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


India though the eyes of a former Viceroy

A chance encounter with a copy of the October 1943 issue of the National Geographic magazine at a library book-sale piqued my interest since the headline article was about British India. I have always had more than a passing curiosity in the opinions of the British ruling-class during the days of the Raj. What did they feel their roles were in India? Were they simply traders forced into ruling uncivilized natives that knew no better?

I had to find out what this authors’ opinion was so I purchased the magazine on the spot. The article written by Lord Halifax, Viceroy of British India from 1926-1931 combined elements of genuine interest in the affairs of India with unapologetic views of the role that the British played in shaping it. Some of the broader themes in the article are commonly found in many other articles written by authors of similar origin and social-standing and are worth pointing out.

The first comment that struck my attention was this mock denial of the true nature of the balance of power in British India:

“About 39 percent of the whole country, an area of 716,000 square miles, is included in what are known as Indian States. Some of these States of which there are 562, are very large… Many of them are very old, and nearly all existed before the British ever set foot in India. Most of them were never conquered, but of their free will entered into treaty relations with the British… It is an added complication of India’s problems that the 93,189,000 people who live in the States are not British subjects and owe allegiance only to their own rulers.”

Of course Lord Halifax is referring to the Princely States in this passage and delineating them from the eleven Provinces which at the time formed British India. In my opinion, Indian school history textbooks do not adequately describe the powers vested with the Princely States during British rule and only nominally mention the larger of these States  in the context of the political integration of India orchestrated effectively by Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. It would not surprise me if the Indian Princely States were willing allies of the British Crown considering it was in their vested interests to support feudalism. However, does simply saying that the Princely States were happy campers that supported the British acknowledge the realpolitik of the climate? Did the rulers of these Princely States have any reasonable choice?

The second thought pervasive throughout the article is the notion of India as a conglomeration of states cobbled together only by the presence of British ruling elite. Although the Mughal Empire had successfully consolidated much of what later became British India, there is arguably, some credence to this twisted notion. Strong opposition to a ruling class can often be a catalyst for unification of  disparate races or tribes. Dislike for the British might not have been the predominant unifying force, but it certainly might have been one of many.

In the article Lord Halifax also states the following:

“The English did not come to conquer; they came to trade…. For the first 150 years after their arrival, their relations with India were exactly the same as those of the United States with India, or Great Britain with South America, today… The successors of Akbar… became increasingly incapable of holding together his mighty empire; and as this dissolved into lawlessness, the only possible successor to take its place was the East India Company, working under the shadow of the British Crown.”

Again, the tone is defiant. The British were, according to Lord Halifax, unwillingly forced to take on the mantle of ruling India because of a void in leadership. Unfortunately, an external, perceived need for unification is paternalistic and rooted in the colonial mindset.

Lord Halifax continues with the following statement:

“The danger of creating a political vacuum by the withdrawal of one type of authority before another equally reliable is able to replace it is obvious enough.”

Here, there is a sense of resignation that the passing of India from British hands is inevitable. But the passage also reeks of a paternalistic attitude. Did the British know what was best for India? It is an irrelevant question when taken in context of the political disenfranchisement of the people of the land. Who was to say what was good or bad if the people had no voice?

Lord Halifax then talks about the social and economic advance of India under the British and economic and financial “independence” from Britain. Regarding political independence Lord Halifax writes:

“In 1757, when the British began to obtain a real footing in India, no one thought that there was anything unnatural in the idea that one people should govern another… The doctrine developed by Locke and other British thinkers, that the powers of government derive from the consent of the governed, was still in its infancy. The American Revolution was indeed based expressly on this doctrine, with which were associated certain inherent human rights; but even after the War of Independence, only an enlightened minority in this country [USA] disputed the institution of slavery of the expropriation of the American Indian.”

Lord Halifax is completely unapologetic and also continues in the vein that the conquest of India was an accident of history. An accident, perhaps, but weak moral justification even when combined with the preceding “we-know-what-is-best-for-India” attitude.

Lord Halifax also attempts to preempt any harsh criticism from American readers (he was the Ambassador to the US at the time) by sermonizing on the shortcomings in the early history of the US. As a debater , I can admire this sort of wily rhetorical maneuvering; as a rational thinker, I find the underlying logic disingenuous.

I will concede that the author does, however, have a point with respect to the concept of nationality and nationalism. From a sociological standpoint, the concept of communities involves including those that “belong” based on shared traits and excluding those that do not because they do not share the same traits. It is the role of any successful government to foster the sense of community among citizens. In modern India, these concepts coalesced around many nuclei (which included, as I pointed out, opposition to British rule).

