great memories with them, I also very often shut myself away from everybody else. I took that luxury for myself to try and understand what works for me and what doesn’t.

A few weeks ago, I met an old friend who (also) went to a highly sought-after college. Going by the things he was saying, I was left wondering what a different college experience he had! Such let’s-make-a-big-dent-in-the-world optimism! If my (IISc) friends’ experiences or mine anything to go by, IISc has prepared us for life in a strange sort of way. True, each of us has had a unique experience, but our common ground is rather strange for undergraduates.

*

Like every college, ours has many problems too; it’s not my intention to dissect them here. If I were to think about the good things that happened to me, I can only be grateful to everybody I’ve met in the institute (barring the Academic Section guys, of course.) There’s nothing to complain and I have no regrets. This is just what (I wish) I would say when you ask me, “Aur bhai, kya haal hai?”

Four down, one more to go!

Survival

 

Gulping down breakfast. Catching the bus just in time. Checking out what friends, sports-persons, and politicians are up to. Opining until I get agitated. Finding motivation to work (and go to work) from traffic jams and the faces of the people that made them, all eager to start a good day. Beginning work on a high – picking from where I left the previous day but with greater energy and a clearer mind. Running into fresh problems. Devising solutions. Talking to colleagues. Tidying up my thinking. Drinking water. Writing and editing. Lectures. Meetings and more meetings. Two or three glucose shots that go by the names of lunch and snacks. Excitement during the last hour and disappointment after it. Exhaustion. Exercise and the positive vibes. Slow and chatty dinners. Internet. Hitting the bed after eyes burn and sense shuts down.

This is me on autopilot. This is Survival. It is not before long that motivation to jump-start the next day crumbles, and charging and discharging the mind and body cyclically looks like the most perverse way to live.

Only good books, good movies, and good friends can save me. Can I ever be grateful enough for all they have done?

[Response to the Daily Prompt: Survival.]

Weekly Dispatch – 1

Starting this week, I’ll share some interesting stories, books and videos I’d seen of late. Here comes Weekly Dispatch – 1:

*

The last semester of my undergraduate course has just begun, and it is exciting. I have taken two challenging courses and I hope, like every time a semester begins, that I learn and do well in them. Plus I have my undergraduate thesis, which I hope will get into a good form in two months from now. (In my adviser’s words, I want to have a good undergraduate thesis.)

At the beginning of every semester, there is a pleasant optimism in the air. I have encountered it many times in these four years but have not found reasons for its waning one-and-a-half months into the semester. It seems to have something to do with sticking to schedule and doing things. This is not the time to stage to repent the past, but I seem to be lacking in the doing things part. ‘Lack of discipline is what kills most people on the planet,’ my adviser said the other day.

This year has been very different in college from the past three years: one because the coursework was less, which gives me enough time to focus on one or two things I can learn properly; experience tells me that I cannot handle many courses at a level required to do well in them. I have just one semester to prove my point, but it does look like an indication. Second is my thesis work: beyond the subject matter of what I did learn in the past five months, the most important–shall we say insight?–I got is how science is done on a day-to-day basis. Pleasantly, this experience is in continuation of my summer-internship work in Chennai last year. The list of experiences I gained and advice I received is long; it deserves a post on its own. So sometime later maybe?

Coming back to what is happening today.

It is a good Sunday, no doubt. Woke up on time, went jogging, breakfast, did laundry and cleaning before I sat down to do some project-related work. Seriously, there’s nothing like physical activity. Last Friday and Saturday were a bit hard on my sleep and productivity but I managed to get through with Internet’s help. (IYKWIM). It’s funny that I saw this on my  Facebook feed when I was missing my daily jogging drill.

runningshoes

Then there is work itself. I’ve done the one thing that I must have done and I would feel miserable had I not done that; that in itself makes me happy in a way. Now before I could attend to other things I had planned, I read a few interesting articles on the web, and I thought I must catch up with my plan to ‘broadcast’ (or ‘weeklycast’ or whichever fancy word you like) things I read, watched, and planning to in near future. Let’s start:

This link is from my draft from two weeks ago. Alan Watts is credited to have popularised Zen Buddhism and Eastern Philosophy at large to the West. He had also been a cultural icon, doing tours on the college circuit in the U.S. during the counter-culture days of 60s, I learnt. Many of his lectures have been televised, and have found a new audience in the YouTube era. Some of them are here. I have also read and thoroughly enjoyed his book The Way of Zen. It merits to be reread and reflected upon. For some months, I have been looking for a primer on Buddhist philosophy; this was just the right kind of book I was looking for.

Among other books on philosophy, I remember Shankaracharya’s Vivekachudamani that I stopped mid-way, and which is with a friend now. Talking about this book, a friend told me this as one of Shankara’s teachings: the point is to attain moksha (liberation/realisation); if chanting/idol worship may help, so be it! I was at once struck how forward-looking his thinking had been. So, applying the aphorism in my own little way to the blogging activity: the point is to reflect, unwind thoughts and write; if blogging helps, so be it! And dear reader, my objective might have been realised after I publish this post, but you may help me with some constructive feedback. And if this post helped you in any way, I’ll be pleased to know.

