Sunday, October 24, 2004

Who's Indian? 

Madhu Menon (aka Madman)'s blog, The meaning of being an Indian, raises an interesting point:
And what if you don't find too much in common with many people in your country? I ask because for many years, I have felt a "cultural mismatch" between me and the country I live in. I could not identify with many things that form our "culture"
But isn't it true about any culture? What use is a culture without misfits? If everybody fits in, we have a giant monolith -- something that even the self-declared guardians of culture wouldn't have bargained for.

To a large extent, I share Madhu's sense of being a misfit myself, and I'm sure many do. However, Madhu goes ahead and asks :
How, then, can I strongly identify with this country? Is there any "Indian" left in me?
That got me thinking. For all my disconnect with the mass culture of India, it never occurred to me to ask this question of myself. That's not same as being able to answer the question at all. What identity do misfits have anyway -- with respect to a culture? I think the answer lies in the way one looks at the very idea of culture.

What, then, is a culture? Is it just a sum of static beliefs and practices that a community (country is just a geo-political community) shares? If culture were just that, then ironically, there would be no culture! For every belief, every ritual that we identify with culture today was a break-away phenomenon yesterday. In Lila, Robert Pirsig talks about static and dynamic patterns of values. What Madhu seems to be concentrating on, as culture, is the static patterns of values -- something which is pretty integral to a culture, as that is how it sustains itself. But more vital, are the dynamic patterns of values, that at the point of their arrival would always be contrary to the static patterns, and yet in a generations or two would be subsumed into the collection of static patterns -- something we identify with as culture.

Besides, with culture as diverse as Indian (or for that matter European) culture, the mainstream or mass culture is just one (even if significant by definition) stream. The custodians of the mainstream culture might want to (and indeed do) insist that that is the Indian culture, but it doesn't at all change the reality of the complex interplay of streams. So, Atheism is one such stream that has both a long history and a strong presence in the Indian culture. Likewise, many great saints of this land have been individualistic in a certain sense. Many reformists have either rejected or reinvented rituals. And so on.

Of course, I'm avoiding the question -- who then is an Indian? Well, my answer, however circular it might sound, is anyone who identifies with Indian culture. Mainstream or fringe don't really matter. For those are very temporal tags. And there are just innumerable choices to pick from for identifying with -- the pop-culture of Bollywood or the Ekta Kapoors, or the eternal spirituality or the plethora of rituals, or the thousand ideas of India. Besides, it's not even mandatory to be exclusively Indian.

Thursday, October 21, 2004

Four Cheers For The Colonialized 

In Two Cheers For Colonialism, Dinesh D'souza, the American author (I shudder to say, of Indian origin) argues the case for colonialism, dismissing post-colonial studies, and aquitting colonialism (as unintentional gift by the colonial masters), all in on breath. I must say, I admire his courage, his passion, and his sheer (selective) honesty -- however misplaced they all might be.

Why did he choose to defend the colonial case, is anybody's guess -- probably he was hurt that his cherished western civilization is under attack from the rest of the wretched third-world -- which in the absence of any real bargaining power is maligning the west. For someone who was raised (I presume) on the romances of Western civilization, it's understandable that his blood boils by the accusations that all those post-colonial and subaltern scholars are hurling at the greatest example of the western civilization. We, from the wretched thirld world, must understand this behaviour of those lucky ones who never had an umelical chord connecting them with these wretched (even though much improved now, post the colonial rules -- the longer, the better) regions of earth. So, my third-rateworldly friends, you must be sympathetic to him. And please don't call him those old-fashioned names like a traitor or gaddar. You see, he's being more than loyal to his country and his culture. So let's not be emotional, and let's try to adhere to the modernity -- let's be logical.

