Monthly Archives: December 2014

A short one about Sri Lanka

It has been a long time since I wrote anything about my country-in-law, namely Sri Lanka. Now is as good a time as any since the island nation is preparing for an early election called by President Mahinda Rajapaksa amid serious political acrimony and defections from his Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP)-led ruling alliance.

One trivial albeit pleasant aside to returning to Sri Lanka as a subject matter is one encounters lovely names that sound like straight out of Emperor Ashoka’s time. For instance, the man leading the rebellion against the president is Maithripala Sirisena. Some of you might know that Sri Lanka is a Buddhist country. Incidentally, the name Mahinda (Mahindra in Sanskrit) is also shared by a 3 BCE Buddhist monk and a son of Ashoka’s who is credited with having brought Buddhism to the island. But I digress.

My immediate interest is the presence of the Hindi cinema grandee Salman Khan along with former Miss Sri Lanka turned Hindi cinema actress Jacqueline Fernandez to lend weight to Rajapaksa’s apparently beleaguered campaign. Speaking of lovely singsong names, it has been suggested by Rajapaksa’s critics that rather than roping in Khan-Fernandez from Mumbai, he should have asked local movie stars Amardeva and Malini Fonseka.

The United People’s Freedom Alliance, the coalition controlled by the president, lost its two-thirds majority after Sirisena and others defected. He is now a major challenger to Rajapaksa’s supremacy over Sri Lanka. By the way, Sirisena’s full name is Pallewatte Gamaralalage Maithripala Yapa Sirisena who studied political science at Maxim Gorky Literature Institute.

Speaking of Khan and Fernandez, I find it fascinating that for an avowedly Buddhist leader his two star campaigners are a combination of Hindu-Muslim (Khan) and Burgher-Christian (Fernandez). Incidentally, the Burghers are unique to Sri Lanka as descendants of the European colonists from the 16th century onward. They were predominantly men of Dutch-Portuguese-British descent who married Sri Lankan women. Only in South Asia would you have a combination of four major religions fused doing things together. Of course, what unites them here is entirely political. Khan enjoys celebrity that seems to be agnostic to the kind of campaign he might be endorsing. He had famously sort of endorsed India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The election is scheduled for January 8, two years earlier than it might normally have been because President Rajapaksa wants to tide over both the rebellion as well as dwindling popularity. He has been in office since November 2005.


A few observations about prime minister’s smart cities initiative

Among the presentations made to Prime Minister Narendra Modi as part of his plan to build 100 “smart cities” in India, one was about the vision to build  “a new Chicago every year.” Since I live in Chicago area, I thought it might be useful to weigh in on the subject.

Smart cities are as much about software, as in creating datasets, as they are about humanware, as in creating a major cultural shift in doing things. I hope one of the prime minister’s pet projects does not become merely a bonanza for IT companies to create sophisticated data portals, even though that is the necessary first step. The operative part here is “fist step”. Running a smart city is as much a technological endeavor as it is a human endeavor.

Since Chicago is being held up as an example that India can possibly emulate, let me quickly give you a glimpse of what the city’s data portal offers. From an exhaustive list of the city’s current employee names, their salaries and position titles to the number of potholes patched in the last seven days, from the number of towed vehicles to tree trim requests and from crimes (2001 to present) to street sweeping schedules, this portal offers 857 datasets. That is the information/technology/software part of a smart city. But behind these massive datasets, there lies the equally important part of not having only carried out the services that are promised but an openness to share it with anyone who might want to see it.

Take for instance, now I know that Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s salary is $216,210. There is also an executive director in his office called Paras Desai whose salary is $154,992. I may not be able to do anything with this information immediately but it gives me an insight into the pay structure of a city of Chicago’s size. It tells me that there are 32,160 city employees on whom the city spends $2,429,980,941.36 in annual salaries.

When the prime minister goes about creating 100 smart cities in India, which is a laudable non-partisan, non-ideological goal, he will have to bear in mind not just the technology of doing so but the humanware of doing so. It is the humanware which would cause him the most trouble. I have been out of Mumbai for too long to know for sure but I wonder whether there is a portal that can tell me how many potholes were fixed in the city in the past seven days. It is possible that this information exists somewhere but the question is whether it is available with the kind of ease with which I can find it on the Chicago data portal.