The final comment worth mentioning from the piece discusses relations between Hindus and Muslims.

“Between Moslem and Hindu, there is a baffling absence of fundamental community of thought or feeling… From time to time it is alleged that the British, on the principle of ‘Divide and Conquer,’ have encouraged the quarrels which lead to this disturbance. This is simply not true.”

Throughout the article, Lord Halifax expounds the view that there are fundamental differences between Hindus and Muslims which are irreconcilable. I leave you to ponder on this viewpoint in light of the events of the last sixty-seven years during which time Pakistan was carved out of India, and Bangladesh out of Pakistan.

Notwithstanding my criticism of the article, I found it to be a provocative read, if for nothing else then for gaining insights into the mind of someone so intimately associated with the history of the South Asian subcontinent.

© Text, 2010-2012, Anirban

Why are Indians so good at test-taking? India’s first competitive exam

Post-mortem: A recent article in the New York Times on pressures facing school-leaving teenagers in India brought back my own personal memories of the Higher Secondary and various competitive examinations. Some things never change.

Of course, it wasn’t all bad. What doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger, right? I mean, those of us that survived live fairly normal lives as long as we don’t miss therapy and take the green pill in the morning, the blue one in the afternoon, and the red one at night. Oh that, and we have to avoid bright light. Did I mention the back-aches and the arthritis?

Not a big price to pay in order to enjoying the wonderful view from a cubicle.

Fair-use rationale for images: All images are low-resolution and used only for purposes of demonstration for no monetary gain. Copyright of original works resides with the original creators.

How to kill small animals for no good reason

The dissection.

I stared in resignation at the pouch-like underbelly that contained all of the entrails of Rana, the unfortunate amphibian in front of me. It looked so fresh.

No matter. Best to get this over with as soon as possible. Singh Sir had a zero-tolerance policy towards miscreants in his class and the orders were simple enough. We were to chop up the poor bastards in the two periods before Macbeth or fail biology.

No one who ever sat through Singh Sir’s biology practical class would ever be able to look at a frog the same way again. Resting on the dissection board with arms and legs strewn unnaturally like a martyr was an anesthetized specimen. A few hours earlier, it had been hopping on the grassy knoll, licking buzzing winged-insects in blissful ignorance of what Lab Instructor Mahato had in store for it.

Mahato caught my specimen along with the others and kept in a see-through plastic bin with a few small holes at the top. As class started, he put it in a plastic bag with a little bit of chloroform and shook it up vigorously until it became limp. I imagined that I saw an sadistic smile on his face and an evil glint in his eyes. What other reason could there be for subjecting us to this unnecessary spectacle? Couldn’t he have done this before class?

My mind wandered. The humid air was rank with chloroform and somnolence. I could hear the blades of the fan slicing the heavy air with gurgling sounds. In this funereal setting, a bunch of lily-livered Indian high-school students stretched out frogs and pinned them down to the gelatinous surfaces of dissection boards. It was as if we were the Roman sentry crucifying Jesus. Of course, all of this was part of the plan. The innards of the prisoner were to be released and to be sketched out in nauseating detail in the lab notebook.

“Take your scalpel from your dissection kit and make an I-shaped incision,” advised the manual. Those of us who had not eaten breakfast obliged more willingly than the others. “Pull back the flaps of skin and pin down,” the manual instructed, as if doing so were as natural as opening a window in the morning to let in the warm sun.

With much trepidation, I ran my scalpel across the turgid, rotund underbelly. The beast opened up like an overfilled pillow. There was little blood.

I lifted the flaps of skin and pinned down to the sides as instructed. It was then that I first peered down the hood into the chassis. Rana’s outstretched body-cavity with all the glistening organs was there to behold in grisly, naked glory. Barely a centimeter in length and squirming like a caterpillar was the heart, which was surrounded on either side by tiny lungs that looked as fluffy as gossamer. I sharpened my dark drawing pencil and began to draw Rana’s organs on to the rough sheet of paper in front of me. I pressed too hard and broke the lead.  I erased the outline and swatted away the gritty mix of lead and rubber shavings. I started again.

I was interrupted by Joydeep who was shifting nervously in the bench next to mine. I looked up and saw that his specimen had exploded releasing tons of shiny, round eggs.

I began to feel queasy. How I got through the rest of class, I do not remember.

