Does India deserve a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council?

Recently President Barack Obama promised American support for India’s bid to gain a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. Yesterday, according to leaked cables posted on the WikiLeaks site, Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton called India a “self-appointed front-runner.” Supporters of India’s bid point out that it is the second-most populous nation, the largest democracy, a nuclear-power with the world’s second largest standing army, and the fourth largest economy (after the US, China, and Japan).

The current five permanent members yielding powers to veto any substantive resolution are (in no particular order) the United States, Russia (which inherited the seat from the Soviet Union), China, United Kingdom, and France. If you can live with the idea of Security Council with permanent veto-yielding countries, then for various reasons you could probably also argue that United States, China, and Russia all belong in this exclusive club. But France and Britain?

France is the country most likely to bring baguettes to the table. There is a long-running joke about France capitulating to any power that ever threatened it, which is reinforced by World Wars I and II, and the Battle of Dien Bien Phu. Its most famous elite military unit is called the Foreign Legion and comprises mostly foreigners. Recently, the country was paralyzed by strikes because the retirement age was increased from 60 to 62. Those baguettes can’t be that good.

What about the Britain? Its sole reason for being on the Security Council is to cast a vote in line with the United States. That way if the Permanent Representative from the United States gets drunk on Manhattan’s Upper East Side the night before an important resolution and has a terrible hangover, she can just text the chap from the other side of the pond in the morning and go back to sleep.

Okay, so I’m being a bit facetious, but my point is that neither France nor Britain yield the global influence they did when the UN Security Council was formed.

Along with India are three other countries with a head-start in the campaign for permanent membership –  Japan, Germany, and Brazil. Of course there are a number of countries opposed to each of the main contenders. China objects to both Japan and India. Pakistan doesn’t want to see India in the Security Council either. South Korea isn’t so keen on Japan’s bid. Mexico and Argentina don’t like Brazil. Italy doesn’t want Germany, but would like to see inclusion of the European Union. (Keep in mind that France is already a permanent member, so that just sounds plain weird). Given that over forty countries are currently opposed to any piecemeal expansion (and perhaps, rightly so), it might be an academic exercise.

Ultimately, America’s support of India’s inclusion might be just a friendly gesture. Given the current anachronistic setup of the Security Council, disbanding or heavily reforming it might be the best way forward. But if expanding it is on the cards, the arguments supporting India’s bid should not be dismissed with prejudice.

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The scampire strikes back!

Three weeks ago, I posted a detailed exposé on a sophisticated scam targeting Indian job-seekers. In that post, I laid bare details found in a fake job-offer letter that a very close acquaintance of mine had received.

In the interim, one of the websites used by the scamsters for the regal sounding Roland Chambers has become active again! I became aware because one of the search strings used to find my blog today was “roland chambers + immigration”. If those who searched and came to my blog read my post, I hope better sense prevailed.

Screenshot of website. "Any problem: No problem"

 

Now on to the website. The first thing you notice about the URL is that it is rolandchamber.com not rolandchambers.com. It is possible that the scamsters have exhausted the utility of the latter and want to milk the deviant for as long as possible after which they will invariably move on to another one.

It is registered to a certain Jennifer Vilayvong  who is a real middle-aged lady with kids who lives in a nice two-story red house with black trimmings in the quiet town of Macon, Georgia, USA. Her name does come up with a couple of other websites tagged as belonging to fraudsters such as the United Basic Development Organisation. It is possible that she is unaware that her name and address are being used for nefarious purposes and she herself may have recently been a victim of identity theft by the international fraud nexus.

The Roland Chambers website is supposedly based in the UK (but does not use .co.uk). The website itself looks fairly innocuous with an “Impossibility is never in our dictionary” running banner and  solicitors named David Bauer, Frederick Fridge, Roy Smith, Jose Mathias, Alien Cook [sic], and Joyce Russell.

There are a lot of other subtle and not-so-subtle clues, but I immediately focused on the address given – “Rowland Chambers, 1 Crown Court,66 Cheapside, London”. In the previous incarnation of the website, if you did a map-search of the location that was given and selected the street-view, you’d get a house somewhere in London which would immediately arouse your suspicions. The scammers have evolved now and you are not so sure because the view is of a cluster of shops hidden from plain sight.

One Crown Court, Cheapside, London

I have to smile and appreciate one thing though. If you dig deep enough, you’ll find that the address belongs to a legitimate law film in the borough of London known as Doyle Clayton Solicitors Limited.

Who says that because fraudsters are devious, that they are naturally incompetent as well?