It is an immense technological and cultural endeavor to create just one smart city. To create 100 in a country like India would be a staggering challenge. I am glad that the prime minister is at least thinking along those lines.

The existence of such data offers a powerful tool to run local government with unprecedented efficiency. As the number of datasets grows, Chicago is becoming extraordinarily mapped out. One features that worries some people is what is called predictive policing. This is a version of preemptive policing which some believe could be reminiscent of the sci-fi movie ‘Minority Report’.

Predictive policing is all about actually anticipating crime before it might happen by analyzing datasets from portal such as the one in Chicago based on the past behaviors of neighborhoods and individuals. Individuals with a history of crime form a key dataset in predictive policing. That leads to interventionist policing which means intervening before a likely crime is about to happen. This is a controversial aspect among civil liberty groups given its presumptions. Would a smart Indian city allow something like this? For instance, would predictive policing stop the burning down of a movie theater showing a movie that fundamentalists do not approve of and are known to have attacked in the past?

On balance, the idea of a smart city is a remarkable one and is entirely a product of the information and communications technology revolution. Without the convergence of IT, bandwidth and broadband none of this would have been possible. I will keenly watch this particular initiative of Prime Minister Modi because in its success (or failure) lies how India is willing to fundamentally reengineer the core of its culture.

Continuing unraveling of Prime Minister Modi’s media supporters

I continue to remain amused by the continuing unraveling of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ardent media supporters’ faith in him and his government. It is baffling that they thought that the prime minister would come without the encumbrance called Hindutva. He is a product of that ecology and would wilt without it until such time as he strikes roots in Delhi.

It is forgotten that notwithstanding the catastrophic human tragedy intrinsic to the Godhra train deaths and the subsequent killings in Ahmedabad and elsewhere in February, 2002, its occurrence barely within a year of his taking over as Gujarat’s chief minister had the effect of quenching the lunatic thirst for revenge. By default or by design, his credentials as a Hindu hardliner were quickly buttressed which in turn temporarily made the extreme base of his party satisfied enough to step aside and let him do his good governance thing.

It is true that he spent the next decade or so at least talking the good  governance talk even while walking some good governance walk in a limited sense. If Modi’s ardent media supporters had based their view on his performance in Gujarat, they should have also borne in mind this particular aspect. Also, Gujarat was a captive audience/market for Modi. It was what in science is called controlled conditions. He had no recognizable adversaries within his own ecology even though men like Pravin Togadia of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) were intractably opposed to him personally even then. However, he did manage to cast them aside with a single-mindedness that surprised many.

His media supporters should have known that New Delhi would be a whole different arena where daggers are much bigger, many more and way sharper. The disquiet and and frenzy that one is witnessing within the prime minister’s political ecology and which is causing his media admirers to wince and squirm were both perfectly predictable.

I have no quarrel with the substance of what media grandees such as Tavleen Singh and Lord (no less but Lord) Meghnad Desai have said in their columns in The Indian Express this week.  Singh, an early convert to the so-called Modi magic, writes, “He (Modi) has, in the past six months, allowed Hindutva types to speak louder than him and he has allowed his comrades in the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh)  to wander about spreading religious tensions with their Ghar Wapsi  (religious reconversion of those who left the Hindu faith for Christianity or Islam)  programme, and so we no longer talk of reform and renewal.”

Desai, another broad supporter of Modi’s development agenda, writes, “He (Modi) came to power promising inclusive development and a major plank of his promise was social harmony. But his “friends” have other ideas. They care not a whit about “sabka vikas” (Development for all), let alone “sabka saath” (Support from all). Swachh Bharat (Clean India) is irrelevant to them. “Make in India” for them means making all minorities in India Hindu. They are in a hurry to complete their agenda. So “make mayhem while the lotus rules” seems to be their message to the PM. With friends like these, Modi will not need enemies.”

