A Hindu’s impression of the United States in 1917.

One of the benefits of having the archives of the New York Times available for downloading from the convenience of a home is that there is a vast collection of news articles of cultural and historical significance easily available.

Today, I came across a book review of Lajpat Rai’s The United States of America: A Hindu’s Impressions and a Study which was published in the newspaper on January 21, 1917. It is a fascinating account of a major American newspaper’s critique of a famous Indian’s account of the United States. I haven’t read the book, but if the New York Times was as stingy with praise then as it is now, then the review is remarkably sympathetic.

“The Hindu scholar has no purpose of writing a book for the purpose of contrasting the East and the West. What he does is to see the United States, a great and growing nation, on the threshold of imperialism, to find her problems unique and difficult, to behold her as something complex and interesting in the present and full of strange promise and portent for the future, to study her thus as a thing worth studying.”

Lajpat Rai summarizes up the challenges and opportunities as he sees them:

To sum up: the United States stands today with the promise (or curse) of imperialism ahead of her, with the tremendous problems of Government ownership of public utilities, with an imminent war between capitalism and labor, with race problems, and with the question of women’s suffrage. It is truly “the melting pot” of the different nations of the world, of its social, political, and economic problems, and its past and future history is well worth watching.

A reader today immediately sees the strides made in certain spheres nearly a century later, especially with respect to the rights of women and minorities. But some of the economic problems outlined such as the disparity between workers and management are still unresolved.

Rai also commends the United States on putting emphasis on education and creating coeducational facilities and it is with this facet that he is most full of praise go so far as to say of America that “her educational system is her saving… Well might the other communities of the world take a leaf out of her book if they want to improve the intelligence, the morals, and the physique of their people.”

The New York Times is somewhat ambivalent on Rai not sharing the irrational exuberance (to use a phrase coined by a modern-day pundit) for unbridled free-market capitalism. It states:

The Hindu’s observations on civilization remain Oriental, and somewhat depressing for Occidental readers. He finds the world, in this country and in Europe, given over to the pursuit of material things, conquering natural obstacles, it is true, but struggling for vanities. The majority lives to provide the pleasures of the few. Hankering after the good things of the world is the ruling passion of life. And is the world better, or happier?

But this is trivial. I share that ambivalence and so do most others reading on their iPads in “India Shining”.

The Hariome Project

Biologists can be pretty annoying when they’re trying hard to come up with cutesy names. I mean did you guys really have to name a gene required for mammalian development sonic hedgehog after the Sega icon? I mean what comes next? A gene influencing cranial tensile strength named after a pudgy Nintendo chap?

But you know what really bugs me? It is this lame idea that you can stick the suffix -ome to any and every collection of biological objects to create a new field of study which you can tout as the corresponding -omics. I’ve got no beef with the common ones like genomics, which is the total of genes in a particular set or proteomics, which is the sum of all the proteins in a given set. But as I’ve mentioned before, there are just so many -omic neologisms created each month that to compile the complete set of all these fields, an omeome (if you will), would be a daunting task. It would also be pointless, but that is not my point.

You know what would be useful? A collection of all the names of each of the Hindu deities complied into a universally-accessible database.

Confused? Hear me out for a bit.

This is what I envisage as the Hariome Project – an online database which would provide an easy way check the different names and relationships of various mythological entities.

For example, in the hariome, I’d be able to find out more about the original Hari through a search-engine which would direct me to the Vishnu portal. I’d be able to navigate through nodes for each of the ten avatars of Vishnu. If I clicked on the Krishna node on this portal, I’d get to see a network map with all 108 popular names.  If I clicked on the Buddha node, another incarnation of Vishnu, I’d be able surf through all of his incarnations from the Jataka tales and other sources.

This type of tool would be useful, because it really can get pretty confusing. Durga is an incarnation of the mother goddess, but according to some sources so are her daughters Saraswati and Lakshmi. What we need is a comprehensive set of ontologies.

