Are Indians Asians?

Well, are Indians Asians?

You’re thinking what kind of idiot poses this silly question. You look at a map or globe and point out India smack in the middle of a humongous landmass marked Asia. Indians are Asians and that is all there is to it. Or is there more?

You’re mileage may vary, Dear Reader, but I’ve come across at least three different notions of what constitutes an  “Asian”. The first and most obvious is the geographic argument that anyone hailing from the largest continent on the planet is an Asian. The second  is the close approximation of those who are politically-aligned to the major  cultural powers within geographical Asia. Finally, there are those who are considered to be ethnically Asian. These notions are neither clear, discrete, or completely overlapping.

Let us look at who is an Asian in greater detail. Is someone from Russia an Asian? Most of Russia is in Asia, but politically Russians can be considered aligned to the the rest of Europe. If a white Russian is born in Moscow the geographical argument would dictate that she should be considered a European, but this is also in line with popular political and racial notions. Now, what if this Russian is been born in Vladivostok, which is geographically in East Asia and thousands of miles closer to Tokyo than it is to Moscow? Or take the case of white Israelis born within geographic Asia. Do they fit the common political and ethnic notions of “Asians”?

The question of whether Indians are Asians is an interesting one. I’ve been told by many highly-educated individuals in the United States that I am  “an Indian and not an Asian.” When asked to elaborate, I’ve been informed that Asians have physical characteristics that resemble individuals belonging to the predominant ethnicities of South-East Asia and East Asia. On a related note, I have also heard Pakistanis referred to as “Middle-Eastern, not Asian”, and  that one clearly makes no  sense at all, even to me. Indian Americans are a subset of Asian Americans according to the US government, but the person on the street often does agree with this nuanced hierarchy.

Curiously, all I need to become an Asian is to take a flight across the Atlantic. In the United Kingdom, British Asians include desis from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh who form the predominant “Asian” community. East Asians are called “Chinese”. Also the word “oriental” does not have the racially charged connotations it does in most of North America. In short, if you believe popular definitions,  East Asians are either Asians or Chinese; and South Asians are either Indian or Asians depending on which side of the pond you ask the question.

© Text, 2010-2012, Anirban

Worst Valentine’s Day gifts in India

Valentine’s Day is almost upon us. I know there is a big fuss in India over whether anyone should be allowed to celebrate it because it is a foreign import. Me? I personally draw the line at World Toilet Day (even though it is for a good cause).

As a public service, I’ve gone out to find the worst possible Valentine’s Day gifts. A warning: don’t blame me if you find these gift ideas tasteless. I only report what I see.

Worst Valentine’s Day gift to give to your boyfriend or husband:

So what if it doesn't snore?

The “Boyfriend Pillow” was originally created for single Japanese women who wanted a pillow in the shape of a man’s torso and arm so that they could cuddle up to it. It was marketed as a substitite for a boyfriend, and I’m sure some women appreciated the fact that it didn’t snore, eat in bed, or take up more than half of the space.

But why should Japanese women be so special? A variation of the boyfriend pillow, is available from Amazon and will ship to anywhere in India.

But despite the name, it is not a gift you should give your boyfriend (or husband). Apart from the fact that it is downright creepy, it sends the wrong sort of signal to the man in your life. Yes, I know the pillow comes with a “removable microfiber shirt for easy care.” It might even be great for snuggling up to since it has extra support for the neck and upper back.

What you should be asking is this: does the man in your life really need a pillow in the shape of another man complete with arm, hand, and fingers to cuddle up to? And we are not being judgmental here: this has nothing to do with how he feels about others, and everything to do with how he feels about himself.

Worst Valentine’s Day gift to give to your girlfriend or wife:

pagla gayi ho ka?

I’ve seen a lot of weirdness in my time including the Bollywood film Khopdi – The Skull, but the title of this album of Bhojpuri music made me burst out laughing. It was the only thing I could do to keep myself from crying.  If you cannot read Devanagari script, I apologize: I will not translate out of fear of attracting the wrong sort of web-traffic!

