Monday, September 28, 2015

My antilibrary

In The Black Swan, Nassim Nicholas Taleb says that the writer Umberto Eco has thirty thousand books in his library. Most visitors focus on the books that are read but Taleb says that one should focus on the books that are not read which he calls the antilibrary. The more you know the  larger should be the number of books that you have not read.  The library should contain as much of what you do not know as you can reasonably store.

Whenever I come across titles of books that look interesting, I bookmark it. You can call this my virtual antilibrary. I keep adding to this list even though I know that I will  be able to read only a small fraction of the books in it (because of the limitations of time). Every book I read seems to give me 3-4 new book ideas. I keep getting surprised by how much I don't know even in areas where I thought I knew something.

Just after getting admission in IIMA, one person told me that in two years I will 'know everything'. It seems as if since then (especially after my stroke  when I've had more free time) I have been chiefly engaged in finding out how limited his concept of knowing everything was. I get disconcerted when I hear people ascribe knowledge to me that I don't have. It is becoming increasingly clear that the MBA degree is over-rated by society.

Meanwhile my antilibrary keeps growing. Of course, it has nowhere near the number of books that are in Eco's physical library. And yes, it now has some books by Umberto Eco because Taleb says that he 'belongs to that small class of scholars who are, encyclopedic, insightful, and non-dull'. I don't know when I will get around to reading them because there are other book ideas that take precedence (for now).

The concept of  the antilibrary explains why people who know the least are the most confident and why relying on the 'wisdom of the youth' is not a very good idea - they don't know how much they don't know. If I had written down my thoughts on various issues when I was in my teens and twenties, they would have made hilarious reading now. Confucius ("Real knowledge is to know the extent of one's ignorance"), Bertrand Russel ("One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision")  and Charles Darwin ("Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge") knew what they were talking about.

PS :Taleb uses the analogy of an antilibrary to explain his argument about rare events in his book. The Black Swan, an argument that I agree with - no amount of white swan sightings allows you to make the claim that 'all swans are white' but the sighting of just one black swan is enough to make the claim that 'all swans are not white'. There is an asymmetry in the level of certainty that you can ascribe to statements- you can be very certain about the negative statement but you can't have the same level of certainty about the positive  statement.

The common argument that is offered against any warning of any sort -'it hasn't happened before' - focuses on the books that you have read and ignores the unread books. It illustrates 'the tendency to look at what confirms our knowledge, not our ignorance'.

Monday, September 14, 2015

When I was fooled big-time

One evening I got a a call from Vivek Chandel (Chandel/Chandu) who was my classmate and dorm-mate at IIMA and is currently in Delhi. (You would have come across him in an earlier post.) We had the usual chit-chat, nothing that seemed different from our earlier conversations. The next morning I got a call from Amir Mirza (Sidey), another classmate and dorm-mate at IIMA who was then in Mumbai. He informed me that he was leaving for New York (where he is working) the next day and that we will meet on his next visit.

Jaya  informed me that some visitors who had been expected the previous day were coming that morning. Jaya got me ready and shifted me to the wheelchair. She told me that the expected guests were in a hurry to go back so she took me to the front hall as the visitors were expected soon.

And who do I find there? Sidey and Chandel! They had been sitting quietly lest their voices carry to my room. Sidey said, 'Kesu! Fancy you being here! What a surprise!' P.G. Wodehouse described the expression on the face of a chap who "while picking daisies on the down line, has just received the 4.15 in the small of the back." I had a similar expression on my face when I saw the two of them. You scarcely expect two guys who you thought were in Delhi and Mumbai to be in front of you.

It was the first time since our hostel days that we were together. We had spent a lot of fun times together in our hostel days. Chandel and Sidey had come home separately earlier but this was the first time they had come together. I had thought that they had had enough of my sick jokes but they have more resilience than I had imagined. It was good to know that familiarity doesn't always breed contempt.