The School of Life comes across as a wise and restrained voice in the clamour that Social Media is. Discover more.

I really wish this scheme sensitises enough people in Delhi to the problem of pollution. Granted, it was a mad solution, but if it can help, why not?

Dravid is the intellectual in that generation of cricketers, and an astute observer of our society, and I am told, an avid reader — all very rare for a cricketer. Add to that his commitment level to the game: most number of deliveries faced, most minutes at crease, most catches in Test Cricket, part of the biggest partnership (with Tendulkar). And Dravid would not miss nets during IPL in the searing heat of May. To quench your Dravid-mania I shall refer you to Timeless Steel, but I’ll leave you with this for now, from the Pataudi lecture:

It is important for our young cricketers to continue with their education – even if all the time away from schools makes it hard for them to finish their graduation. It will be something they can go back to in case the cricket dream doesn’t come true for some reason. But aside from all that, it is important to stay connected to school and college because it will mean they have friends outside cricket, conversations outside cricket and life experiences that are not connected to cricket. It will give them the perspective needed to become well-rounded adults.

What kind of a gentleman in a cricketer can say such words! If you’re intrigued, please also peruse his Bradman Oration in 2011.

That’s all for now, folks! I’ve other things to attend to, and let me keep this business interesting enough to be willing to come back next week. Stay happy!

 

Mama

Today is my uncle’s birthday. Usually nobody but the family knows this, for he neither celebrates it nor grants it any importance. Just like his parents.

Mama is an English teacher, probably the best that there can be. It is hard to believe, for he’s been the same smiling-and-joking self all along and doesn’t seem to be aging, that mama is good friends today with students he taught nearly twenty years ago. Many of them made it big later in life, much to his happiness. Some stories of his students are particularly endearing, but that’s for a different day. This post is about the teacher.

Being his student for three years, I saw three different facets of his personality that he beautifully brought together as a teacher. There are many good, if not great, teachers in my life so far, but few made a mark as he did during my impressionable years.

The Orator/Story-teller

Everyone loves the story-teller in him. If we ran out of them in the texts, he would narrate new stories, suited to the occasion, drawn from his vast selection of books. “Keep’em coming!” we used to say, at least in spirit. To be treated to long stories in his hall on relaxed Saturday evenings was a much sought-after pleasure. Our wild laughter and bonkersness to his witty jokes was a bit disrespectful in a classroom setting, but he enjoyed it anyway.

His commitment to value education was awe-inspiring. For a complete week in cool winter mornings, reading out Gerald Durrell’s essay, he treated his class to bitter truth and utter godlessness of humanity’s war on Nature. It didn’t matter that that was a class of six. What mattered to him was that we grow up to be wise and sensitive people. It is just this aspect in his students that pleased or angered him. You know all of this is not for nothing when you witness that moment of blank when students had to leave after five happy years of being looked after.

The Taskmaster

There is no escape; to learn means to go the hard way. So, nothing but the best was accepted with regards to attention and diligence. But all the demands were made in a way you can’t refuse! Recalling Grammar classes, and study hours when he watched us over, I am reminded of this comic by Zen Pencils:

“No, you may not work in groups.” “No, you may not ask a question.” “Why won’t I let you to go the bathroom? Because you are bored”

All else: the person

It is difficult to say in a word what he meant as a person to his students. He made friends with all his students, signed autograph books school children of the yore carried, celebrated festivals together, never failed to crack a timely joke, and has, to this day, been a wise counsel.

Those were days when we chose to be innocent, and be affected by others; not that there weren’t smart and manipulative fellows. He enjoyed their company too, and earned a few more friends and admirers thus.


If fortunate enough, one finds a teacher one can anchor to for life. Such a teacher will always be there, eager to talk to you and happy for just what you are. Never drift away.

Swimming up the Mainstream

If you want to be truly against establishment, here is what you can do with social networks: do not use hashtags. If it is not too much trouble, share the content, not the links. Dole out your opinions and wisdom in the littlest of ways, do not write a blog post just to say how good your lunch was or how awful the traffic is. Humanise. Simplify. Do not go after your followers; remember who is following. Confuse the network analysts.

Because anarchists do not form groups.

Identity Proof

It all began when the conductor asked him to show an ID proof and the young man retorted, “if I didn’t have the ID card, how did the conductor give me the pass?” The gloat in his eye was obvious.

“It will be a case, saar. That conductor would simply have asked if you had a proof. You must show your ID along with the pass,” shouted the conductor before moving away.

The talkative man who was sitting quietly opposite to him began his rant, and I still think our smart young lad should have listened respectfully.