In any case, when it comes to music, I’ll listen to anything once. After you’ve grown up around Bappi Lahiri’s Rock Dancer which had toxic songs like “launda badnam hua” and “you are my chicken fry”, you develop that sort of mental strength. As your trusted reviewer, I heard a little bit of the album from the preview site. From what I’ve heard, the music is far better than the crass title of the album. Of course, I understand that this isn’t a very useful review to you because that gives me a titanic margin of error. In any case, this should not be given to anyone (and certainly not the person you love the most)

Bottom-line: Ladies and gentlemen, if want to live a happy and prosperous life beyond February 14, remember the lessons of the Valentine’s Day Massacre.  Don’t buy these gifts if you have any dream of self-preservation. And now, that I’ve had my say, I feel so much better.

Fair-use rationale for album cover image : not-for-profit review of work using low-resolution image where no free equivalent is available. Image copyright: T-series.

Text, © 2010-2012, Anirban

Five important questions technology can’t answer

An hour-long internet outage today made me feel ashamed of myself. I was ashamed because I felt helpless without the connection even for the short period of time. While a vast proportion of humanity lacks basic amenities such as clean drinking water, nutritious food, and proper shelter, I’ve made my life so complex that I can’t go on without something I didn’t have twenty years ago. Is this what life has come to? Is this what I’ve become?

Has my life come to this?

My parents, grandparents, and generations before them were born in villages in eastern India. The walked to school and studied under the flicker of lanterns. They drew water from wells. They wrote actual letters.

In the last few decades, our lives became “simpler” with electricity, running water, and telephones. Sometimes utilities  were available, and other times they weren’t. That was the only thing that was simple.

Then, in the early Nineties, cable television, the internet, and a liberalized economy opened us up to to the rest of the world. Soon we were relying on cell phones, mp3 players and laptops. We were buying Hondas and Toyotas. We were traveling on-site for IT projects and abroad for higher studies. Our BPOs became attuned to the needs of foreign clients in global timezones. Ironically, what was supposed to make our lives simpler actually made them more complex!

Today I’ve identified five technological questions that technology can’t answer.

1. What is the resolution on a television and audio quality on a stereo system that will satisfy us?

The first television my parents had was a 14 inch black-and-white. Once they could afford color, they bought a Sony Trinitron which is still in working order. They bought a VCR and the VHS format was in vogue for decades too. Not these days – in the last decade, I’ve bought a couple of television sets (including one in high-definition), home theater systems, and DVD players. Very recently I became the owner of a Blu-ray player. I am sure all of these will soon be replaced by newer technologies. But does 7.1 surround sound turn an out-of-tune song into ear-candy?  I can sit and watch Transformers II a hundred times in high-definition glory (actually I can’t watch it even once), but I still won’t get the same feeling I get when I watch grainy prints of Pather Panchali. How many pixels do we really need on our screens to feel satisfied?

2. How many redundant devices do we need to feel secure?

I remember the day I got my first digital wristwatch. I was so proud! Flash-forward to the day I bought my first mp3 player (really a hard-drive in disguise). I was pretty happy that day too. I own three laptops, four generations of mp3 players, four external hard drives, and at least half dozen flash drives.  I can safely say I’m not atypical. Decades ago, I used to own music cassettes. Now I have CDs that I never listen to and at least ten copies of each song backed up on my devices. How many copies do I really need to feel secure?

3. How many software updates and patches do we need until we have software we can use?

When you buy a piece of software, you don’t expect it to be perfect. You expect it to do the job that you want satisfactorily. After all, if a software company ever created the “perfect” software it would go out of business, since there would be no need for patches, updates, and support. I understand the need for security updates for programs to counter threats. I understand the need for updated programs that interface better with newer technologies especially in light of Moore’s law. What I do not understand is the need for multiple versions of programs that do simple tasks such as viewing standard graphical files.

