Sunday, November 27, 2011

Bangalore Book Festival 2011

I had visited the Bangalore Book Festival last year (see blog post and post with photos). This year also the festival is running at the Bangalore Palace Grounds.
From the Deccan Herald article, Bangalore book fair begins today, we can learn that this festival has more than 300 stalls, of which 94 stalls have been set up exclusively for Kannada books. The festival closes Nov 27 (Sunday), and entry fees for adults is Rs 20.

The arrangements, for purchasing tickets as well as for parking, are much better this year compared to last year. Metal rails were used for four different ticketing windows to keep the queues in order. There were several people in the parking lot to help people park their cars into different rows.

They also had a large billboard put up displaying a list of all the exhibitors at the sale, and their stall locations. If you were interested in a particular publisher's stall, you could use this to go directly to that aisle. They were also selling a small booklet with a list and advertisements from all the publishers, in case one was interested.

Sahitya Akademi had stall in the first aisle. In fact they had stall number 1.

Apart from the CBT stall one other stall I was looking very much to visit was Pratham Books (book site). I had recently ordered their books and was very impressed by the quality of the printing, the illustrations, and the writing. And the prices are absolutely stunningly low. I mean, think Rs 15 and up. Fifteen rupees, and even 30 and Rs 40 for most books is a deal. It's a steal. When so many of the Barbie and Disney books sell for a hundred, two hundred, and even more, with dubious educational values, the Pratham Books are simply amazing.
They had books in English, Hindi, and Kannada at the stall - they publish in 11 Indian languages. We picked up a set (numbered Set 18) for Rs 110, which is a collection of five books, priced between Rs 15 and Rs 35. With their already amazingly low prices it was unsurprising that the books were not being sold at a discount, unlike other stalls where a 10% discount was pretty much the norm.

The Ramakrishna Math had a stall too. You could see a large poster of Swami Vivekananda. Most books are very reasonably priced. I picked one up - a collection of short stories for children written by Sister Nivedita.

How could I not snap a pic of this stall - Abhinava publishers!

The Kannada University Hampi stall.

Amar Chitra Katha publishers (ACK Media) had a stall, with a surfeit of Amar Chitra Katha comics.

Navneet Publishers had some nice  books where you could cut out pre-marked sections and construct different models. They had also put up some of those models for people to see before buying.

Interestingly enough, and I didn't know this before, but a publisher named Leftword Books had a stall. Now, the word is a dead giveaway, isn't it? Leftword Books!  And in case you still don't get it, take a look at the books on display: "A World to Win: Essays on the Communist Manifesto" - penned by, among others, Irfan Habib, a stalwart among communist hagiographers (sorry, "Marxist historiographer" or "eminent historian" (book) would be better words), and edited by Prakash Karat, a leading luminary of the Communist Party of India. Or "The Agrarian Question in Marx and his Successors", or "Imperialism" by Lenin. I imagine there are still people who hold romantically flawed notions of communism, but it is a settled question that communism killed more people in the twentieth century than all famines and wars combined.

Well, for what it's worth, I think it is good that such freedom of expression lives on in India - the space and freedom to hold differing opinions and contrarian views, a tradition that has existed and thrived for literally thousands of years in this country - where intellectual differences are settled through civilized discourse and debate. It is sad therefore to see both right-wing extremists and liberals in India today not believe in honest debate (see Sagarika Ghose for instance (thisthis), a staunch liberal whose stock-in-trade tricks consist of a bag of misrepresentations, outright biases, hidden agendas masquerading as honest opinions, and sometimes outright deceit - see especially this).

The CBT (Children's Book Trust), founded in 1957 by "by one of the India’s most celebrated cartoonist Keshav Shankar Pillai"# was a good place to get some pretty good bargains. They have published excellent and very reasonably priced books for chilren in India for decades now, and their contributions in this field deserve to be told to better publicized. The books are of high quality - i.e. the content, and are very reasonably priced. Two prominently placed books were on India's former Prime Ministers from the Nehru dynasty - Srimati Indira Gandhi and Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru.


The Penguin stall had a large collection of classics, among other bestsellers.

I counted at least two stalls devoted to books on Islam. The "Discover Islam Education Trust" stall had a friendly and courteous gentleman handing free copies of a book on Islam.

Higginbothams used to be a very recognizable and popular fixture on Indian Railway stations, when travel on trains was much safer and cleaner. Reading paperbacks on a day or two-day long journey has been an inextricable part of so many millions of lives that a part of me feels somewhat sad and nostalgic that this is slowly going to remembered mostly through movies and songs.