For instance, he says:
The assault against colonialism and its legacy has many dimensions, but at its core it is a theory of oppression that relies on three premises: First, colonialism and imperialism are distinctively Western evils that were inflicted on the non-Western world. Second, as a consequence of colonialism, the West became rich and the colonies became impoverished; in short, the West succeeded at the expense of the colonies. Third, the descendants of colonialism are worse off than they would be had colonialism never occurred.
Of course, you and me won't use the world assault for the post-colonial reactions! But that's being emotional. From a perspective of global citizen, it's an assualt, mind you. Also, no one is seriously arguing that colonialism is essentially a western concept, but that's okay again. If you apply a little bit of deconstructionism (a western, and global, technique), you'd see that the fact that DD picks up as an important premise shows that in his worldview, West has to be at the center of the things. It's very very natural, I tell you. So if no one is seriously saying that colonialism is a distinctly western evil, you gotta assume that that's what they are doing. After all, how could anyone think that west is not at the center of something? So we'll let that pass.
By suggesting that the West became dominant because it is oppressive, they provide an explanation for Western global dominance without encouraging white racial arrogance. They relieve the third world of blame for its wretchedness.
Well, as a representatives of those wrethed third-worlds, sir, I accept that the blame is totally ours. We let others rule us, we fought among ourselves, and generally never realized that you gotta learn from your history. Hell, most of us don't realized even today that they gotta learn from their history! So on that point, I'm with you, sir.
I was raised to believe in such things (the three premises, I presume -- e.d), and among most third-world intellectuals they are articles of faith. The only problem is that they are not true.
And here, the smart ones can go home. For the dummies, there are explanations coming.
Colonialism has gotten a bad name in recent decades
LOL! I'm deeply sorry sir. Colonialism shouldn't have got a bad name. My wretched brothers don't understand.
Anticolonialism was one of the dominant political currents of the 20th century, as dozens of European colonies in Asia and Africa became free. Today we are still living with the aftermath of colonialism. Apologists for terrorism, including Osama bin Laden, argue that terrorist acts are an understandable attempt on the part of subjugated non-Western peoples to lash out against their longtime Western oppressors. Activists at last year's World Conference on Racism, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson, have called on the West to pay reparations for slavery and colonialism to minorities and natives of the third world.
Again sir, I genuinely regret the misunderstanding of my fellow third-ratersworlders. If I were at that conference, sir, I'd have ulta (a third-world-word for reverse) asked the third-worlders to give some of their GDP to the west for all the unintended gifts that they gave us, in their stay here. I mean, gift is a gift is a gift! Intention notwithstanding. I've just one complaint, sir, did you have to bring in OBL in this? I mean, your own western theories would postulate that this might amount to guilt-by-association, a very unhealthy thing to do, by civilized people. But then I forget, you have the wretched blood running in your veins! Damn, how I wish you could have got rid of that, and become an exemplary modern citizen. But I'll let that pass too.
These justifications of violence, and calls for monetary compensation, rely on a large body of scholarship that has been produced in the Western academy.
Sir, again, me thinks, you're doing that same guilt-by-association thingy. I advise you to act more civilized/westernized sir. You're showing your origins by behaving like that!
The West did not become rich and powerful through colonial oppression. Moreover, the West could not have reached its current stage of wealth and influence by stealing from other cultures, for the simple reason that there wasn't very much to take.