4. How many buttons are necessary on a remote control?

Have you ever used all the buttons on the 10 remote controls that you have in front of you? “On/off”, “play”, “pause” and “stop” are probably the ones you use most. I once pressed the wrong button on the remote control for my DVD-recorder and got trapped in a sub-menu filled with symbols that made no sense. It was quite an existential experience since there was no way for me to get out. “Man can will nothing unless he has first understood that he must count on no one but himself,” as Jean-Paul Sartre famously said. So, I got up and unplugged the monstrosity. (I admit I have never pushed the “random” button on my Kenwood home-theater system out of fear of disturbing the order of the natural world).

5. How many razor blades do men need for a truly close shave?

My grandfather used to shave using Wilkinson Sword razor blades. I’ve never used a safety razor in my life. I’ve used electronic shavers a couple of times, but find that my skin usually turns beet red, which makes me look like I’ve been swigging the bottle early in the morning. I usually use cartridges. In high school, I started shaving with cartridges that had one blade. Then I promoted my stubble to the “revolutionary” Gillette Sensor which had two blades which was advertised to help lift and cut. Then I flew for a few years with three blades at Mach3. Now, I’m on interplanetary orbit with the five-blade Fusion. How many blades will I end up using to shave? Seven? Ten? Twenty?

Technology can’t answer these five questions. We need to understand human psychology instead.

Text: © 2009-2011, Anirban

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Bt brinjal bharta – a saga of lau and whylence.

I couldn’t fail to be amused. India’s Environment Minister Jayram Ramesh calls for the introduction of a genetically-modified insect-resistant crop plant dubbed the Bt brinjal and the nation goes crazy.

First, I owe my global readers an explanation. What is known in Indian English as the brinjal is also known elsewhere as the eggplant and the aubergine. In many of our dozens of languages, we lovingly refer to it as the baingan (pronounced bangin’) or the  begun (pronounced begun).

Indians have a love-hate relationship with the brinjal. On the one hand, our poets pen lines exhorting Brinjal Kumari. We don’t have Brangelina, we have Brinjalina. The brinjal is India’s most eaten vegetable – shining in bhartas and bhajis and impostors like the tomato are relegated to the second-tier as evident from the moniker vilayati baingan or “foreign brinjal” used to describe the succulent cousin.

On the other hand, some of us can’t stand the venerated veggie. Eating poorly chosen or prepared brinjals can cause throats to itch and swell in those with allergies. Some others that aren’t allergic, find the mushy consistency of the cooked product extremely disconcerting.

The Bt brinjal plant debate underscores the current khichdi. Indian farmers would definitely benefit from crops resistant to insects, a trait conferred by the modification. But there are prominent scientists who oppose the introduction including one who calls it the “single largest disaster.” (I really wish the article had elaborated. “Single largest disaster” since when? The Partition of India? The Second Battle of Panipat? Nader Shah’s sacking of Delhi?)

I propose an alternative use for the Bt brinjal. Let’s have farmers grow the crop and then use it to make insect repellents. I’ve even thought of a name for the baingan spray – Bangon. Yes, I know you will all rush out to thank me.

You’re welcome.

Footnote: Incidentally, a research paper published today by Indian scientists led by Dr. Asis Datta of the National Institute of Plant Genome Research in New Delhi describes a genetically-modified tomato strain with increased shelf life; that one barely made a splash in the papers.

© 2009-2011, Anirban

Quotas for the underprivileged in the Bollywood Hindi film industry

There was a rather peculiar question in the All-India Pre-medical and Pre-dental Entrance Examination a few years ago. The question in the biology section asked if children of doctors were genetically inclined to become doctors themselves. I am sure that there were some students who filled in the “b” or “c” circle with their No.2 pencils  for all questions they did not know the answer.  Some must have chosen that option.