Needless to say, it was not Leonardo Da Vinci that sketched the symmetry of life in his notebooks in biology class that day. The chicken-scrawl I handed in to Singh Sir was labeled with the names of organs that I copied from the textbook at home.

The aftermath.

I didn’t fail biology and my parents were happy.

Years rolled by and I moved on. Rana perished like many of the finest four-legged amphibians of his generation in the sweaty classrooms of Indian high-school and college campuses. Seventy million died in flashlight-driven purges in the heydays of the foreign-currency generating frog-leg industry. Two endemic species of amphibians were discovered only to go extinct locally soon thereafter.

I have heard the argument from educators that dissections of small animals such as frogs are useful because anatomically they resemble humans. I can say this: there was certainly nothing humane about what we did in class that day. We did not cut up the animals for the sake of devouring them or (ostensibly) advancing human knowledge; we did it to pass a course which we were not interested in. I often wonder if we could not have learned the same information by looking at diagrams or plastic models.

Very few of us pursued careers in medicine. I suspect that the dissections in the grimy, hot classroom that day taught us more about ourselves than we were prepared to learn.

Perhaps, it is the realization that like frogs we are essentially a messy bag of chemicals waiting to get chopped up, incinerated, or buried six feet under?

Frog image courtesy frecuencia@sxc.

© Text, 2010-2012, Anirban

How to write an application letter in Indian English

Pappu Patligali, our perennial hero, recently moved to India after spending years abroad working on various IT projects. Pappu studied in English-medium schools before completing his engineering degree from a state engineering college in Karnataka. In school, Pappu enjoyed reading novels written by Enid Blyton, but was not thrilled with studying English. He didn’t know why his teachers insisted that he study grammar from Wren & Martin, a book originally written for children of British officers in 1935 (during the reign of King George V) .

Pappu wrote in a very ornate style before moving abroad for higher studies. He soon learned how to write letters and emails in a more direct manner.

So, upon his return to India, he applied to join the local Housing Cooperative with the following letter:

Dear Sir/Madam:

My name is Pappu Patligali. I’ve recently moved into the neighborhood and I’d really like to join your Society as a full-time member. I’ve enclosed a completed application form along with all required fees. I’d really appreciate your help in expediting the process.

Please feel free to contact me if you need any further information. I look forward to meeting you in person!

Thanks in advance,


Pappu Patligali

On submitting the letter, Pappu was told brusquely that he didn’t know how to write in English and that he needed to resubmit in triplicate with full particulars per the approved sample proforma letter. Of course, there was no use telling the Society’s members that the National Council of Educational Research and Training now publishes a textbook recommending that letters be written in a modern style.  Pappu just ended up showing his NRI ignorance.

Ultimately, Pappu followed the prescribed proforma and sent the following letter in triplicate:

Respected Sir:

Respectfully, I beg to state that I am Pappu Patligali, son of Sri Jhappu Patligali currently domiciled in Nayaghat within PS- Kotwali in District Uttar Dinajpur under the jurisdiction of your esteemed Society.  My permanent address is Village Rampur, of aforementioned District and police jurisdiction. It is hereby requested forthwith that I may please be enrolled as a Member of your Society under the provisions of Bye-laws and State Act of 1962 the Rules framed thereover and thereunder.

Therefore, I seek to humbly request herewith to deposit the prescribed amount as payment in cash the membership fee and the entrance fee today for which kindly money receipt from branch-office near Hanuman Mandir may please be issued on paper in my favour. Further, I am to forthwith state that I shall endeavour to solemnly and most faithfully abide by the rules and Bye-laws of the Society as Member of the Society with my firstborn forfeit and under pain of death (as per provisions articulated in Byelaw No. 221 Part C dated Jan 20, 1962).  Moreover, sir, it is my heartiest and most humble entreaty to you to kindly and most generously look into the matter and do the most needful at your earliest convenience.

I remain, yours obediently,

Full signature of Pappu Patligali

Place :

Date :-

(s/d attestation of first-class gazetted officer)

Needless to say Pappu’s letter is currently in a file under a stack of similar letters awaiting review by the Secretary of the Society.

Footnote: Although I’ve written both letters specifically for this post, I’ve been heavily influenced in the second letter by actual examples on the internet including this one.  If you have time, take a look at question 17 of the 2009 UPSC General Ability Test which asks test-takers to look at the following sentence: “Respectfully I beg to state that I am suffering from fever for the past fortnight.”

Read about Pappu’s next misadventure here.

© 2010-2012, 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