Right! Like, India's 20% share of the world trade -- that must be based on selling the philosophy of maya. I mean, what else was there in India pre-british? Again, friends you should not be overly critical of Mr. DD. He was never taught the history of the wretched third-world and the colonies. Hell, most of us were never taught it either, living in the same wretched thirld-world.
"Oh yes there was," the retort often comes. "The Europeans stole the raw material to build their civilization. They took rubber from Malaya, cocoa from West Africa, and tea from India." But as the economic historian P.T. Bauer points out, before British rule, there were no rubber trees in Malaya, no cocoa trees in West Africa, no tea in India.
Like, I said, pure maya. After all, (more later) people who never knew how to distinguish between science and cow, cannot possibly have much wealth! That talk about strong textile industry, and all must be a pure bull! (What else do you expect from cow-worshippers?)
The reason the West became so affluent and dominant in the modern era is that it invented three institutions: science, democracy, and capitalism. All those institutions are based on universal impulses and aspirations, but those aspirations were given a unique expression in Western civilization.
Like the trade-protectionism, like high-taxes on manufactured goods from colonies, like trasfer of wealth (the land-tax), like breakdown of traditional schooling system, like out-licenecing the native enterpreuners.... You see, in it's initial stages, democray and capitalism for a few has to come at the expense of foreign rule and import barriers for outsiders. It's a tricky thing, democracy. You want buffers, you know! What if it fails? The west was responsible for the experiment! And you need civilized people for democracy. So naturally, the thirld-world had to be excluded. Capitalism also is sooo fragile, that it needs import protection. I mean, you don't just let outsiders, and inferior, wretched ones at that, to do free trade inside your country! Not to mention the very civilized divide and rule tactics. Very very civilized look away for a while while famines are happening (because of your policies). You see, there is a science of ruling! And who else could have invented that?
Now we can understand better why the West was able, between the 16th and 19th centuries, to subdue the rest of the world and bend it to its will. Indian elephants and Zulu spears were no match for British rifles and cannonballs.
Righto! Now we know! Dummies, even you can go home now. Only metally challenged should stay.
Colonialism and imperialism are not the cause of the West's success; they are the result of that success.
I'm staying sir, I'm quite stupid. But can I just ask one question, I mean such a civilized bunch this, those who invented institutions like Democracy and all (never heard of before anywhere in the world!), why couldn't they ummmm control their urges? You know, not of that kind...
Colonial possessions added to the prestige, and to a much lesser degree the wealth, of Europe.
Right. If you say so, sir!
The descendants of colonialism are better off than they would be if colonialism had never happened: I would like to illustrate this point through a personal example. While I was a young boy, growing up in India, I noticed that my grandfather, who had lived under British colonialism, was instinctively and habitually antiwhite... I realized that I did not share his antiwhite animus. That puzzled me: Why did he and I feel so differently? ... Only years later, after a great deal of reflection and a fair amount of study, did the answer finally hit me. The reason for our difference of perception was that colonialism had been pretty bad for him, but pretty good for me. Another way to put it was that colonialism had injured those who lived under it, but paradoxically it proved beneficial to their descendants.
But why was it bad for him? After all, wasn't India wretched even before Brits came? I mean, why wasn't he greatful to the Brits for all those railways and buildings and all? I see, sir, your grandfather didn't have your balanced perspective. Possibly because he never got good western (I know it's redundancy, but my fellow-countrymen wouldn't know, you know) education sir? And why are you suddenly saying it injured people who lived under it? Didn't they get the benefits too? Those ungreatful swines? I mean, here they were living in absolute pathetic state, there comes the white man and gives them trains, and what not, and education (unheard of before that, I'm sure). And still they crib! It must be in their blood...