My point is it should have been plain to anyone reasonably discerning that when the prime minister moved into 7, Race Course Road (the official residence in New Delhi’s leafy enclave), he did so with some of the very baggage that he seemed to be tripping over now and the one that his media admirers are complaining about. Modi may have done a commendable job of hiving off the more bizarre forces in Gujarat, he would find it exponentially harder to do so in the country generally. That is presuming that he actually does not want to keep his base engaged, indulged and distracted.

In any event, I return to my original view which is that he must be given time to see whether he is actually able to make good his non-ideological promises such as good governance, minimum government and inclusive growth. These are aspirational promises which by their very nature would be achieved in a limited sense no matter how good its maker is.

There is a version of manic depressive tendency that runs through the media commentariat when it comes to any new leader who rises spectacularly and then begins to lose the sheen. It happened with the late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi as well. My preference would be to let things play out, including the scratching of the epic right-wing itch, as long as it is all non-violent.

My attitude may seem to be stemming from some kind of deeply personal schadenfreude but it is anything but. It is merely a result of having next to no faith in those who run on grandiosity in the first place.

Ghalib and the world as a children’s playground

It is futile to sum up a poet who summed up the world on a daily basis. However, on Ghalib’s 217th birth anniversary today (December 27) I think if there is a single verse that captures the quintessence of his epic poetic conceit, it is this:

Bazzicha-e-atfal hai duniya mere agey

Hota hai shab-o-roze tamasha mere agey

The world is like a children’s playground before me

Where the spectacle unfolds day and night

There may have been better poets than Ghalib in the world of Urdu poetry—as he himself grudgingly acknowledged once—he stood out over the rest for his sheer range of reflections. Speaking of grudgingly acknowledging that there were others better than him, here is what he wrote about that:

Hai aur bhi duniya mein sukhanvar bahut achhchhe

Kehte hain ke Ghalib ka andaz-e-bayan aur

There are better poets in the world

It is said that Ghalib’s manner of expressing it is unique

All poets are conceited because poetry is the ultimate art of shrouding conceit behind a sheer veil. That conceit is mostly subtle but often brazen like in the verse above where Ghalib himself says of himself, “Kehte hain ke Ghalib ka andaz-e-bayan aur” (It is said that Ghalib’s manner of expressing it is unique).”

The poet is always the first and oftentimes the only audience he or she really cares about. Any applause from others that might follow matters only in so much as it reinforces the poet’s own sanguine view of self.

I have written about poetry in general a couple of times before. Here is what I said in April this year:

Poetry is an unnecessary talent. Having written it since 13, I think I have earned the right to say this. That said, not all talents should be judged for their worldly utility. The real worth of poetry lies in its inspirational quotient.

I have not done a scientific study to say this but I am fairly certain that great poetry has inspired people to do great things. The poet is necessarily is an inspirer or an illuminator. Poetry is a catalyst. If a single poetic line inspires people with genuine utility-oriented talents to do great things that help humanity at large, then poetry serves its purpose as does the poet. However, it is not the poet’s business to do things. Poets lead a life of conceit where doing worldly/mundane/utilitarian things is anathema.

That view applies to Ghalib perfectly. Born Mirza Asadullah Khan on December 27, 1797, Ghalib, which means Dominant, remains the benchmark of Urdu poetry in the subcontinent that followed his era. I have read Ghalib sporadically because more often than not I run into incomprehension over his Persian expressions and words. Urdu, of course, is very much a product of India but it is often an amalgamation many of whose elements come from Persian. My understanding of Ghalib is arrived at by using a combination of poetic inference and poetic intuition. As a poet of erratic merit myself I at least have the intuitive grasp of what he might have meant, although I have always held out against second-guessing a poet.

Ghalib must easily be the most quoted poet in South Asia. At a time when what it means to be a Muslim or for that matter what it means to have any religious label is gripped by violent ferment it might be useful to read what Ghalib had said of himself as a Muslim. The story goes that after the great 1857 rebellion against the British rule in India Ghalib’s pension was discontinued for being a Muslim rebel. He responded the way only he could have, saying, “Ek din sharab nahi pee ho to kafir, Ek dafah namaz padhi ho to gunehgar” (If there was ever a day when I did not drink wine, I am an infidel. If I have prayed even once, then I am a sinner).” It is hard to infer precisely what Ghalib meant because that is perhaps how he intended it to be. Here is a poet par excellence and brilliant contrarian playing with you.  You can make what you want of that response. Ghalib’s works are characterized by such paradoxical verses.