We soon got down to discussing old times. And when Sidey is around when discussing old times, the topic soon veers around to the time when a restaurant in Ahmadabad had to close down due to his gargantuan appetite.

The three idiots meet after 22 years: Sidey to the right of me and Chandel to the left of me (and Jaya in front of me with the camera) 

We had gone to a restaurant that offered unlimited Gujarati thaali. Unfortunately for the restaurant, it had gulab jamun on its menu for dessert. With his gastric juices working overtime, Sidey polished off 23 of the sinful sweetmeats. When good food is in front of him, he feels compelled to show his appreciation. He is mindful of a cook's fragile temperament as evidenced by Anatole, the cook of P.G. Wodehouse fame, the one who serves a magnificent  mignonette de poulet rotie petit duc  and a sublime  nonats de la Mediterranée au fenouil (if you don''t know what they are, don't worry; I don't either) and threatens to put in his papers if he finds someone pushing them away and nibbling on spinach instead.

The good Samaritan, whose sole motivation was to protect the self-esteem of a hard-working and often unappreciated cook (any suspicion of gluttony that you might entertain would be making a mockery of the truth) had stuffed himself so much that he told us on the way back, 'Guys, don't touch me or I will puke!' When we came next to the restaurant, we found that it had shut shop and the blame naturally fell on Sidey. His calorie intake was one of those low probability, high impact events that Nassim Nicholas Taleb was warning about in The Black Swan.

Chandel is not to be considered a slouch when it came to punishing (er ...nourishing) the human body with excess calories. Once after finishing our dinner at a restaurant, we were about to leave when he said that he was still feeling hungry. He had eaten 4 parathas but he said that he could have 10. Everyone agreed that if he did indeed have 10 parathas, they will pay his bill. And indeed it turned out that way. (It reminds me of a scene in a Tamil movie.) Luckily for the restaurant, it had a pricing model that was more robust to such rare events.

These and other  hostel incidents formed the bulk of our chit-chat for the next few hours. All too soon, it was time for them to go. When I was checking with Jaya whether their cab to the airport had been booked, Sidey remarked impishly, 'I knew it, Kesu wants to get rid of us as soon as possible!' This visit was a surprise worth having.

PS: Some time back, I was reading Joesph Anton by Salman Rushdie  in which I came across the following lines: "anybody could walk in the front door.  You really had to be somebody to get in through the kitchen door, the staff entrance, the rear window, the rubbish chute." The first thing that I remembered when I read those lines was when I first visited Sidey's house in Mumbai.

When I reached there, I found the front door closed and I couldn't see anybody around who I could ask for directions. I saw a staircase which I thought led to the entrance so I climbed it ...and went straight into the kitchen with Sidey's mother looking in astonishment at the strange apparition that had suddenly appeared in front of her. But she managed to retain her sang froid in what must have been a stressful situation and just said, 'Hello, are you looking for somebody?' She must have known that her son has some weird friends and guessed that this must be one of them.

Fortunately,Sidey entered the kitchen at this moment and said, 'Trust you to enter my house through the kitchen.' I responded with a weak smile. Lacking in sound and fury, it signified nothing but embarrassment. A Bertie Wooster often has a Gussie Fink-Nottle in his circle of acquaintances. I was feeling like the poor cove who drops a dolly at mid wicket on the opening day of a Boxing Day Ashes Test Match in front of a 100,000 strong crowd and then has to endure the damn slow motion replay on the giant scoreboard at the ground with his eyes firmly fixed to the ground.