Much as it chagrins me to admit it -- and much as it will outrage many third-world intellectuals for me to say it -- my life would have been much worse had the British never ruled India.
Ignore them sir. As it is, third-world intellectuals is an oxymoron. You're talking about non-existing people. The third-world idiots like me accept your insigt. Of course, your life is better off. One stupid stupid question -- is that why you're defending colonialism?
I am a writer, and I write in English. My ability to do this, and to reach a broad market, is entirely thanks to the British.
You mean, the British taught you to write, wow! They've done a great job!
My understanding of technology, which allows me, like so many Indians, to function successfully in the modern world, was largely the product of a Western education that came to India as a result of the British. So also my beliefs in freedom of expression, in self-government, in equality of rights under the law, and in the universal principle of human dignity -- they are all the products of Western civilization.
Again, a stupid stupid question sir. How much money do you get for this?
I am not suggesting that it was the intention of the colonialists to give all those wonderful gifts to the Indians.
Not too much, I see.
Then they realized that they needed courts of law to adjudicate disputes that went beyond local systems of dispensing justice. And so the British legal system was introduced, with all its procedural novelties, like "innocent until proven guilty." The British also had to educate the Indians, in order to communicate with them and to train them to be civil servants in the empire. Thus Indian children were exposed to Shakespeare, Dickens, Hobbes, and Locke. In that way the Indians began to encounter words and ideas that were unmentioned in their ancestral culture: "liberty," "sovereignty," "rights," and so on.
One more stupid stupid question sir -- why did civil servents need to know Shakespeare?
But my broader point is that the champions of Indian independence acquired the principles, the language, and even the strategies of liberation from the civilization of their oppressors.
Like Ahimsa? Sir? I always had a doubt! I mean, why else would a freedom fighter say don't kill the opressors?
It is doubtful that non-Western countries would have acquired those good things by themselves. It was the British who, applying a universal notion of human rights, in the early 19th century abolished the ancient Indian institution of suttee -- the custom of tossing widows on their husbands' funeral pyres. There is no reason to believe that the Indians, who had practiced suttee for centuries, would have reached such a conclusion on their own.
Of course not sir! Only civilized people like the Brits could on their own outlaw practices like witch-burning. And who else could have branded those wretched tribes as criminal tribes? I mean, you need absolute faith in oneself to brand tribes of people as criminal.
None of this is to say that colonialism by itself was a good thing, only that bad institutions sometimes produce good results. Colonialism, I freely acknowledge, was a harsh regime for those who lived under it. My grandfather would have a hard time giving even one cheer for colonialism. As for me, I cannot manage three, but I am quite willing to grant two. So here they are: two cheers for colonialism!
I wish you had read Ramayana, a third-rateworld epic. In that, there is this crooked character called Valya KoLi -- he used to loot and kill people. Not very good thing, I know. But it produced good results for his family! If it weren't for him, his family would never have afforded the kind of living they could. Will you join me when I grant two cheers to Valya? I'd have said three but he later abondoned this route and made his family suffer, while he sat and wrote the stupid epic called Ramayana, which kept Indians backword for the next thousands of years!. Thank god, your grandmother never told you that story, Sir.