Ghalib has reached that exalted status where there are times when any literary wisdom is attributed to him whether or not he actually said it. That is what I mean by him becoming the ultimate benchmark for Urdu poetry. It is also a tribute to his greatness as a poet that a lot of what he has said has become clichés. For instance, take this famous one: “Ishq ne Ghalib nikamma kar diya, varna hum bhi kya aadmi they kam ke’ (Love rendered me ineffectual, Otherwise, I too was once a man of consequence).

Interestingly, Ghalib, who had such high self-regard, on hearing a single verse by his illustrious contemporary Momin Khan Momin, that he liked it so much that he said he would have happily traded his entire anthology for it. Momin’s verse was:

Tum mere paas hotey ho goyaa

Jab koi dusra nahi hota

When you are with me so to speak

None else is there

I come back to my original position about poetry and poets. The poet is necessarily is an inspirer or an illuminator. Poetry is a catalyst. If a single poetic line inspires people with genuine utility-oriented talents to do great things that help humanity at large, then poetry serves its purpose as does the poet. By that measure, Ghalib’s contribution to society is unrivaled.

Revisiting many-worlds theory

Photo: Mayank Chhaya

In recent years and months the theory of many-worlds or parallel universes has acquired some traction within the scientific community. Although there appear to be as many scientists who reject it as those who are willing to consider it purely as a cerebral speculation, it is possible that the many-worlds theory might make serious inroads.

The basic premise of this theory is that ours may not be the only universe but merely one of many that exist simultaneously. This in turn could mean that an infinite versions of you and I everything else could exist in these universes where realities specific to particular universes may be unfolding. For instance, there may exist a world where I am handsome and rich. Just saying. The many-worlds theory is, of course, a mindfuck but an entertaining one.

It has always been my case that parallel universes exist right here on Earth as manifest in conflicting and divergent cultures and religions. In fact, sometimes I think Earth is a kind of hub of parallel universes not unlike a major airline hub where several flights have to land no matter where they are from and where they are headed.

On October 6, 2014, I wrote the following piece. It bears repeating.

It has been quite a while since I spun one of my fake but, presumably, entertaining cosmic theories. This one relates to parallel universes and dreams. I think dreams are information spillovers or leaks from one of the many universes where one of our many versions exists into our own.

The fact that dreams are so vivid and so precisely laid out and yet so improbable means that they are bits of experiences that our own version in a parallel universe could be going through. They do not make sense in what we think is our own universe because they have no reference to the context here.

Last night, for instance, I had a dream where I was carrying a vial of iodine for some purpose in what could well be a parallel universe. In the universe that this version of me exists I actually needed my nasal drops because my nose was blocked solid. Before I woke up in the midst of the iodine dream to spray some nasal drops, I remember the vial to be so distinctly real and even having considered putting a couple of drops of iodine in my nose. Mercifully, I did not.

It was at that point in the night in this universe that I started to think about information leaks or spillovers within a multiverse. As I sat up thinking a bit more, I started to wonder whether what we call consciousness is common through these infinite parallel universes. Think of these parallel universes as slabs of luminescent glass stacked up neatly on each other. Now picture consciousness as a beam of light running through the center of all those slabs or horizontal monoliths. That is what I have in mind.

While the same consciousness animates all our infinite existences or versions in this multiverse, it fashions itself and its sensory responses to the realities of a particular universe. So it is entirely possible that the leak from a parallel universe showing me a vial of iodine had a specific purpose that was relevant to that world but when it slipped into my dream last night, it seemed bizarre.

To make it more interesting, we can also have consciousness as something specific and distinct to each of these infinite universes. In such a scenario, dreams could be a clash of consciousnesses (Consciousnesses is not a word but I am using it for this purpose) within this multiverse.

I think I must restrain myself at this stage before I am institutionalized.