Of course there will be versioning issues and regional disputes (Ma Sherawali v. Debi Durga immediately comes to mind). And you’ll need some serious computing muscle to create a seamless database with the 330 million gods with their various manifestations.

But implementation isn’t my concern. I only come up with ideas.

© Text: Anirban

How to eat at an Indian buffet

There is a proper way to eat at an Indian buffet which those who are not desi may not appreciate. Being desi myself, I feel that I’m qualified to advise others. But my qualifications to pontificate on this topic don’t end with a blanket ethnic designation. In an earlier era, I was a graduate student who subsisted solely on a fellowship. Back then most of what I ate in my apartment fell into three food groups – chicken, rice and spices.

As a non-vegetarian desi, I’ve always preferred chicken drumsticks to the drumsticks that come from trees, and so this guide primarily deals with the non-vegetarian Indian (or Pakistani or Bangladeshi) buffets that serve the common generic dishes.

Your preparation for eating at a buffet should always start much before you actually go to the restaurant (which hopefully you’ve selected after extensive research). You should also decide on an optimum day to go to the restaurant. If the restaurant has a buffet for both lunch and dinner, go for lunch. Meals for lunch are almost always cheaper. Also try to avoid going on a weekend or a holiday, since many restaurants charge more on those days.

Once you’ve made long-term preparations by deciding on a day you’ll go for lunch, you need to prepare for the meal itself. The day you plan on eating at the buffet for lunch, you must skip breakfast. This is essential to making it count. Expert buffet-eaters are also adept at timing their lunch buffet to just before the close of lunch so that they don’t need to eat dinner either. A little secret is that drinking cups of black coffee or another caffeinated beverage approximately two hours before the first morsel is ingested is helpful for eating more food. Caffeine stimulates acid secretion in the stomach which if timed properly has the effect of making you feel hungrier than you would otherwise.  And don’t worry about the long -term effects of stomach acid; if you’re a graduate student, your stomach is probably already non-stick from all the teflon you’ve ingested cooking your meals with cheap pots and pans anyway.

Now, once you’re at the restaurant and have been seated here, follow a game-plan. Stick to the water; don’t order any beverages off the menu. Scan the buffet area and commit all the dishes to memory. Then go back to your table, look at the menu and identify which entrées are the most expensive to order à la carte. It is inconsequential whether you like these entrées or not. The purpose of eating at a buffet is to get the most value for money by selectively feeding the face with the most expensive dishes. As a general rule, avoid the rice, samosas (and other fried food), raita, and dal. Gulab jamuns are usually microwaved straight out of cans, so don’t go near them. Paneer dishes never have any paneer, so you can avoid those too. At a quality buffet, there will at the least be a lamb, goat, or shrimp entrée. You should be good at fishing out only the high-value bits from the curry with an elegant, clean Azharuddin-worthy flick of the wrist. If a cooked-to-order masala dosa is offered, you are permitted to eat the dosa, but not the potato-based masala. The rationale behind this is that even though the dosa is made from cheap ingredients, it is a value-added product because of the specialized expertise and time required to make it properly. If you eat the tandoori chicken remember not to pick off all the meat from the bone as you would at home. As a rule of thumb, round up 0.5 or greater of consumed food-unit to higher whole number. If others stare at you, it is their problem, not yours.

Like magicians, most competitive eaters have techniques which they will not share with others. One fail-safe trick of gluttony is to eat rapidly before metabolism catches up. But, remember that you are pitted against desi restaurateurs who will try to thwart your noble objectives by making curries as oily, creamy, and hot as possible. So, tactically it is to your advantage to avoid the gravy altogether.  And don’t let the heat get to you. If your face is on fire, don’t stop. Pain is the new pleasure.

Leave as soon as you’re done eating and before you feel nauseous. Don’t add a tip to the bill. As you leave, fill your pockets and palms with as much saunf as you possibly can.

With practice you’ll be good at inflicting the maximum amount of damage for your own basal metabolic rate. Until then, bon apetit!

