Thursday, September 20, 2018

Navigating Brahma's Paradox - Tales From the Ramayana

W
hat is a paradox? According to Wikipedia, a paradox is "is a statement that, despite apparently sound reasoning from true premises, leads to an apparently-self-contradictory or logically unacceptable conclusion."

Navigating Brahma's Paradox


As an example, consider the Liar paradox where a liar makes a statement, "This statement is false." If the liar is lying, as is his nature, then the statement is true, in which case the liar is lying, and the statement is true, which it is not, and so on… Or take its related version - "You must reject this statement I am now making to you, because all the statements I make are incorrect. It's a favourite of mine (it appeared in a short story, "The Monkey Wrench", by Gordon R Dickson, in the August 1951 issue of 'Astounding Science Fiction'). What is the consequence of a paradox? In the case of the "Monkey Wrench", not very good, at all.

The Ramayana contains at least one instance where we witness a paradox in the making. An impossible situation arises that is averted, and which leaves one wondering, "what if".

The story is described in Sarga 20-22 of Uttara Kanda, the last kanda in the Ramayana. Interspersed in this story are several other fascinating nuggets that are worth sharing.

Friday, September 7, 2018

Sardar Patel - The Man Who Saved India, by Hindol Sengupta

The Man Who Saved India: Sardar Patel and His Idea of India, by Hindol Sengupta

I
f you want to understand the insidiousness of narratives, pay close attention not only to those who are written about. Pay more attention to that which is left unsaid, and at those who legacy and history are ignored, those political leaders who are rarely written about. In the narrative that was planted in India in the decades following Independence, Sardar Patel's name was conspicuous by its absence. Growing up in socialist India in the 1970s and 1980s, I recall Sardar Patel's name as taken only in the safety and privacy of homes, behind closed curtains, where the elders would cautiously whisper about the man who united India and who should have been prime minister instead of Nehru. We, the children, would wonder who this man was. Who was Sardar Patel, about whom not even a line could be found in our government-sanctioned history textbooks, and about whom one rarely heard a word on the government-run AIR and Doordarshan?

But the legend of Sardar Patel sustained, nurtured by those who had lived through Partition to see one man unite India in the years following Independence and by those who saw a dizzying array of blunders by its first prime minister sink India deeper and deeper into a morass of corruption, socialism, and poverty.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Mother Teresa and her Baby Bazaar

T
here was a fair amount of shock and disbelief in many circles when news, on the 7th of July 2018, broke that a nun at Nirmal Hriday (a hospice established by Mother Teresa) in the town of Ranchi had been arrested and remanded to judicial custody by a court for allegedly selling a baby at the Nirmal Hriday home. According to another story, "Arti Kujar, head of the Jharkhand State Child Protection Society, told Reuters that they suspect the home was charging upwards of $600 for each baby, depending on what the prospective parents could afford to pay."

Soon enough came the suitably shocked protestations from the Mother Teresa founded Missionaries of Charity, along with the expected dislaimer - “We are shocked to know what has happened in our home… it is completely against our moral conviction,” Sunita Kumar, spokesperson for the Missionaries of Charity, stated. “We are carefully looking into this matter. We will take all necessary precautions that it never happens again, if it has happened.”

Friday, July 13, 2018

Krishna Gopeshvara, by Sanjay Dixit - Review

Krishna Gopeshvara: The Truth of Vrishnis (Book 1 of the Lord Krishna Trilogy), by Sanjay Dixit

K
rishna Gopeshvara is a book that takes you back in time and also makes you think about its parallels with medieval and modern history, about divinity and humanity, and individuals versus ideologies. Are there lessons to be learnt?

As evil scales new heights of destruction upon putting on the cloak of ideology, it acquires a degree of pervasiveness and permanence when it adopts the patina of unquestionable dogma. Marxism was an inchoate idea in one man's head. When it became an ideology, it became a Red Holocaust, killing over one hundred million across the world in the twentieth century. When ideology and fanaticism infected religion, they gave birth to absolutism and monotheism, accompanied by violent expansionism across the world. Such is the subterranean message that runs through this book. The evil in one man, if nurtured by the pervert philosophy of the mad genius, can wreak havoc on society.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Urban Naxals - The Making of Buddha in a Traffic Jam - Review

"Because there is no space for alternative narrative"

Urban Naxals - The Making of Buddha In A Traffic Jam, by Vivek Agnohotri

S
ince the beginning of civilization, the favoured method of barbarians out to destroy great civilizations was to destroy their places of learning. Most Mayan writings of the Aztecs were destroyed by Bishop Landa of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Yucatán, while other Catholic priests burned the great Aztec library of Netza Hualcoyotl in Mexico City in the sixteenth century. Pope Gregory the Great ordered the library of Palatine Apollo burned in the late sixth century. The great library of Alexandria, perhaps the greatest library in the western world, was burned at the urging of Christian Bishop Theophilos. The largest library in the world at the time, at Nalanda, which contained an estimated hundreds of thousands of manuscripts, was destroyed by Bakhtiyar Khilji's hordes in 1193 CE. During the twentieth century, thousands of books were burned by the German Student Union in Nazi Germany in 1933.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

The Fourteen Faults of a Leader

The 14 Faults of a Leader - Do They Still Hold in the 21st Century?

I
 will confess straight off the bat - this post is from the Ramayana, but its learnings apply uncannily enough to modern day leadership too.