Will we ever see this story outside of the The Indian Bakwaas?

Reflecting back to the gist of the question, I can say that it is certainly true that many physicians want their children to follow in their professional footsteps. The same also applies for practitioners of professions such as law, politics, sports, and engineering. The Hindu caste system was originally based on professions. Even today there is controversy regarding the touchy topic of race and ability. Geneticists are however, quick to point out that there is no “race gene” in the human genome.

Arguably the most visible instances of offspring following in footsteps all the way down to nepotism can be found in the Bollywood Hindi film industry. A staggeringly large proportion of lead actors and actresses who get their first “big break” in Hindi films come from filmi households.

Yes, I have heard many of the usual arguments. The parents of these youngsters finance many of the movies. They are well-connected. They have acting in their genes. They are more marketable.

Further, arguments are made that financiers can choose whoever they want in a free country.The public is not forced into watching anyone’s films. And many actors and actresses related to industry folks have flopped miserably over the decades. For every Hrithik Roshan, there is an equal and opposite Puru Rajkumar.

These are all valid points. But my question is this: if we can have rational discussions on mandatory reservations for underprivileged castes and classes in India in the public and private sector, why can’t we imagine quotas in the top-spots in films for those of us not related to film-royalty?

© 2009-2011, Anirban

Monkeys can do math so let them solve the oily bamboo problem

A research article published this week in the prestigious scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences caught my attention. Two German scientists report that monkeys have the brain structure to learn and apply basic mathematical rules. Chartered accountants and theoretical physicists thought they were unique, but now  this article shows that non-human monkeys can do math too.

I was thinking back to my own painful experiences learning math from sadistic teachers in India. Even now sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat.

Sharmaji, sir, if you are reading this, please know that calling us “dung-heads” in third period while bragging about your brilliant son who was a topper at IIT Powai didn’t transform us into Srinivasa Ramanujan. Instead, it scarred us for life. Some of us still have a hard time calculating the tip at restaurants.

The syllabus of Indian Certificate of Secondary Education and West Bengal Board of Secondary Education didn’t help either. There were always these math problems that made no sense at all. For instance, there was this math problem asking how fast water runs out of a bucket with a hole at the bottom and the tap running at the top. We were always advised to solve the problem in our “copy” without thinking about what kind of duffer would wantonly waste water that way.

But the worst ones by far, were the monkey problems. There was always some variant of an arithmetic problem where a monkey tried to climb an oily bamboo at a set speed while slipping. For example, as the monkey climbed two meters, it fell by one. The problem would always end by asking how long it would take for the monkey to climb to the top of a bamboo tree of a predetermined height.

Clearly, the first person who came up with this problem didn’t know anything about anything other than impossible math problems. Why would a monkey climb a bamboo in the first place? What was at the top of the bamboo? Bananas do not grow on bamboo trees, they grow on banana trees. What sort of person would oil a bamboo anyways? How would a bamboo be oiled? What kind of oil would be used? What was the purpose of this stupid exercise?

The more I think about it now, the more my blood boils. Some sadistic teacher decided to take out his frustration on generations of impressionable boys and girls because he (and it has to be a he)  failed to do anything successful in life and his wife was boring and ugly.

I can’t also help but be amazed at just how brilliant non-human primates are! They can actually do math and yet they choose not to!  No longer can they hide this fact though. Now, as humans we can inflict the same sort of pain on them too. Let them do ridiculous problems in which humans try to climb oily bamboos. To make it interesting let us get oily desis with no other purpose in life to actually climb bamboo trees while the monkeys do the math.

Now, I feel that my life has changed. From now on, whenever I need to know the difference between GCF and LCM, I can consult a wise orangutan named Yoda. At least Yoda doesn’t have a brilliant child who is a topper at IIT Powai.

Now monkey… how does it feel now?

© 2009-2011, Anirban