The six second rule and art

woman by the wall

Woman by the Wall by MC


Streaks by MC


Grey by MC

My definition of art is simple. Does it make you want to look at it for more than six seconds? If it does, then it is art. This is my six second rule for art. When I say “it” I mean something that is being presented by its creator as art.

Meaning comes to art, if at all it does, as an unintended consequence. This is particularly true of abstract art, something which I have taken to in recent years. In my case, abstract art is especially useful because it helps me hide my severe inadequacies as a real artist. Going by some of the response to what I produce I think at the very least I have some visual flair. Some of my works have begun to make people want to look at them for more than six seconds.

On a tangent, people often wonder when an artist knows that his or her art is complete. The popular answer would seem to be to say that art is never complete. That it is always a work in progress like nature. That is, of course, non-sense. Any piece of art carries within it a specific sense of aesthetic symmetry. (Wow! I am really spinning this shit). Once an artist reaches that symmetry, which is entirely visual, anything more seems incongruous. That is when you stop and sign.

Real painters—and by that I mean painters who use actual, physical paint and not those like me who use virtual/digital paint—do not have the luxury of the undo option that I have. For real painters once the brush has touched the canvas and they do not like what they see it is some effort to paint over it. If they happen to use oils, the process is even more tedious because chemistry takes over. In fact, chemistry is already in charge when you use real paint. Among the things that a real artist has to do is to manipulate and guide chemistry.

I think this is enough for today.

Atal Bihari Vajpayee: A cultural pluralist

I did the following piece for the IANS wire to coincide with India’s former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee turning 90 tomorrow and being conferred the country’s highest civilian honor, the ‘Bharat Ratna’.

During my years in New Delhi through the 1980s and 1990s, I frequently interacted with Vajpayee as part of my political beat. There are several memories,one of which was a particularly controversial interview that he gave my IANS colleague Tarun Basu and I in December 1992. I will reproduce that interview at some point here.

By Mayank Chhaya

As Atal Bihari Vajpayee turns 90 on Dec 25, he remains one of the finest practitioners of India’s enlightened pluralism as embedded in its ancient civilization rather than an obligation as mandated by the constitution of a young nation-state.

Vajpayee, now a shadow of his former self, has straddled public life before and after India’s independence since 1942. He is the last of the generation of leaders whose worldview is avowedly Indian and therefore universal.

For someone who as a Class 10 student wrote this about himself, "Hindu body and mind, Hindu life, Every vein carries my Hindu identity (Hindu Tan Man, Hindu Jeevan, Rag Rag Hindu Mera Parichay)", it is not as if Vajpayee has ever been unambiguous about what informs his sense of identity. However, what has set him apart from the rest of the political crowd within his own Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is his innate sense of moderation and decency. He has been known to attribute that strength to his Hindu grounding.

In a speech soon after he lost the parliamentary election to Madhavrao Scindia in 1984 in Gwalior, Vajpayee referred to that poem and said: "People say that the Vajpayee who wrote that is not the same as the Vajpayee who does politics. There is no truth in it. I am Hindu. How can I forget that? No one should forget that. However, my Hindutva is not constricted, it is not narrow."

Vajpayee also firmly subscribes to the idea that India is a Hindu nation but a secular state, a distinction between "rashtra" and "rajya" which, he said, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, one of the most controversial pioneers of the Hindu movement, made. "Buniyadi taur par Bharat ek Hindu rashtra hai is sey koi inkar nahi kar sakta aur asweekar nahi kar sakta" (Fundamentally, Bharat is a Hindu nation. No one can deny that or find it unacceptable), he said during that speech to commemorate Savarkar in Pune.

Some three decades later, even as he leads a firmly retired life, there is no reason to believe that his view has undergone any significant change.

Notwithstanding that Vajpayee, drawing on his soul as a poet and inquisitiveness as a former journalist, developed a decidedly reasonable and moderate approach to public and private life. Having interacted with him frequently throughout the 1980s and 1990s, I can say with some certainty that he imbibed the essence of Jawaharlal Nehru’s humanism more than any other Indian politician who followed him. And yet he retained his distinctly right of centre political ideology.