One of India's oldest publishing houses, Motilal Banarsidass (Wikipedia)  was also present.

The ISKCON Bangalore book stall.

© 2011, Abhinav Agarwal. All rights reserved.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Tomatoland by Barry Estabrook

Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit by Barry Estabrook (, my user review on
5 stars
A dismal and scary picture of the tomato notwithstanding, there are some green shoots to be seen.

The Fast Food Nation for the alluring Tomato. Despite a flagging and longer than needed second section, this book is an outstanding look at the tomato and at how modern agriculture has ruined the fruit, err.. no vegetable.

The tomato we eat has undergone several changes. It is larger. It is rounder. It is redder. It is longer lasting. It doesn't taste like a tomato. It is less nutritious than the tomato. It is grown in places where a tomato should not be grown. Compared to the tomato from fifty years ago, "According to analyses conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 100 grams of fresh tomato today has 30 percent less vitamin C, 30 percent less thiamin, 19 percent less niacin, and 62 percent less calcium than it did in the 1960s. But the modern tomato does shame its 1960s counterpart in one area: It contains fourteen times as much sodium."

This then is a book about the tomato, and how it has changed over the last hundred years or so. The change includes changes to the tomato itself, and everything that touches or is touched by the tomato - the places where it is grown, the people who grow it, the chemicals and toxins that bathe the tomato, the stores that sell it, the scientists who are hard at work to revive the tomato, and where we may go from here.

This book can be seen as divided into three parts. The first is a look at the history of the tomato, and how modern industrial farming has reduced it to a round, tasty looking, long lasting, pesticide-laced tasteless industrial product. The second part is a look at the industrial farms of Florida where, shockingly, modern-day slavery thrives, and where farm workers live in worse than dilapidated conditions. In the third part the author goes in search of optimism - from researchers trying to undo fifty years of damage to the tomato and trying to breed a tastier tomato that can still be grown profitably, to small, independent farmers trying to grow the good old tomato the good old way, organically, profitably, and equitably - where farm workers are paid decent wages and sometimes even health benefits.

The history of the modern tomato goes back half a millennium or more.
"Botanists think that the modern tomato’s immediate predecessor is a species called S. pimpinellifolium that still grows wild in the coastal deserts and Andean foothills of Ecuador and northern Peru. ... S. pimpinellifolium fruits are the size of large garden peas. They are red when ripe and taste like tomatoes [location 217]
Selecting plants that produced larger fruits, or fruits with differing shapes and colors, pre-Columbian farmers created tomatoes that resembled most of the varieties available today. When Hernán Cortés conquered the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City) in 1521, tomatoes had become an important part of the indigenous diet
Most of the tomatoes in the United States are grown in the sunshine state of Florida. The state least expected to grow tomatoes. "...the majority of the state’s tomatoes are raised in sand. Not sandy loam, not sandy soil, but pure sand, no more nutrient rich than the stuff vacationers like to wiggle their toes into on the beaches of Daytona and St. Pete."
If it were left up to the laws of botany and nature, Florida would be one of the last places in the world where tomatoes grow. Tomato production in the state has everything to do with marketing and nothing to do with biology.
And although Florida’s sandy soil makes for great beaches, it is devoid of plant nutrients. Florida growers may as well be raising their plants in a sterile hydroponic medium. To get a successful crop, they pump the soil full of chemical fertilizers and can blast the plants with more than one hundred different herbicides and pesticides, including some of the most toxic in agribusiness’s arsenal. [location 122]
So you have Florida as the tomato state of the union. Where the vine is green and as are the tomatoes, till they are gassed with ethylene. Where the soil needs to be fumigated with methyl bromide ("one of the most toxic chemicals in conventional agriculture’s arsenal") - a substance that depletes the ozone layer,  where the crop then needs to be protected from "at least twenty-seven insect species and twenty-nine diseases", where the "... conventional Florida farmer has a fearsome array of more than one hundred chemicals at his disposal" to combat these pests, and where "thirty-one different fungicides" are used to keep the leaves green and spotless. All of this adds up to more than eight million pounds of "insecticides, fungicides, and herbicides" applied to tomato fields in the state of Florida in one single year - 2006.