I have a lot of empathy for such an unfortunate member of the species. In my school days, I was sometimes known as 'gadda' -Hindi for 'hole' or 'pit'. When batsmen hit a catch towards me, they took fresh guard knowing that it would be a miracle if I actually managed to pouch it. I believe the technical term for the possession of such virtuoso fielding skills is 'butter-fingered'. The good Lord, when pondering over his Grand Design for this best of all possible worlds, overlooked an important detail which thinkers across the ages have agreed is a significant ommision - He forgot to provide for the ground to open up and swallow the tortured soul who found himself in such an agonising situation.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Aggressive Hinduism - II

I consider myself a Hindu, Christian, Muslim, Jew, Buddhist and Confucian. — Mahatma Gandhi

When I was in IIMA, Anand Patwardhan screened his documentary Ram ke Naam (you can watch it on Youtube) which showed the events leading up to the damage of the Babri Masjid. After the screening, there was a discussion during which there were some claims about there being archaeological findings, satellite photos, etc. (I forget the exact statements) which showed that there was a temple beneath the mosque.  I wondered why some very intelligent and well-educated people were animated about a question in which I had no interest.

It was another manifestation of the saying that whatever you say about India, the opposite is also true. Thus you will get promotion of medical tourism, with advanced medical facilities being provided at low cost while there will also be claims about Ganesha being created by plastic surgery. India will send mission to Mars while there will also be claims that inter-planetary planes existed during the Vedic age. Hindu religious men, who are supposed to preach universal love and brotherhood, will get vials of nuclearised sand from  where India exploded nuclear devices, as sacred offerings.

In one talk, Ashis Nandy said that all ideologies have the characteristic that they have an ambivalent relationship with the audiences they seek to influence. So, for example, feminists will not like most females, Marxists will not like most proletariat, nationalists will not like most of their people etc. They will keep saying that these people are not aggressive enough, not revolutionary enough in implementing all the principles of the  ideology even though it is to their benefit. I suppose Hindu ideologues will similarly dislike most Hindus for not being 'Muslim-enough' in their willingness to do anything for their religion.

Some months back, Obama said that Gandhi would have been shocked by the level of intolerance in India. Predictably - since, like America, we are a preachy people who like to lecture to the rest of the world but don't like it when others point out our faults - there were indignant voices about Obama's double standards in not commenting on the religious freedom in Saudi Arabia or Pakistan, about the ridiculousness of lumping together India and Afghanistan  in matters of religion etc.

These are all true of course but it is also true that Gandhi would have been shocked by the level of intolerance in India. The most intolerant will talk a lot about every statement except the one about Gandhi. Then a Hindu temple was vandalised in the US and immediately there were voices saying that US should not dictate  to others when it cannot put its own house in order. I call this the Mahabharata defense.

During the Mahabharata war, Krishna often uses unethical means to help the Pandavas defeat the Kauravas. When the Kauravas  protest, the defense is always of the form: 'You did many unethical things in the past so why are you cribbing if we do something unethical to you now?' It is the sort of thing politicians do in talk shows. You will not improve if you keep comparing yourself to the worst in others.

My views will be similar to that of Tagore's in the second half of his life. Initially, although tolerant of all faiths, Tagore had a tilt towards political Hinduism speaking of a Hindu nation and a revival of Hindu civilization. But after the communal riots in 1906-07 in Bengal, such views disappeared and he spoke only of all Indians.  Sarvepalli Gopal writes in Imperialists, Nationalists, Democrats:
In the years thereafter Tagore spurned ritual and ceremony as 'the fetters of blind observance' and had no use for any religion which claimed a monopoly of the truth.  He repudiated the contention that certain peoples, races, or creeds had been specially chosen by God and hailed Zarathustra as the first prophet who emancipated religion from the exclusive narrowness of the tribal God ...He disapproved of those who did not appreciate the religions of others and who brought the pride of acquisition and the worldliness of sectarianism even into the region of spiritual truth.  To the person genuinely moved by the religious impulse the ultimate truth is one, every religion bears some traces of it, and which particular creed more professes it is a matter of indifference...
If this be the essence of religion, the fact that a society is multi-religious need pose no problems; and the state has no role to play in this matter.  It is this idea, underlying the poems of Tagore and shared by Gandhi and other profoundly religious Indians, which forms the basis of the Indian understanding of secularism and which, after years of fostering since 1947, is today again hard-pressed.  The logical attitude of getting rid of religion altogether is too Utopian for human society.  The more practical answer, in line with the recognition by Tagore and others of religion as a matter of individual experience and action, is the removal of religion from public affairs, the distancing of the state from all faiths and refusal to favour any one creed above all others, the insistence on religion as a private matter with no bearing on civic rights and duties, and freedom for the practice of diverse forms of religious worship provided they do not come into conflict with each other. 
The Indian model of multiculturalism is referred to as a salad bowl model in contrast to a melting pot model. It is like the ingredients of a salad (or thaali) whose individual components retain their identities but together, they provide a good taste. 