Monday, October 18, 2004

Art and Disruptive Genius 

In Deadly Genius and the Back-To-Zero Problem, ESR (Eric S. Raymond -- the Open Source Guru, for the non-techies) puts forward an interesting hypothesis about demise of some art forms. Now, one can argue wether some of the art forms that he uses for illlustrating his point are actually dead. But that doesn't take away anything from his theory.

According to ESR, one of the important factors in the demise of/destruction of art form is deadly genius, as he calls it.
A deadly genius is a talent so impressive that he can break and remake all the rules of the form, and seduce others into trying to emulate his disruptive brilliance — even when those followers lack the raw ability or grounding to make art in the new idiom the the genius has defined.
This, essentially kills the art form, as the hoards that go after the genius (obviously) don't have his/her genius, but imitate anyway -- with disasterous results. In other words, they end up being - na ghar ka na ghat ka, contributing in the demise of the art form as well.

Art, is more or less dependent on a degree of continuity, as the bulk of population (which supports art in one way or another) is rather conservative with respect to appreciating art. This is more than evident in the history. ESR stresses on this point:
Artistic tradition can be limiting sometimes, but it has one thing going for it — it is the result of selection for pleasing an audience. Thus, artists of moderate talent can imitate it and produce something that the eye, ear, heart and mind will experience with pleasure. Most artists are at best of moderate talent; thus, this kind of imitation is how art forms survive and keep an audience.
ESR observes that in the early twentieth centuary, the deadly genius phenomenon became really prominent. Why, he asks, and again postulates that it might have to do with the end of traditional patronage system for art, which was one of the major factors that worked for art establishment.
Wealthy aristocratic patrons, had, in general, little use for disruptive brilliance — what they wanted from artists was impressive display objects, status symbols that had to be comprehensible to the patron's peers. Thus, artists learned to stay more or less within traditional forms or starve. Evolution happened, but it was relatively gradual and unsconscious. Geniuses were not permitted to become deadly.... [But in] the new environment, artistic tradition lost much of its normative force. "Back to zero!" was the slogan; forget everything so you can invent anything. And when the next wave of deadly geniuses hit, there was nothing to moderate them any more.
However, there is one interesting problem with this theory: the more deadly the genius is, the more pattern-breaking his/her art is likely to be. So in the absence of patronage, there should be more pressure on the artist to conform. For once you break normative matrix, you're essentially an outsider -- and this is not just true for art, although it is more obvious in artistic realms. Naturally it takes years before revolutionary art is appreciated. So The questions (and I myself see an answer to the first one: that old Patronage system was more limiting than a societal patronage -- as the latter is more decentralized) become more relevant in the wake of ESR's prediction that:
It is unlikely that anything quite like the Modernist disruption will ever happen again, if only because we've been there and done that now.
I'm no art expert, but I think this is a little-to-early to predict anything like that, however sound the hypothesis may look. Mainly because, a deadly-genius does what it does inspite of the surroundings, not because of them. So certain social catalysts can accelerate or slow down the process but it's presumptuous to say that only one set of social conditions could bring around such a revolution/disruption (whatever way you look at it). One thing however cannot be contested:
But as we try to heal all the fractures it produced, this one lesson is worth bearing in mind. Genius can be deadly when it goes where mere talent cannot follow.
And it takes a deadly genius himself to come up with that!

Thursday, October 14, 2004

The Republic and the Reconstructed Guru 

If anyone ever had any doubts about Jug Suraiya's worth, his recent article in Time of India should really settle the doubts. Writing about Jacques Derrida, the father of Deconstructionsist movement, Jug once again exhibits his mastery over language, and above all his unique ability to effortlessly play with the subject in hand. If there is one reason why I still can't part with TOI, it's got to be Jug.

Undoubtedly, deconstructionism has strong critics, and its relevance/validity as a universally applicable theory has been questioned -- more recently by Rajiv Malhotra and others. The point of the article, however , is not deconstructionism per se, neither is it Deridda's life. For instance,
Unburdened of individual responsibility, moral conduct -- or its undifferentiated opposite -- becomes a collective rite, a hoisting of flags and a mouthing of mantras. The isolate covenant of conscience turns into a charade of public ceremony, an unveiling of statues ...
The irony of an esteemed TOI columnist talking about individual responsibility kind of spoils it -- for people will ask, today or tomorrow, what then is the responsibility of a syndicated columnist? And doesn't the very fact of writing about individual responsibility then become nothing more that a symbolic flag-hoisting and mouthing of mantras? But that apart, it's a succinct portrayal of our socio-political scene.
Each moral inaction has an equal and opposite reaction and it is not surprising that deification -- often of the most implausible or reluctant of idols -- should go hand in hand with that other great national pastime, that of growing cynicism and the vilification of public figures.
Kierkegaard said that to the extent he seized upon a mentor's truth and made it his own, he diminished the importance of the other. In India, we do it the other way round: by magnifying the mentor we absolve ourselves of the responsibility of living up to his teachings.
It's probably a universal pastime, in a sense. But in India, it's more prominent -- for it's more than a pastime, and that in a country which can hardly afford pastimes. For every time we wait for another Gandhi/Shivaji/Vivekanand, we waste precious time. And every time we get one, we waste more precious time. In Jug Suraiya's words,
The less we appropriate into our own safekeeping what really it is that those whom we burden with the role of being our gurus would have us do, the deeper we genuflect towards him as transcendent messiahs we can safely worship without any anxiety that we should even try and emulate them.
All in all, a very readable piece (although a reprint of an old one).