So is methyl bromide harmful? And what about other cocktail of pesticides and chemicals? Like "endosulfan, azoxystrobin, chlorothalonil, methamidophos, permethrin trans, permethrin cis, fenpropathrin, trifloxystrobin, o-phenylphenol, pieronyl butoxide, acetamprid, pyrimethanil, boscalid, bifenthrin, dicofol p., thiamethoxam, chlorpyrifos, dicloran, flonicamid, pyriproxyfen, omethoate, pyraclostrobin, famoxadone, clothianidin, cypermethrin, clothianidin, cypermethrin, fenhexamid, oxamyl, diazinon, buprofezin, cyazofamid, deltamethrin, acephate, and folpet." you mean? Well... methyl bromide can "... kill humans after brief exposure in small concentrations. Sublethal doses cause disruptions in estrogen production, sterility, birth defects, and other reproductive problems".

That is pretty nasty. What kind of birth defects are we looking at? These are the babies born to women who worked on Florida tomato farms:
Carlitos, as they called him, was born with a rare condition called tetra-amelia syndrome, which left him with neither arms nor legs. About six weeks later, a few cabins away, Jesus Navarrete was born to Sostenes Maceda. Jesus had Pierre Robin Sequence, a deformity of the lower jaw. As a result, his tongue was in constant danger of falling back into his throat, putting him at risk of choking to death. [location 716]
Two days after Jesus was born, Maria Meza gave birth to Jorge. He had one ear, no nose, a cleft palate, one kidney, no anus, and no visible sexual organs. A couple hours later, following a detailed examination, the doctors determined that Jorge was in fact a girl. Her parents renamed her Violeta. Her birth defects were so severe that she survived for only three days. [location 720]
Is that severe enough? One would think so. These are ghastly birth defects that are the result of exposure to chemicals used in tomato farms in Florida. So why would such dangerous working conditions be allowed to persist for the workers who toil in these tomato fields? Surely law and regulations would step in. Here's where the story takes a decidedly depressing turn. "In the chilling words of Douglas Molloy, chief assistant United States attorney in Fort Myers, South Florida’s tomato fields are “ground zero for modern-day slavery.” Molloy is not talking about virtual slavery, or near slavery, or slaverylike conditions, but real slavery." [location 153]. "Florida officials take a what-we-don’t-know-won’t-hurt-us approach to enforcing pesticide application laws and recording instances of farmworkers being exposed to chemicals while on the job." But using slave labor on tomato farm workers is not new. "By 1860, just before the start of the Civil War, 44 percent of Florida’s 140,000 residents were slaves. When that system abruptly ended in 1865, cooperative local sheriffs obligingly arrested gangs of African American men, typically on bogus vagrancy charges, and rented them out to landowners in “convict lease programs,” a good deal for both the municipality collecting the fees and the farmers. [location 1470]

Slaves have been replaced by immigrant and migrant, itinerant workers. Workers who have little knowledge of the law, are mostly in debt, and are commonly illegal immigrants and therefore very susceptible to abuse by their employers. Their living conditions are appalling, to say the least. Sample this:
Dominguez swept his hand in a gesture of invitation into a bedroom. It housed five twin-bed mattresses. Three were flat on the floor with no space between them. Two rested on four-by-eight-feet plywood sheets suspended from the ceiling on chains. The room was covered in T-shirts, jeans, ball caps, running shoes, and a collection of cheap backpacks and luggage. The bathroom was at the end of a short hallway. Barely bigger than an airplane lavatory with a curtainless metal shower stall, it served ten men who came home each day hot, dirty, and anxious to bathe. The sink was stained black. The toilet lacked a seat. The kitchen consisted of a Formica-topped table and four mismatched plastic-upholstered chairs with grayish stuffing protruding from slashes. A saucepan containing something brown and hard rested on one of the burners of an apartment-size stove. A stainless steel sink was set into a counter that no longer had drawers or cupboard doors. A steady dribble of water ran from the faucet, and the door to the badly rusted refrigerator would not close. A single bulb dangled from a cord attached to an open electrical box in the ceiling, and two fans waged a noisy but futile battle against the heat and humidity. [location 1768]
This - a look at the plight of the tomato farm worker - forms the middle and the most substantial section of the books. It takes a detailed and long look at their conditions and efforts by groups to provide better and safer working conditions for these workers. This however is also the section that goes on and on and on. While interesting in its own right and probably deserving of a separate book in itself, I started to wonder if the labor employed on tomato farms was the main focus of the book. But just as I started to despair, the book moved on to other aspects of tomatoland.