Someone sleeps to forget. The rest of us sleep to remember.

I just read a clinical report of a patient who claimed that her working memory got erased every morning after a night of sleep. This is important news for Hindi movie-directors in need of a new type of amnesia for the big screen, but the rest of us will find it interesting too:

Since an automobile accident in 2005, patient FL has reported difficulty retaining information from one day to the next. During the course of any given day, she describes her memory as normal. However, memory for each day disappears during a night of sleep. She reports good memory for events that occurred before the accident. Although this pattern of memory impairment is, to our knowledge, unique to the medical literature, it was depicted in the fictional film “50 First Dates”.

The patient was clearly able to recall event that happened the same day, but did poorly when asked about events that happened the previous day. When the researchers mixed questions about current and past events without the patient’s knowledge, she did fairly well. What that might suggest is that she had been lying all along, but researchers also found genuine lapses in procedural memory involving motor skills – something much harder to fake.

What is worth noting is that researchers couldn’t find anything physically wrong with her brain after multiple tests so they concluded that she suffered from a genuine type of functional amnesia similar to that depicted in the movie 50 First Dates. Although the patient claimed to not having seen the movie, she did admit that Drew Barrymore, who acted in it, was one of her favorite actresses.

Researchers hypothesized that this peculiar form of amnesia might have actually developed from her knowledge of plot elements in the movie. This isn’t art imitating life. This is art (or more accurately, a cheesy movie) influencing life.

There is a happy ending here though. In a hospital, the patient was trained to overcome her amnesia by waking up every 4.5 hours.

Why is this bizarre story so amazing? Well, there is a huge body of evidence which suggests that sleep plays a major role in the consolidation of memories. In other words, while we sleep new, adaptable memories become embedded into our memory network and become more stable. Even a single night of sleep-deprivation has the ability to impact memory retention, which explains why I don’t remember anything from my exam-induced college all-nighters. In the way memories are consolidated, the patient FL seems to be different from most other people.

So what can you do to improve your memory?  I was hoping you’d ask.

Here are a few tips on how to sleep to remember:

  • Even short naps of minutes to hours are effective in increasing memory retention, but the best improvements are witnessed after a full night of sleep.
  • If you wake up often in the middle of the night, it might be due to stress, which in turn, might influence your memory.
  • You may be more alert in the morning and remember what you’ve learned through the day, but sleeping three hours after learning works better than sleeping more than ten hours later.
  • If you’re a morning person, you may find short naps useful. If you’re a night-owl, be sure to get at least some shut-eye.

Lastly, if you forget everything I’ve written here, perhaps you need to re-evaluate your sleep hygiene.

Text: © 2010-2012, Anirban

Is Bengali cuisine in decline?

In the Telegraph of Kolkata published this Sunday, Amit Chaudhuri laments the decline of Bengali cuisine. The immediate spark for Chaudhuri’s angst is two encounters with less than stellar food at a Kolkata restaurant quite uncreatively called “Oh! Calcutta.”

I thought of this essay when I realized that almost the only restaurant that served anything like consistently good Bengali food — Oh! Calcutta — had lapsed into mediocrity.

Chaudhuri then reiterates what countless Bengalis reflect on from time to time:

I suppose I should start by saying that Bengali cuisine is a great cuisine, although it’s a great unknown. I mean, besides the one restaurant I’ve cited, there are no retail chains or outlets on a national scale to promote Bengali food; only, in various cities, private delivery services set up by someone’s aunt. In this, it’s like two other distinguished Indian cuisines that, in spite of their delectable quality, have never been properly marketed — the Goan and the Parsi… But, until not very long ago, Bengal didn’t even have a proper Bengali restaurant.

Chaudhuri then broadens his concern over the imminent demise of Bengali cuisine by citing a specific example – that of food served at a Bengali wedding.

The venue for the best Bengali food — the wedding — is now a nightmare. There’s the hybrid catered food, of course, whose advent began 25 years ago with chilli fish fry; but, even when Bengali food is served, it’s often served cold. The sensory outrage of cold food and gravy is something that Bengalis, with their ‘good boy’ exam-oriented values, seem wholly indifferent to.

Chaudhuri also puts the wide vegetarian repertoire in Bengali within a historical framework

I mean the cruel dietary regime imposed on Hindu widows, forbidding them not only meat and fish, but various things including the putatively aphrodisiac onion and garlic. These bizarre strictures (now, surely, less adhered to) have led to a vegetarian repertoire unparalleled, I think, in its subtlety, with a range of condiments, ingredients, and approaches peculiar to the region.