Monday, August 17, 2015

Aggressive Hinduism - I

Unity cannot be achieved by making a law that all shall be one. - Tagore

Hinduism has always been an amorphous religion with multiple gods, goddesses and texts and people have been free to pick and choose what they like. Ramanujan's 300 Ramayanas shows that even texts revered by many had multiple versions. There have been significant strands of atheistic thought within Hinduism and doubts and debates were common. I came across a stanza in the Rig Veda which said:
Who really knows, who can truly say
When and how did creation start? 
Did He do it? Or did He not?  
Only He, up there, knows, maybe; 
Or perhaps, not even He.
But over the last couple of decades Hinduism has been copying the characteristics of the monotheistic religions, promoting one god (ok, make it two - Rama and Krishna, specifically the Krishna of the Mahabharata not the Krishna of Bhagavata Purana), one book (Gita) and a proposal to make Ayodhya as Hindu Vatican. Many people seem to take pride in wearing religion on their sleeves characterised by the cry 'garv se kaho hum Hindu hain'. I came across a couple of paragraphs in two different books that struck a chord. The first in The Idea of India by Sunil Khilnani:
For many in India modernity has been adopted through the conservative filters of religious piety, moralism and domestic virtue.  This has spawned a novel Hinduism, where holographic gods dangle on well-used key chains and cassettes of devotional ragas are played in traffic jams: instances of a religious sentiment freed from its original defining contexts, from the subtle iconography of materials and the punctual divisions of the day into sacred and mundane time. Besides tapping the sentiments of domesticity and piety, political Hinduism also summons up the energies of the young, many of whom have drifted through India's colleges and universities (for most, an idle rite of passage rather than an education).
The other extract is from Anti-utopia by André Béteille :
Hinduism as a system of religious beliefs and practices has been organised very differently from Christianity or Islam.  It has left much room for activities that might be interpreted as either religious or non-religious, according to the inclinations of the individual.  In that sense, though not in every sense, it has a closer  affinity with secularism than Christianity or Islam.  But Hinduism is changing, and one significant change is its tendency to define itself in opposition to other religions, notably Islam.
Broadly speaking, there were two views of India's past, one being tolerant and inclusive, the other being aggressive and exclusivist. Both were attempts to refute the British narrative that India as a unified entity did not exist till they arrived on the scene. This view is illustrated by Churchill's statement that India has as much claim of being a country as the equator. They claimed that in their absence, India would descend into chaos and dictatorship.

The inclusive view was propounded by people like Gandhi, Tagore and Nehru. In The Discovery of India, Nehru says that India is ' “an ancient palimpsest on which layer upon layer of thought and reverie had been inscribed, and yet no succeeding layer had completely hidden or erased what had been written previously”. He views India's past and celebrates its unique identity as a confluence of various influences which mirrors what he would like India's future to look like.

The other conception of the past was the Savarkarite view of a Hindu race joined by blood kinship. Those who had a racial connection, shared culture and had common laws and rites formed the core and others like Muslims, Christians and tribals were relegated to a secondary status. The Hindu nationalists viewed Hindus as victimised by Muslims and colonialists and laid stress on a martial patriotism as a means of righting this historical wrong.