© Text, 2010-2012, Anirban

Why do Indians dance all the time?

An American coworker once asked me why we Indians break out into song and dance all the time.

At that moment I vaguely remember answering that we like to shake a leg instinctively because our streets have a lot of rabid, stray dogs which we want to shoo away when they attempt to bite us. But although asked in jest, the question is worth thinking about in greater detail.

And on further reflection, I blame Bhasmasur.

“Who is this Bhasmasur?” you ask. You may remember him from your reading of mythology, but his story bears repeating considering the recent fascination with burning whatever our fringe elements don’t like.

Bhasmasur - the dancing demon

According to the version I heard from my grandmother (by the light of a hurricane lantern during one of the many monsoon nights we had no electricity)  Bhasmasura was an asura or demon who performed continuous penance in a jungle until he grew a really long beard. Pleased with the attentiveness and especially with the termite mound that had formed around him, Shiva came down from Mount Kailash to grant him a boon. This was perfectly natural to me when I was a child and I too wished I could meditate until a termite mound formed around me, at which time I would wish for all the ice cream in the world.

But I digress. When granted a wish by Shiva, the asura asked for a boon –  the power to burn to ashes anyone whose head he placed his hand on. And what did this ungrateful demon do? Immediately after getting the boon, he showed his true colors by attempting to place his hand on Shiva, his benefactor. The asuras were evil; even as a child, I knew that.

Shiva ran as fast as he could. And as Shiva ran to escape from Bhasmasur, he prayed to Krishna –  as the gods did from time to time when in deep trouble –  to save the day.

Faced with a situation rapidly getting out of hand, Krishna could have taken one of many approaches to make Bhasmasur place his hand on his own head and immediately burn himself to ashes. He could have given the demon severe dandruff or insufferable lice.  But perhaps, the demons used a kind of hair oil which prevented dandruff or lice. (And this gives me a tangential idea: we should market an anti-dandruff and anti-lice hair oil to the modern consumer as a Bhasmasur Hair Oil).

As a playful shape-shifter, Krishna could have also transformed himself into a bird and pooped on the demon’s head. On the other hand, if Bhasmasur wore a crown like every fashionable demon did in the day, it might have impeded the falling bird feces.

But Krishna also loved the opportunity to toy with weaknesses in character (and I have to admit that even a sinner like me has enough wits to realize what an amazingly brilliant god Krishna was in this respect). He knew that every Indian – human, god, or demon – loved to dance. So instead of taking any half-hearted attempts at making Bhasmasur destroy himself, he transformed himself to Mohini, a voluptuous temptress, and started dancing to intricate moves.

Dance, Bhasmasur, Dance

And what did Bhasmasur do when he saw Mohini? In what is likely one of the first reality dance shows on record, Bhasmasur began to emulate Mohini’s intricate dance step for step. As an Indian male, when he saw an attractive female dancing, he did the only thing he could to impress her – he danced. And when Mohini placed a hand on her own head playfully, Bhashmasur imitated the same move.

(Yeah… somehow I had figured even as a child that though the asuras were pretty evil, they weren’t particularly bright).

Bhasmasur burned to ashes when he placed his hand on his head, but to this day the irresistible urge to dance at every opportunity lies dormant in every Indian. And what of Krishna’s intricate dance as Mohini? It is the inspiration behind the Indian classical dance form Mohiniyattam.

So if my American coworker or yours ever asks why Indians love to dance at the slightest provocation, here is a  shorter answer: it is because we can’t help it.

© Text, 2010-2012, Anirban

You know you’re part of the Indian middle-class when…

(Because we all just love stereotypes).