So why is the tomato in so much trouble? The single biggest reason, the blame, has to be the tomato itself! It is a difficult fruit to please. Or more correctly, it is a difficult fruit to grow. It is difficult to balance the twin needs of taste and toughness. The tomato's skin has to be tough enough to withstand being plucked, packed, transported, and then placed on shelves in supermarkets - sometimes thousands of miles away. "The structure of a tomato also makes breeding for both taste and toughness a difficult balancing act. The gooey part of a tomato, called locular jelly, has most of the all-important acidity. The pericarp tissue, the walls of a tomato, give it strength and some sweetness, but no acidity. The harder a tomato is, the more bland it is likely to taste." [location 2385]. Longevity is prolonged by keeping it cold. Chilling the tomato below 50F also destroys its taste - "reduces the  fragrant volatile chemicals that are all-important in giving the fruit its distinctive flavor". If you pick a tomato when it is ripe it will spoil long before it makes it way to the grocery store in far away lands. If you pick it when still unripe it looks green and unappealing. So scientists conjured up a way to give the tomato a red appearance even as the tomato was unripe - by gassing it with ethylene, a "gas that plants produce naturally as a final step in maturing their fruits"

In summary, I think this book is a sort of Fast Food Nation for the tomato. While Fast Food Nation is a tour-de-force, Tomatoland still engages, educates, and shocks - it is a must-read. Highly recommended.

Kindle Excerpt:

© 2011, Abhinav Agarwal. All rights reserved.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Idiots On Roads - 12

I present to you an idiot on a pavement. The motorcyclist at the left of the photo, sir, is an idiot.
For several reasons.
Let's examine those reasons.
Firstly, he is on the wrong side of the road. Actually he is more than just on the wrong side of the road, but let's at least establish that he is on the wrong side of the road, to begin with.

Secondly, there is not much traffic on either side of the road, is there? Not that traffic congestion should be a reason to break traffic rules, but at least you could that out as a mitigating factor in those conditions. Understandable, if still not acceptable.

Thirdly, because he has chosen to use the pavement for driving. Not the road. Not even the wrong side of the road. He is driving on the pavement, on the wrong side of the road.

Fourthly, because he is on the pavement, the lady in the yellow sari has to walk on the road. It is a testament to the infinite patience and fortitude of the forlorn pavement trodder who has to keep his or her eyes on not only the pavement to watch out for uncovered manholes and potholes and gaps in the pavement, but also on vehicles on the pavement. All in a day's work. Inconsiderate idiot.

Why is he on the pavement? Well, he did not want to go to the other side of the road, drive up, then take a U-turn to come back on to this road. So much easier to simply take a turn on to the wrong side of the road, and the ride up the pavement for convenience.

Fifthly, he is driving without a helmet. It should not matter, since the helmet would be on a head that has long since stopped working to figure out what is right and what is wrong.

It only makes you wonder in what else walks of life he has internalized the philosophy of such shortcuts. At his job? In his friendships? In his relationships?

To say it using the words from the greatest movie of all time - Sholay: "khota sikka to dono taraf se hi khota hota hai." (खोटा सिक्का तो दोनो  तरफ़ से ही खोटा होता है )

© 2011, Abhinav Agarwal. All rights reserved.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Brihadeeswara Temple at Thanjavur (Tanjore)

The Big Temple at Tanjore - correctly and properly known as the Brihadeeswara Temple at Thanjavur, is one of the most famous of all temples devoted to Lord Siva - the great Lord (brihad = great; eeswara = lord). It is also recognized as a World Heritage site by the United Nations. It therefore tends to attract a fair number of foreign tourists from around the world.

This temple completed 1000 years of completion. Yes, that is 1 followed by three zeroes. The temple was completed in 1010 CE - imagine the fanfare with which people would have tweeted the symmetry of the year, and there would have been polls on Facebook to debate whether the temple should be inaugurated by the King on the 10th of October, so that the date would read 10.10.1010.