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Touch of Divinity 

Well known Marathi Poet B.B. Borkar probably knew exactly what he had in mind when he wrote the starting couplet of a poem:

tethe kar maze juLati
divyatvAci jeTha praciti

Loosely translated, it means -- wherever there is a mark of divinity, I salute humbly. Borkar, of course, had something else on his mind (from what I want to talk about) -- probably those divine souls who spend their lives in oblivion, and yet contribute profoundly to the human cause, with all the inherent ambiguity of that phrase. But the scope of those lines extends far beyond such noble souls.

For there is something about divinity (not just the religious conception of divinity), which most human being have an innate capacity to experience. The experience itself might well be subjective (isn't experience by it's very definition subjective?) -- but the fact remains, that we have some conception of divinity.

Robert M. Pirsig, in his book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance talks about quality -- and in fact goes ahead and weaves a whole metaphysics around it (which he further espouses in his subsequent book Lila: An Inquiry into Morals). Pirsig's Metaphysics of Quality (MoQ) turns over its head the conventional metaphysics of subject/object duality, by putting Quality before subjects/objects. According to MoQ, quality is neither subjective nor objective, but the very genesis of subjects and objects. Not a very intuitive metaphysics, I know.

On a very orthogonal(?) note, the local myth, and indeed literature, (at least in Marathi speaking regions, however I'm not certain about the scope at all, not being a scholar) talks about a special substance -- called paris in marathi -- which can convert stones into gold, just by touching them. There is also a phrase in marathi, paris sparsha (sparsha is touch, for those who don't know Hindi), that stands for an inside-out change for good, like the stone getting converted to gold due to paris.

How is all this remotely relevant to divinity? When one is touched by divinity, in whatever way, in whatever degree, one changes -- even if briefly. We've all experienced that, even if momentary, profundity -- when mind is in a state of quasi-equanimity. To use Pirsig's MoQ, mind is in a state very near to quality, and in such state, mind can only produce quality. One can easily substitute quality by divinity. There are few, who are touched by divinity so deeply that they change inside out -- reconstructing the mythical paris. In other words, their minds are always near quality. Borkar probably is talking about such people. Most of us are far far away from there. And yet, we all know those moments when we were brushed (if not touched) by divinity. The question is, do we really cherish it? And if we do why do we let ourselves drift?

Friday, October 08, 2004

Who's Birthday Is It Anyway? 

And so we've another latest fad. In last couple of weeks, I've got at least thirty-seven requests to add my Birthday to other people's Birthday Calanders. Okay, so I'm exaggerating a little. Okay, a LOT. But suddenly everyone seems to be creating B'day Calanders on BirthdayAlarm.com. Now, I have nothing against this sort of thing -- people want to maintain B'day calanders, good for them! I find it highly commendable. There is a little problem, however. These people want me to enter my birthday there.

Not that I think it's worth keeping a secret (unless, say, your internet banking password consists of that information. In that case, you're anyway doomed sooner rather than later). However, what kind of pain is it to make entry of your birthday in someone else's B'day Calender, so that s/he doesn't have to take pains of remembering it! I mean, what kind of benevolent universe premise (peace be upon Ayn Rand) do someone who comes up with such an idea rely on? You scratch my back and I'll scratch yours? (aka Symbiotic Benevolence -- something most foolish theories are based on -- like socialism, romantic love, pyramid schemes etc. But then that means, to extract any benefit out of this scheme (unless of course you consider ecards from almost strangers as some kind of benefit) you need to actually create your own B'day Calender somewhere. But then again, what's the real benefit there? You get to send ecards! Fabulous.

So guys, if you ever feel like creating something like that, please give a second thought to something called human-nature -- which, if you actually sit down to study and understand (and this is especially true about male-nature), is nothing but laziness. Since you were lazy enough to remember/write-down b'days of people who matter to you, the last thing you should expect is that they'll go and actually fill up that information for you. But then, lots of people fall for socialism, romantic love and pyramid schemes. So maybe, you'll be lucky too.