After partition, many had a simple logic: since there was a Muslim Pakistan there had to be a Hindu India, a religious state driven by narrow nationalism. This view is characterised in the present day by the BJP manifesto of 'one nation, one people, one culture'. For the first couple of decades after Independence, the inclusive view was in ascendancy but the Savarkaite view always lurked in the background and started gaining momentum in the eighties. (It is interesting to note that Jinnah and Savarkar, who wanted a nation formed on the basis of religion were non-religious; while people like Gandhi and Abul Kalam Azad, who wanted a secular nation, were religious.)

The idea of making India a Hindu Rashtra is a mirror image of the idea of Pakistan - of a homogeneous nation created on the basis of religion, a familiar model of the Western nation-state where unity is derived from uniformity of religion, culture and language. The proponents of such a view regard internal difference as a sign of weakness. But as Sunil Khilnani points out in The Idea of India:
If one looks beneath the confusion and black arts of India's politics, one sees in its democratic experience evidence of something that James Madison and his Federalist colleagues well understood more than two hundred years ago. Large republics with diverse and conflicting interests can be a better home for liberty, a safer haven against tyranny, than homogeneous and exclusive ones.  Within them, factions and differences can check one another, moderating ideological fervour and softening power.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

A memorable meeting

In a previous post, I had shown a photograph from a school picnic when I was in Little Flower School (LFS) Jamshedpur.

The person in front of me (in the middle wearing a white T-shirt)is Sir Joseph who had taught me Physics in Std.XI and XII. He had learnt of my stroke from a classmate of mine. When he was in Coimbatore a couple of months ago in connection with a wedding, he was kind enough to visit us along with his wife and two of of his children. Needless to say, I was delighted.

Sitting in front - Sir Joesph and me
Standing (from left) - my mom, Sir's daughter, home nurse, my sister, Mrs. Joesph, Jaya and her father
We exchanged reminiscences about our time in LFS. He told us about his interview before joining LFS and about how it came about that he had to set the question paper for selection to KG! I asked him to sing an old Malayalam song and he responded by singing a medley of the opening lines of 27 hit Malayalam songs.

A brief note about LFS: When you are young you take many things for granted and only later do you realise how lucky you were. As they say, life is lived forwards and analysed backwards. One of these lucky breaks that I had was being able to study in LFS., a fact that was brought home to me more forcefully by the idea I got of Coimbatore schools. My days in LFS with the teachers and friends there are among my most treasured memories. It was not NIT,Trichy or IIMA but LFS that had the biggest influence on me both academically and in terms of values (which I think is at least as important).

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Two illiterate nurses - II

Soon after the previous nurse I had written about, I got another nurse who had never gone to school. Apparently, girls in  her village (near Trichy in Tamil Nadu) were never sent to school. (This was some decades ago. Things have changed now - her daughter is in college now.)

She was a bit better at telling the time as compared to the previous nurse so giving feeding and medicines on time was not a major concern. This nurse was a Tamilian but she could also manage some broken Hindi and broken Malayalam, having picked up these languages while working in the houses of various patients. For some reason, she concluded that I did not understand Tamil inspite of numerous pieces of evidence  to the contrary. She persisted for over 20 days speaking to me in half-baked Hindi and Malayalam and I couldn't understand half the things she said.

She seemed to love the sound of her own voice. She would keep talking even if no one was paying attention. She would sometimes talk to herself in the same loud voice which would often make me think that she was talking to someone. Because of her constant chatter, I couldn't hear a word on TV when I was listening to the news but her conversation was fun to listen to so it was ok.

She had a peculiar habit of  speaking in the first person. Her name was Kamakshi, so she will say, 'Today Kamakshi is not feeling well.' Or, 'Kamakshi has a headache.' Or, 'Kamakshi is not feeling hungry now.'