Sometimes temple history is clouded in confusion and doubt. Not so in the case of the Thanjavur Big Temple. Thanks to extant inscriptions carved on the walls, we know the temple was completed exactly 25 years and 275 days after Raja Raja's ascension in 985 CE. [Temples Of South India by Ambujam Anantharaman]

From the UNESCO site, the following is listed as the justification for the inclusion of the temple in the World Heritage List:
Justification for Inscription
Criterion (i): The three Chola temples of Southern India represent an outstanding creative achievement in the architectural conception of the pure form of the dravida type of temple.
Criterion (ii): The Brihadisvara Temple at Thanjavur became the first great example of the Chola temples, followed by a development of which the other two properties also bear witness.
Criterion (iii): The three Great Chola Temples are an exceptional and the most outstanding testimony to the development of the architecture of the Chola Empire and the Tamil civilisation in Southern India.
Criterion (iv): The Great Chola temples at Thanjavur, at Gangaikondacholapuram and Darasuram are outstanding examples of the architecture and the representation of the Chola ideology.

The placque at the temple entrance in available in English, Hindi, and Tamil.

Temples tend to have the obligatory elephant and throng of devotees waiting to get blessed by the elephant's trunk. All for a nominal payment of a rupee or two to the mahout. Or deposited to the elephant's trunk, which then makes it way to the mahout.

The vimanam marks out this temple as unique from the architectural point of view. In most temples in south India, for that matter in India, the temple gopuram (pyramidal tower at the entrance to the temple) is bigger than the vimanam. At the Srirangam Ranganatha temple and the Srivillputhur Vatapatrasayee temples, for instance, the gopuram is magnifient, while at Thanjavur and in three other temples built by Chola kings, the vimanam dominates.
The dimensions of the vimaanam in Thanjavur clearly indicate the ingenuity and skill of Chola architects. Its 13 tiers are totally 58 m tall. The square base of 29  supports the octagon-shaped shikara (cupolic dome). This dome that weighs 81 tonnes rests on a single block of granite, which is a square of 7.8m.  [Temples Of South India by Ambujam Anantharaman]

The best time to visit the temple is in the early hours of the morning or after 4PM, when the sun is shining a little less intensely, the light is softer, and the ground walkable with your bare feet.

What is fascinating, among so many other aspects of this temple, is that the Chola dynasty, that built this temple, ruled over South India and large parts of India and South East Asia, and held sway for over a thousand years, making it surely one of the longest lasting dynasties in the world. Even the vaunted Mughals could not hold on to power for more than a few hundred years. By the time the eighteenth century dawned, the empire was a pale shadow of itself.

Chola dynasty - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
The Chola dynasty (Tamilசோழர் [ˈt͡ʃoːɻə]) was a Tamil dynasty which was one of the longest-ruling in some parts of southern India. The earliest datable references to this Tamil dynasty are in inscriptions from the 3rd century BC left by Asoka, of Maurya Empire; the dynasty continued to govern over varying territory until the 13th century AD.
During the period 1010–1200, the Chola territories stretched from the islands of the Maldives in the south to as far north as the banks of the Godavari River in Andhra Pradesh.[6] Rajaraja Chola conquered peninsular South India, annexed parts of what is now Sri Lanka and occupied the islands of the Maldives.[4] Rajendra Chola sent a victorious expedition to North India that touched the river Ganges and defeated the Pala ruler of PataliputraMahipala. He also successfully invaded kingdoms of the Malay Archipelago.[7][8] The Chola dynasty went into decline at the beginning of the 13th century with the rise of the Pandyas, who ultimately caused their downfall.[9][10][11]

You will find a fair number of foreign tourists at this temple. This is not surprising, considering its World Heritage Site tag. However, despite this, the infrastructure for tourists - domestic as well as foreign - is not upto the mark. The hotels are mostly old and of the three-star variety. The staff is courteous and helpful, and the rooms themselves were clean - in the hotel we stayed at - but not where you would want to stay back for a day and lounge in the hotel. No. These hotels are strictly utilitarian. Not luxury.

The second is the pretty dismal state of parking facilities at the temple itself. There is but one small parking lot opposite the temple's entrance, which has one entry that also serves as the exit. It is not asphalted, and no parking slots are marked, leading to cars and other vehicles parking in a fairly haphazard manner. Furthermore, there is no guarantee that someone will not park their vehicle in a manner that makes it impossible for you to get your car out. That can happen - take a look at the parking lot to decide for yourself. These are small amenities that would make it a lot less stressful to the visitor and make it easier to take in and enjoy the magnificence of this edifice itself.

On the other hand, the road from Trichy to Tanjore - NH 67 - is now a dream to drive on (also see this post). It is four-laned, and makes the drive from Trichy a short 45 minute breeze.

© 2011, Abhinav Agarwal. All rights reserved.