Thursday, October 07, 2004

Demystifying Pune (Literally) 

SSM and other guys here got me started on this! There seems to be a nostalgic image of Pune still lurking in the air (not the Pune air, of course, there is no scope for nostalgia there.. all other possible algia's have taken up whatever place is left by pollutants). It's time to bring in some reality...

They say once a Punekar, always a Punekar. Probably that explains why Punekars still love this city (?). Celebrated Marathi writer, P.L.Deshpande (known fondly as Pu La), has done a great job of characterizing this city (along with Mumbai and Nagpur), in his masterpiece "Mumbaikar, Punekar kee Naagpurkar". Most Marathi people are familiar with that piece of writing, and it's so good, that it would take either someone of his caliber or a complete idiot to write an addendum to it that's more recent in scope. Since it's hard to find anyone of the former variety, it's obvious that only idiots will take up the honorable job. So here I am.

There are two kinds of Pune -- one is the Pune of legends, Pune the "sanskritic kendra" (cultural capital) of Maharashtra, Pune the Pensioner's Paradise, Pune with it's cool atmosphere, idyllic life, the oxford of the east, the blah blah blah...
This Pune is buried deep in the starry eyed memories of those who live outside Pune, or those who have always lived here, and believe what those living outside tell them about Pune. There once was such a Pune, presumably. I am ready to give away that concession to this city(?).
But there is another kind of Pune, that people who live here (and especially those who have also lived elsewhere at different point of time) have to live with. I am one such part-time Punekar, without any of the "jAjwalya abhimAn" (errr. how does one translate that? strong pride?) about the city(?), who can look at some of it's $hit and say it is indeed $hit, and not "just smells like it". So what does it mean to be a part-time Punekar? How does one find this city(?), as a part-timer?

This is three part series on Pune.

Part One: Pune's Traffic

You think you've seen it all, bad roads, lack of traffic sense in the bikers, rash driving, etc... You think your city is the absolute nadir (or epitome -- if you think this is something to be proud of -- and I've seen that attitude with genuine Punekars. They'll tell you horrible stories of Pune's traffic, almost with a pride) with respect to traffic, you haven't driven in Pune. This city already boasts of the highest number of automobiles after Delhi, according to some report I read recently (which might be wrong, but that's irrelevant). But for all these astronomical numbers, the traffic sense of average Punekar can be summed as look ahead, try not to bump into anyone in the front. Everything else is chalta hai. So you have PMT (Pune Municipal Transport -- yes there is such a thing) buses stopping right at the center of the road (if you're lucky -- otherwise in the rightmost lane), the auto-wallahs (the ubiquitous auto-rickshaw drivers) taking a u-turn out of nowhere (that even Rajiv Malhortra would be proud of), cyclists moving in rows, you ask for a violation, and it's there. For US returned citizens though, it's easier to adjust. Overtaking is by consensus to be done from left, and in general, if you use the right side of the road for driving, no one seems particularly offended. For those wanting to drive in Pune, here are a few tips:

1) Buy a cellphone if you don't have one, and always use it while driving, it's considered a sign of novice driver, to stop to take a call. If you have to stop, don't bother taking your vehicle to the side of the road. Stop right where you are, or better keep on driving at a sluggish place. People will respect you more.

2) Stopping at signals is passe. The in thing is to hang around for couple of seconds, pay homage to the red-light (which probably signifies all the blood that our freedom fighters have shed for us) and move along. It's very dangerous to stop at a red-light, especially if there is a PMT or some heavy motor vehicle behind you (the red-light will then signify your blood). If you need to stop at the signals, raise your arm half from a kilometer back.

3) If anyone honks, and is expecting that you give him the side, DON'T move. In general, you're not supposed to think about anyone behind you. Especially true if s/he's honking. That only means s/he is deciding which side is more comfortable for overtaking. You're supposed to hold your line (and not bump into anyone in the front, remember?)