Finally, Chaudhuri distinguishes the decline in Bengali cuisine to trends with respect to other facets of Bengali life.

I wish to distinguish, quickly, between the decline I’m suggesting here and the well-worn tale of decline that is now Bengal’s. Unlike Bengali literature, cinema, music, and even science, Bengali food is a well-guarded secret.

Although each of these points superficially does seem to indicate that there is a discernable decline in Bengali cuisine, it is worthwhile examining Chaudhuri’s thesis in greater detail.

First, before we decide if Bengali cuisine is in decline, we must establish a framework describing what exactly Bengali cuisine comprises. I think it is safe to say that Bengali cuisine is the cuisine of the Bengali people, and here I define a Bengali person as someone whose native language is Bangla. My definition is linguistic and not necessarily patrilinear. Chaudhuri’s comment on the decline equates Bengali cuisine to that of a very specific subset of the Bengali populace – the predominantly upper-middle class, Hindu bhadrolok from West Bengal for whom Kolkata is the litmus test of culture. Apart from a minor comment on East Bengali cuisine in decline in Bangaldesh, Chaudhuri makes no mention of the vast majority of Bengalis who live in Bangladesh belonging to any religion, Muslim Bengalis in West Bengal, or the rural poor all of whom have – to use Chaudhuri’s term – “approaches peculiar” to their own subcultures.  Chaudhuri’s comment is therefore disappointingly similar to saying that Punjabi cuisine is in decline because a popular dhaba near Jalandhar disappoints on two occassions.

Why is this important to mention? Unlike Bengali literature, cinema, and music which can be judged solely on the basis of intellectual merit, the cuisine of a people should not. The illiterate may not read, the uninterested may not watch films, and the tone-deaf may not listen to music, but everyone must eat. Therefore, in any sweeping analysis which will be subjective anyway, a distinction between haute cuisine and that of plebeians is not unwarranted.

Contrary to Chaudhuri’s limited analysis of Bengali cuisine, within this broader framework, I actually find it to be rather vibrant. I’ve enjoyed scrumptious vegetarian dishes cooked by poor who can’t afford fish and meat and Bangladeshi dishes which make plentiful use of pabda and hilsa in their country (in contrast to the limited supply which Chaudhuri laments in Kolkata, West Bengal).

Chaudhuri wonders why upscale restaurants serving Bengali cuisine were such a rarity in West Bengal until recently. There has always been a problem of appearance. Millions of poor and middle-class communters do indeed eat a cheap dish of rice, macher jhol, bhaja, and tomato chutney before heading into work. It is also a well-known fact that many Bengalis can’t do without their regular fare (which Satyajit Ray whimsically pointed out in Joy Babu Felunath), and hence the preponderance of  “Bengali hotels” serving maachbhaat from Khajuraho to Kanyakumari. For the longest time, because Bengalis ate elaborately cooked Bengali food at home, it is possible that no one thought that anyone would prefer it to high-end Mughlai or Indian Chinese while eating out.

And who are we to dictate that chili fish fry is an abomination? All cuisines, except of those belonging to the most insular cultures, are a form of fusion. The Bengali cuisine which Chaudhuri fondly remembers is different from the cuisine of the nineteenth century and perhaps unrecognizable from the cuisine of the riverine folk who had not been exposed to New World crops such as the potato, the chili pepper, and the tomato. One cannot deny that the rate of syncretism in the current age is vastly accelerated, but that does not, in itself, argue for a decline.

Like many micro-cultures, certain dishes are definitely getting lost. My grandmother, who was married off at the age of sixteen, knew techniques and recipes that had been passed on to her which she refined over more than five decades. When she passed on much of it was lost. Because so little of Bengali cuisine has been written down, the fear that much of it will be lost is genuine. Perhaps, a concerted effort to collect these recipes is warranted. But that is a simple task compared to romanticizing all the misogynistic horrors associated with forcing half of society to innovate in the kitchen because they had no place elsewhere.

Text: © 2010-2012, Anirban

“The sum of all of India’s traditions”

I am outraged and maybe for once, not without just cause.

Ashutosh Gowarikar’s Swades is a Hindi film that I’ve mentioned before as one that I enjoyed watching. In this film, a scientist of Indian origin portrayed by Sharukh Khan (Mohan), visits India, builds a small-scale hydroelectric plant and falls in love with the village belle (Geeta). I know it sounds maudlin (and in fact it is, more than it sounds), but it pulls at some desi heartstrings.