It has often been said of Vajpayee that he is the right man in the wrong political party. Once you get past the cleverness of that wishful thinking you realize that he is very much emblematic of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) he conceived of in his mind along with Lal Krishna Advani.

"Virdohi dalon me mere mitron ko mere bare mei lagta hai ki aadmi to acchha hai lekin ghalat dal mein hai. Unko main kahunga aadmi bhi sahi hai aur dal bhi sahi hai (My friends in the opposition like to think that I am a good man in a bad party. Let me tell them that I am the right man in the right party)," Vajpayee told me in 1990.

Contrary to the popular belief, Vajpayee has always been on the side that he genuinely thinks is representative of Indian ethos. At the same time, he has been acutely conscious of the extreme tendencies within his party that he thinks often cross the line.

Ironically, the lowest point in his long and illustrious public life was also perhaps his highest at the personal level. Within three days of the demolition of the Babri Mosque pm Dec 6, 1992, he was both self-assured enough and profoundly disturbed to declare the demolition as the BJP’s "worst miscalculation".

A deeply anguished and aggrieved Vajpayee chose only two journalists, this writer and his colleague Tarun Basu, chief editor of IANS, to publicly bemoan that moderates like him in the party had been cast aside in the run up to the demolition. During a two-hour conversation at his then Raisina Road residence, Vajpayee spoke with characteristic candor on record and even more strikingly off it. However, even in those terrible times for his party and him personally, he managed to stick to his position that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the BJP’s ideological parent, considered the action to be against "Hindu ethos".

Vajpayee has been a unique political figure in India’s history since its independence in the sense that he has stood for almost everything that the so-called hard right Hindu political philosophy would require. Yet, because of the way he has constructed his ideas and, equally importantly, the way he has articulated them he has managed to remain a broadly centrist and reasonable voice. He is a great example of soft, poetic enunciation of hard ideas. He used to be amused by the image of a cuddly nationalist that many outside the BJP had come to harbour about him.

"It is almost as if they are trying to mitigate their guilt about liking me personally even while not approving of my party," (Aisa lagta hai ki jaise mujhe pasand karne se un mei paida ho rahe dosh ko kum kar rahen hain kyunki unko meri party pasand nahi hai)," is how he put it once.

He has been someone who passionately pursued that rare right of centre ideology at a time when the country was in the grip of left leaning socialistic thinking. His economic philosophy was that of a pragmatist liberalizer who had faith in India’s entrepreneurial impulses. His foreign policy was in line with the national consensus at play since the time of Nehru, which was one of non-alignment driven by national self-interest. His cultural outlook has very much been in keeping with his deep grounding in the Hindu worldview.

At one point or another, Vajpayee has spoken about some of the same subjects which have come to the fore of the national discourse again. For instance, in his Pune speech 30 years ago he also spoke about how "dharmantaran" (converting to another religion) had also become "rashtrantaran" (switching national loyalties). In that context, he cited the examples of countries like Indonesia which, despite being Islamic, continued to maintain its cultural underpinnings. He said they may have changed their form of worship but not their culture. Notwithstanding all such assertions, even his worst detractors would happily grant him consistent cultural moderation, political reasonableness and high parliamentary behavior.

Born in Gwalior in 1924, Vajpayee came of age in the midst of a tumultuous campaign for India’s independence. He spent his formative years contrasted against a national upheaval that eventually created one of the world’s greatest freedom movements. In many ways, Vajpayee was profoundly influenced by the national sense of purpose that he saw and was very much a part of during the freedom movement even though he may have come to it from a position of someone like Savarkar.

During his tenure as prime minister, he did manage to follow the philosophy of the state being nonpartisan. While some of it may have to do with the compulsions of coalition politics, it was mainly because of the way Vajpayee has always approached the idea of India, "Raj Dharma" as he calls it. One can always get into the specifics of his accomplishments as prime minister, such as turning India into a full-fledged nuclear power by ordering nuclear tests almost as the first order of business after taking over in 1998. However, Vajpayee’s greater contribution to India’s national life generally and politics specifically has been to steadfastly offer a competing but moral and righteous vision of the country as well as maintain very high standards of public discourse in service of true democracy.