  1. Your national element is Indium (In), very malleable and soft, but not useful for building long-lasting structures.
  2. You find it normal for random people to get close on buses, but find the idea that two potential life-partners be allowed to talk unsupervised before being thrust into wedlock, preposterous.
  3. You expect your children to win dance, music, spelling, and math competitions every year, but don’t pay as much attention to finding out if they are really of sound mind and body.
  4. You prefer actors in mythological shows who have prominent vaccination scars on their forearms.
  5. Your prefer Bombay Sapphire gin for your martini over Beefeater not because it tastes better, because you don’t like the name of the latter.
  6. You work for Tata Wiprosys or know someone who does.
  7. You need the Supreme Court to judge whether or not two consenting adults have the right to live together outside of marriage, but are pretty sure that cheap fuel is a birthright enshrined in the Indian Constitution.
  8. You frown upon those who buy “made in India” clothing in India, but not those who buy the same products  abroad.
  9. You know that when a government official is asking for chai-paani he or she is not curious if you brought your hot-water bottle.
  10. You use the same word for a type of dal and species of deer which likes grass more than dal.
  11. The memsahibs in your country have given way to another officious class – the memosahibs.
  12. You translate “mild” to what most Westerners would likely consider Dante’s Inferno on the “spicy-scale”.
  13. You avoid whole-grain bread, because you prefer white over wheat(ish).
  14. You would consider purchasing a soft-drink from a vending machine, but only if the coin was inserted for you by a vendor wearing a uniform and a soft baseball cap.
  15. You feel India needs a “baby” vegetable such as “baby lady’s finger” because the Americans have the “baby carrot” and the Chinese have the “baby corn”.

Disclaimer: I’ve posted many of these thoughts on Twitter.

© Text, 2010-2012, Anirban

Diplomacy in the age of glacial relations

Today, I saw a column in the Sunday Times of India on Indian foreign policy by none other than Indian novelist, Chetan Bhagat.  Mr Bhagat takes a very hawkish line in a whiny tone after the collapse of the India-Pakistan peace talks between SM Krishna and Shah Mahmood Qureshi. If it now acceptable for non-experts to write on international affairs, then I’m happy to oblige. I know next to nothing about the topic, but I do know a thing or two about human nature.

So, what options are really available in responding to a crisis through the proper use of diplomacy? Sir Humphrey Appleby gave the most brilliant exposition on diplomacy in the second episode of Yes, Minister that I’ve ever come across:

Sir Humphrey: Well, Minister, in practical terms we have the usual six options:

One: do nothing.
Two: issue a statement deploring the speech.
Three: lodge an official protest.
Four: cut off aid.
Five: break off diplomatic relations.
And six: declare war.

Hacker: Which should be it?

Sir Humphrey: Well:

If we do nothing, that means we implicitly agree with the speech.
If we issue a statement, we’ll just look foolish.
If we lodge a protest, it’ll be ignored.
We can’t cut off aid, because we don’t give them any.
If we break off diplomatic relations, then we can’t negotiate the oil rig contracts.
And if we declare war, it might just look as though we were over-reacting!

In the episode, these option were laid out with respect to a crisis created by the head of the fictitious African state of Buranda, but with a little imagination they can be made to fit most international crises.

But even this fictitious scenario can’t hold a candle to the most surreal event in the history of India-Pakistan relations. Siachen Glacier holds the dubious distinction of being the world’s highest battlefield -where more soldiers are lost on either side to the elements than to enemy fire. While reading up on how both sides got involved in this intractable conflict, I came across the following passage in the New York Times:

By the early 80’s, both armies were sending expeditions into the area, and suspicions accumulated like fresh snow. In late 1983, the Indians became convinced the Pakistanis were about to seize the glacier, [India’s] General [M.L.] Chibber said. This was inferred from intercepted communiques. If further evidence was needed, he said, it came when India sent procurers to Europe to buy cold-weather gear. They ran into Pakistanis doing the same shopping.

In other words, Indian and Pakistani military officers were shopping for high-altitude gear at the same shop at around the same time and this may have contributed to the outcome of future events.

Now, I know both countries have creative writers. I challenge them to come up with fiction resembling our warped reality.