4) If you yourself want to overtake there is a complicated algorithm, that I'll try to simplify: basically the strategy depends on the vehicle you're trying to overtake
PMT/Water-tankers: (this latter is a menacing vehicle that's driven by people who generally can't even differentiate between the forward and reverse gears) forget it.
Auto: Move marginally to the right (don't need to look in the rear view mirrors, they'll manage your sudden lane transition) and honk.. the auto-wallah will move towards the right.. then you move back to left, and if you don't mind overtaking from the left go ahead. If you have to overtake from the right (a habit, you should unlearn fast, if you want to stay here) honk again, the auto-wallah will move to the left too.. now shoot past him from right.
Cycle: May go bless you. Try not to hurt him/her as you overtake.
Biker (and this includes every moped): If under 30, s/he'll start a race with you. Watch the Terminator bike chase, and get some ideas. Otherwise, swiftly overtake from the left.

5) Right of the way: The earlier you forget that there is such a thing, the better for your metal well-being. Basically, dil chahta hai is the equivalent of this concept. You want to turn? Turn. You want to cross? cross. You think you've the right of the way, you have it. And so has everyone else. Afterall, it's not for no reason that they ask you "sadak kya tere baap ki hai kya?".

6) Disable the low beam on you vehicle. People here can't spot low beams well. They might not be able to see you approaching.

For more tips, you'll have to buy my upcoming book.

Part 2: The People (Coming Soon -- Very Soon, as a true Punekar will say it)

Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Of Cynics, Love and Birthdays 

"So what are your plans for today?", good@heart friends ask me.

Like I say, people are darn curious. And darn too full of ideas -- for others.

"Nothing so far", I start safely, knowing damn well it doesn't work like that. If anything, it buys you a little bit of time.

"What do you mean nothing? oh, so it's a secret kya?"

That's the problem with truth. People are not used to it. You tell them any lie, and they'll not just swallow it, they'll munch on it. But you gotta live with that, (sigh etc.)

"No seriously, we haven't planned anything."

"Take her out to dinner!", People don't take hints, do they? Never! Why does it always happen to me? Do I ever go and tell someone what they should do on their wife's B'day? Don't they manage without my inputs, anyways? So why do they think I can't? One more of life's whys, that one's gotta ask periodically.

It's like my wife's belief that unless she tells me to take a shower, I wouldn't! Like I'd sit there with the morning paper for the whole of the morning, and leave for my office in my nightsuite. (sigh etc.)

"Well, we don't like to eat out. It's so unhealthy, eating out, you know. These days, you gotta watch you diet", if you don't budge, neither would I, you good@heart friend.

"Come on! One day won't kill you!"

"How about I cook something for her?"

"Like what?", I don't get this. I mean, I can cook maggie for all you care. How does it affect anybody -- except for my wife, of course.

"Potato chips", I chip in, remembering the incident day before, with one of the new joinees in our company. When asked who all could cook, this guy raises his hand. When asked what does he cook, that's the answer he gave: and I'm not making this up!

"Don't tell me if you don't have to"

"Okay", yuppiiiieee-yuhooooo..

"You're impossible! Anyways, what did you gift her?"

"Nothing", knowing full well, I'm just making it worse. Why can't I lie, like everyone around me? Even the great Dhramraj Yudhishthir did that.

"Now don't tell me she doesn't like gifts"

"She doesn't like gifts on her B'day. She thinks it's waste of money, and unnecessary, and predictable."

"How about a bunch of roses? That doesn't cost much does it?"

"It's so goddamn predictable! It's like declaring that you're out of ideas"

"You are pathetic! Excuses is all you've got"

Maybe so, friend. But then aren't B'days and anniversaries themselves excuses -- for when you love someone (and I mean all forms of love), occasion is the last thing that you need to tell them that. Isn't any day goodenuff for that?

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