“Ah, ID is a must. Anything will do, your voter card, PAN card, or even a xerox copy of your Aadhaar card. Who is this man, your father, isn’t he?” he said, pointing to the lean old man in blue lungi folded to his thighs.

The young lad wasn’t listening fully. He had ear-phones on and was idly scrolling down his smart phone that fit neatly in his large palm. The talkative man repeated his query, nodding his head, as if sizing up the arrogant brat in front of him.

“Namma chikkappa,” he said. My uncle.

Then the talkative man turned his attention to the old man who was neither as smart as the nephew nor had a phone to shoo away strangers giving unsolicited advice.

“Say you were lost. You were lost in Majestic. You randomly move here and there. A policeman stops you and asks your whereabouts. What will you show? How do you prove?”

Clearly, the old man didn’t expect such a situation. His grey brow thickened and he nodded his dark and weather-worn head in approval.

*

Elsewhere in the BMTC bus, a man standing behind me was talking on phone, advising his friend which phone to buy. The man before me checked a few Marathi jokes on his WhatApp-friends group, half-watched a video and slid his phone into his pocket. He did a couple of squats to relieve his aching calf muscles. Evidently, he had been travelling a lot today. All the while, our bus was stuck in a sea of four-wheeled vehicles called the Saturday evening rush. It didn’t move an inch for twenty minutes.

“Where are you from?” the talkative man continued his enquiry.

“Sira,” the young man replied.

“And why did you come here? Had a court-case? A land dispute?” I was astonished at the ease with which he asked.

“No, he came to sell the produce from our farm,” said the young man.

“You should not come to the city! Get somebody to carry your stuff. Just sit and enjoy your time in your farm. Why this trouble?” the talkative man said pointing to the daily pass of the old man who had no document to ratify his identity. The exchange was getting interesting, and as it began to take shape, our young man interjected, “Leave it saar, all this for an ID card.”

The talkative man grinned widely. He had been expecting this, and how ready he was with life advice! “See old man — these young guys — they don’t know the problems of us, the old. Whatever you say, they don’t listen. It simply doesn’t get into their ears.” Rightly so, because the young man in question had his earphones on and had given up; he held his face in his cupped hands and pretended to be asleep, and not listening. Before our bus moved any further, he was fast asleep.

The talkative man peered out of the window and spat on the road, almost on the car that sped by.

“Sira is developing these days, isn’t it? Companies are now opening offices in Tumkur. Did you see how they developed Nelamangala?” As everyone in Bangalore knows, development means a real estate boom and companies are software companies. The old man, it seemed, knew none of this, and he gave another nod.

“The same developers who developed Nelamangala are now working near Tumkur. I know the agents there. No agents or commission, they’ll come to your house directly. Good price also. I also know some ministers…”

For a moment, in that congested crowd on a Saturday evening, a life — or if you like, a livelihood — hung in a balance. A pause hasn’t been more pregnant. The old man did what he did the best. Nod. It meant nothing, and the talkative man got going.

“Have you got children, old man?”

A nod.

“When you write off your property, just give them their share and don’t bother what they do with it. These young people, we can’t say what they think. Leave it to themselves.”

How cunning, I thought.

“Listen to nobody. This is what any advocate will tell you.”

“Hahaha! But listen to you, shouldn’t we, sire?” I mumbled to myself. When he peered out of the window to spit again, I grabbed the talkative man by his collar and threw him out of the window. In my mind, of course.

*

Now the tired man before me became really tired, not of the monologue as I was, but of the traffic. “Where are we? I can’t see out of the window,” he asked the talkative man. He said where we were stuck in the traffic. “Where are you from, mister?” he asked the tired man.

“Maharastra.”

“Mumbaiyaa?” The question didn’t just mean Mumbai, but a sense of belonging to the city which he wanted to show that he had.

*

The rant continued, and the old man stopped nodding too: “I left Mumbai in 1997, and even when I go there now, I will definitely find work. I graduated in 1984. Do you know how old I would be now? Do you? I still continue to work. I was at NIMHANS today. They manufacture something, and they said that I must help them. You know what I said? ‘When shall I come?’ ‘Monday morning.’ ‘So, Monday morning it is’. Money is not important to me. I need contentment (gently pats his heart). I have got cars and vehicles. But I travel by bus everyday. Once I even ran into an accident. Driving is not for me. I have two sons, both are software. I can call them to pick me up, but I don’t. I have neither given nor taken from them a single paisa after they found work. One is asking me to marry him. I said ‘find a girl yourself and tell me, I will do it’. Today is a Saturday, means a holiday to them. One has gone to Kerala, and the other is somewhere else. You should know things about the world, swami… Ahmedabad, Mumbai, Pune, Bangalore, Dubai, Singapore. I have seen the world…”

The talkative man spat once again from the window. The old man — what would he do? — looked at his daily pass and cleared boogers with a blue towel.

*

I left the bus in Malleswaram to attend to more important things; but I wondered, what will the old man and the young man tell each other when they alight from the bus and rest for the day?