At most times she talked to me with the realisation that I understood what she said. But sometimes she lapsed into thinking that I didn't understand anything. Once she told me, 'I am going to the terrace to bring back your cloths'. I blinked 'ok'. She said, 'I had hung them out to dry., I blinked 'ok'.  She said, ' They would have dried by now, I'll get them.' I blinked 'ok'. She said, 'If I don't get them, you will not have cloths to wear tomorrow.' I blinked hard - 'OK dammit'. I breathed a sigh of relief when she finally went to the terrace.

An interesting incident happened once when I was watching TV. There was a cartoon of Narendra Modi who she didn't appear to recognise. She just said, 'Isn't that person looking scary!' I asked Jaya to find out if she knew who the PM was. She didn't seem to know. She just knew that during elections, there was one party led by Jayalalithaa and another one led by Karunanidhi.

I was surprised by a comment that she made. She said that she would not mind having to do things like sponging, washing clothes, etc. the whole day but what she found difficult was having to turn the pages of books! I had thought that it was the other way around.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Two illiterate nurses - I

So far, the agencies had been sending me nurses who had gone to school but had dropped out before completing Std. X. This time, they sent me a nurse who had never been to school and didn't know how to read and write although she could speak two languages ( her native tongue which was Malayalam and Tamil.). It was fascinating to watch her methods to negotiate a world which requires some literacy at various times.

She didn't know how to tell the time by looking at a clock. She could tell the hour from the clock (eg, one o' clock) but she couldn't tell the in-between times (eg. 1 : 15). But she was the most punctual of all the nurses, getting up at exactly six in the morning without ever glancing at the clock. She woke up half an hour early couple of times but the darkness must have told her the time  was not quite right. She looked carefully at the clock for a few minutes, thought that something about the positions of the needles didn't look ok and went back to sleep. She got up half an hour later and knew without looking at the clock and knew it was the right time.

Since the nurse could not read, she could not identify the names that were stored on her mobile phone. She could only redial the last number that she had dialed. If she had to call someone else or a new number had to be stored, she had to tell somebody to  do it. If she wanted to call her daughter early in the morning, she would tell Jaya the previous night to pick out the correct  number so that she just has to press it in the morning.

She was confident of travelling anywhere within Kerala and Tamil Nadu since she knew the local languages. You just had to make her board the correct bus. Before boarding the bus, she will ask Jaya to select in her mobile the number of the person who is waiting for her. After that she was only in contact with that person. It was too risky to ask a stranger to change the number since she couldn't be sure that it was the right number.

Once there was a minor dispute about a date. She said that she  had joined duty on 5th January with which we agreed.  But she insisted that it was a Tuesday and we said that it was a Monday . Jaya began to show her the calender but then realised that it was useless since she couldn't read. There didn't seem to be a way to show her what day it was so we had no option but to accept her statement.

When she had to keep a book in the bookstand for me to read, she would not be sure whether the book was upside down or which was its front cover. She would take a minute or two to determine the correct orientation from the pictures on the  front and back covers.

Her major passtime was watching TV serials. She was not interested in watching anything else, not even movies. She used to be downcast on weekends because serials are telecast only on weekdays. She would watch a particular Malayalam channel for most of the day which would include repeat telecasts of serials which she had already watched. Even if she was watching the same episode for the third time during the day she would watch it with wide-eyed interest. It used to remind me of a Wodehouse description in A Damsel in Distress:
These all belonged to the class which will gather round and watch silently while a motorist mends a tyre.  They are not impatient.  They do not call for rapid and continuous action. A mere hole in the ground, which of all sights is perhaps the least vivid and dramatic, is enough to grip their attention for hours at a time.  
(Come to think of it, I may not be too different. My favorite movie is Sholay which I would have watched  dozens of times. I still watch it every time it comes on TV with the same level of interest that I had when I first saw it almost 40 years ago. There is no accounting for human tastes.)