© Text, 2010-2012, Anirban

A series of open letters

It is the season for ranting. Actually, every season is the season for ranting. Not wanting to be left out, I’ve decided to post a few open letters to choice individuals. Every situation is true unless it it addressed to you (in which case the resemblance is purely fictional).

____________________

Dear Paul:

I appreciate your taking a keen interest in Indian cuisine. Contrary to Western customs, most desis do not eat samosas with a knife and a fork. I also have to warn you about the cooking DVD that you recently rented. You might be slightly disappointed when you find that Sholay does not have any recipes for curried chickpeas.

I’m sure you also know that “Hindus” refer to people and “Hindi” to the language (unless of course you’re talking about Varun Gandhi who is a Hindi who speaks Hindu).

Thanks,
Your Indian Friend

____________________

Dear IT Colleague:

You’re making a horrible mistake. It wasn’t me that looked at those sites. I may have downloaded some programs, but I am 110% sure that this has not impacted my efficiency or that of my computer. Also, please find a small token of my gratitude in your mailbox.

Thanks,
Anxious Coworker

____________________

Dear Isabella:

Thanks for replacing the soap in the hotel bathroom. I’m storing them and will gift to relatives when I visit India. Before I arrived I had no clue what “white ginger” was, but I certainly smelled like one at the Expo. Tomorrow please provide towels that are not white. White does not go well with my bathroom walls.

Thanks,
Hotel Guest

____________________

Dear Client:

Thank you for your quote. I am currently lying on a beach in Maui exploring options to optimize efficiency and cost-benefit using a forward-thinking approach. I did notice that your email was tagged with “High Importance”. Obviously, I am going to drop this Mai Tai to go the nearest phone-booth to change into my superhero costume.

Warm personal regards,
Your Personal Financial Advisor

____________________

Dear Suzanne:

The food was inedible and the service was non-existent, but because you drew a goofy face on the bill and wrote “Thanks”, go ahead and expect a 25% tip. Or maybe, I’ll tip you for the service I expect next time.

Cheers,
Customer

____________________

Dear Coworker:

Please perform an appendectomy to remove the 5 appendices in this project proposal. I’ll only read the “the meat of your argument” anyways. Also, please pick up the landscape photo of your trip to Coney Island with a unbelievably young lady which I found next to the network color printer.

Finally, missing a spot shaving was a calculated ploy to allow you to fixate on my face instead of spooking me with your usual shifty glances. Now, I can stare at the mole on your face with a clear conscience.

Best regards,
Smarter Colleague

____________________

To Whoever Stole My Bose in-ear Headphones:

As you know by now, I have earwax.

Happy listening!
Music-lover

____________________

Dear Magazine-Delivery Man:

Thanks for stealing or forgetting  to deliver my copy of The Economist for 2 months. I read it on the Metro over people’s shoulders anyways.

Grateful Reader
____________________

Dear Motivational Speaker:

I have polydipsia and polyuria which means that I drink a lot of water and go to the bathroom every fifteen minutes. So, don’t take it personally if I have to leave in the middle of your exciting talk.

Apologies in advance,
Client

____________________

Dear Charity-worker:

I understand that raising awareness of the obesity epidemic is a wonderful cause. Can I help it by buying two boxes of glazed donuts?

Greedily yours,
Fatuous Fatso

____________________

Dear Idiotic Acquaintance from College:

Calm down, dude! If I ignored you on Instant Messenger, I have every right to be angry if you think I am ignoring you. How were you supposed to know that I wasn’t out to lunch?

Please don’t send the following message to my work email address: “One ppl send this msg he make million doller. One not send he feel bad. Plz u send msg 2 d 15 ppls on ur list n 30 min or u died in 2010.”

Finally, I don’t have any answer to the question you posted on Facebook, namely: “Kis dufar ne mera lappy spamity se infract kiya?”

Take care,
Your Fraand

Disclaimer: I have floated some of these ideas on Twitter too. The two quotes in the last letter are actual comments.

© Text, 2010-2012, Anirban