Towards the end, as Mohan’s vacation is up, he gets ready to return to the United States. He wants Geeta to come with him, but she refuses. Instead, she gives him a wooden box with all sorts of random seeds, twigs, and spices. For a few minutes, Mohan makes a face like he is going to pass a kidney stone (which is easy for the masterful Shahrukh Khan to do), but then he dutifully goes back to his job at NASA in the US where he then proceeds to stare at the things in the box while a soulful A.R. Rahman song plays in the background.

It is all very tastefully done.

Before Mohan leaves, however, Geeta mentions that this is no ordinary box: the objects in the box are representative of India’s culture.

Here is what she says, translated from the original Hindi:

“I give to you this parting gift which is the sum of all of India’s traditions – the blossoming of our hopes, our fields, our greenery,  our rivers, our culture… This box will keep reminding you of us and maybe compel you to return!”

Well, you can imagine how I felt when I walked into World Market in San Diego today and discovered that they were selling a box of “exquisite spices of India” which looked a lot like the box that Geeta had thoughtfully packed for Mohan. I mean, just reflect on the horror: this was in World Market – the chor bazaar for upwardly mobile American latte liberals!

I am infuriated. Whatever happened to the sanctity of Indian culture?

I’m sure that box wasn’t even made in India. It was probably made in China.

Text: © 2010-2012, Anirban

Diwali greetings from a Hindu atheist

Dear Unknown Reader, I’d like to wish you a very Happy Diwali!

Just the other day, I returned from the local drugstore with a box of electric Christmas tree lights and red cinnamon-scented tea-light candles.The store had them stocked up for early Christmas shoppers, but I bought them to put up as Diwali lights in front of the foggy window of my apartment. When you live outside India, you quickly learn to trade what you used to be able to get easily for what is readily available to you.

I am a Hindu atheist. I grew up in a flexible atmosphere of spirituality shaped by Kant, Einstein, and  Tagore. Now, I am at a stage in my life when I do not believe that deities actually exist in any form.

Then why the “Hindu” qualifier to “atheist”? Growing up most of my neighbors were Muslim. I went to a Catholic school. But even to this day, I culturally identify as a Hindu. My involvement isn’t dispassionately secular either.While I don’t take the concept that a goddess Durga actually lives on frosty Mount Kailash and comes down to defeat the demon Mahisasur seriously, that does not prevent me from enjoying the four days of Durga Puja. And I enjoy Diwali and Holi and Saraswati Puja too!

One of the strongest memories I have of my paternal grandfather from my childhood is of him performing the first sandhya of the day sometime before dawn. Every day, I’d be half-asleep in my bed and he would he would recite the guru strotram in his rich baritone – agyana timirandhasya gyananjana salakaya. Unfortunately it wasn’t quite enough to arouse my gyananjana from deep slumber!

I remember my grandfather as an intensely devout man who lived his life as ethically as anyone I’ve known. I’ve heard the story that he once hid the truth in a court of law when he was called up as a witness in order to save the life of a man who he thought had been unjustly convicted. Shortly after this episode, he contracted typhoid fever from which he nearly died. Until his last days, many decades later, he fervently believed that his near-death experience was divine punishment for his transgression.

Science happened to me. I brush it off as microbiology.  As the inimitable Tom Paine remarked, “infidelity does not consist in believing or in disbelieving; it consists in professing to believe what one does not believe.”  My beliefs are different from that of my ancestors. I don’t ever deny that or that I’m an atheist.

Yet, to deny my link to the religion of my ancestors would be to deny my heritage (for better and for worse). And that would be an equal infidelity on my part.

Sometimes, in their honor, I quietly recite the guru strotram.

Text: © 2010-2012, Anirban

Queen Elizabeth Washington Gandhi… jai ho!

This is a low-resolution image of a full-page ad by Society for Human Resource Management which I just saw this morning.

Because it is in the Economist, it is almost mandatory for Elizabeth Regina’s visage to be part of the composite, but there is also the inclusion of two other staunchly anti-royalist personalities.

A curious mix, indeed.

I was pleased to see that it least in someone’s opinion the rupee was worthy of rubbing shoulders with the pound and the dollar.

And then I became suspicious. Where is China? Why isn’t the yuan represented at all?

I’m pretty sure Chairman Mao would have rolled his eyes at the thought.

Final thoughts: I’ve cross-posted this on my new “microblog”, Arbit ka Paratha. I’ll be posting my unbaked thoughts as well as links to other sites, quiz questions, audio clips, and video links over there.

Dear reader(s), rest assured: I’ll continue writing the low-quality posts for It’s a Miracle! that you’ve come to expect.