With that minor matter of a confession out, let's get started. While one may not associate the Ramayana with expositions on statecraft, the fact is that the Ayodhya kanda itself has one such example. In sarga 94 (of the Critical Edition, sarga 100 in other versions) of the Ayodhya Kanda, when Bharata comes to meet Rama and to persuade him to return to Ayodhya as the rightful king, Rama, of course, refuses, but first asks Bharata about the state of the kingdom and whether Bharata, as the presumed king of Ayodhya, is following the duties of a king. This is one of the longest sargas in Ayodhya kanda, and is worth reading repeatedly. More pertinently, Rama exhorts Bharata to abandon the sins associated with kings. How many? Fourteen. Let's look at them all:

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Valmiki Ramayana - 1, translated by Bibek Debroy

The Valmiki Ramayana, Vol. 1, translated by Bibek Debroy


H
aving gone through the marathon of translating the unabridged Mahabharata, the Ramayana would have seemed like a sprint to Bibek Debroy. In any case, this is another stellar effort that succeeds in bringing out the beauty and emotions of the epic, as much as the limitations of a faithful translation permit.

Unlike the Mahabharata translation, that spanned five years, and with one volume coming out every six months or so, the Ramayana translation was released as a single three-volume set in 2017. The first volume covers the first two kandas - Baal and Ayodhya, and ends with Sita accepting the gift of ornaments from Anasuya and the three - Rama, Sita, and Lakshmana entering Dandakaranya.

I doubt much value would be added were I to attempt a summarization of the Ramayana itself, so I will use this review to point out some interesting things about the translation itself.

First, the style of the translation is very similar to the one followed in the Mahabharata. There is a sense of familiarity in that sense. The copious footnotes follow you throughout, like a faithful companion. More on that later.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Secret Empires by Peter Schweizer - Review

Secret Empires: How the American Political Class Hides Corruption and Enriches Family and Friends, by Peter Schweizer

Hardcover: 336 pages; Harper ISBN: 0062569368, 978-0062569363, Amazon USAmazon IN

C
orruption in and of the political class has evolved over the years. Gone are the days when Louisiana congressman William Jefferson was found to have stashed "$90,000 in bribes in his freezer", or "Congressman Randy “Duke” Cunningham who created a “bribery menu” that netted him $2.4 million." The reason for this evolution is that "Politicians are like the rest of us in that they avoid overtly criminal or publicly embarrassing behavior." In India, politicians are refreshingly less concerned with embarrassing behaviour, and usually place the fear of public embarrassment secondary to the pursuit of pelf. In the United States, political corruption has evolved to avoid such public embarrassments and taken on two indirect forms - one is what the author calls "corruption by proxy" and the other is "smash and grab."

Peter's book is a fact-laden ride through the morass of political corruption in the United States, and the picture on both sides of the political aisle is not pretty at all.

Like most enterprising people, and politicians are nothing if not entrepreneurial by nature, politicians too have adopted several ways of exponentially increasing their personal wealth by leveraging their political office, while at the same time avoiding disclosure rules put in place that would attract negative public scrutiny. While American media has spent the better part of 2017 and 2018 in a manic exercise to uncover venality in the Donald Trump administration, this book gives us a look at some rather curious coincidences that occurred during the tenure of President Obama.

From among all the examples the author cites, let's look at four.

Friday, April 20, 2018

A Journey Through Oligarch Valley, by Yasha Levine


A Journey Through Oligarch Valley, by Yasha Levine

H
ere is short segue I request you to indulge me in:

In 1998, the Delhi Jal (Water) Board had approached the World Bank for a loan. The World Bank suggested that the DJB hire a consultant to help make recommendations for improvements, and even offered a $2.5 million loan to the DJB to do that same. Over the course of the next seven years, the World Bank agreed to provide a loan to the Delhi Jal Board for $150 million dollars for the privatization of water supply to the capital city. What made the saga intriguing was the insistence of the World Bank and its interference to ensure that Pricewaterhouse Coopers (PwC) got selected as the consultant to the project. Thousands of pages made available as a result of RTI (Right to Information) queries filed by activists, it emerged that despite PwC failing to make the cut in the technical and financial rounds, the World Bank insisted on changes to the evaluation criteria, that the marks given by one particular member of the evaluation committee be excluded from the final evaluation so as to favour PwC, and so on. What most people were unwilling to put on record was that PwC had on its payrolls the son of a powerful person in the government of India and who had long-standing ties to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Thanks to India's legendary bureaucratic inertia and apathy, the privatization of water distribution in the nation's capital never came to fruition. Else the cost of water in the city of Delhi would have increased an estimated five times.

Why is this relevant to the review of Yasha Levine's (@YashaLevinebook, "Oligarch Valley"? Because both are tales of corruption and collusion between big business, politicians, and, in Oligarch Valley's case - the judiciary. In Levine's account lies a cautionary tale for those in India willing to listen.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

The Friendless God, by S Anuradha

The Friendless God, by S. Anuradha

This is the tale of three people, a god, and the relationship the three have with Rama, their god. One seeks to find Rama, the other, having forsaken Rama, fights a losing battle with herself and her son to keep Rama out of their lives, while the third stumbles upon Rama as a way to a better life. Their lives intersect, diverge, and converge over the course of the story.

Vaidehi abandons singing and Rama after criticism of her Tamil-laced rendition of Tyagaraja kritis, and brings up her son Kodandarama, truncating his name to Kodanda, and stripping both his name and life of Rama. Kodanda - truncated from Kondanarama, Vaidehi's son, grows up knowing nothing about Rama or god, but ends up finding for an answer to his question - why does Rama have no friends, despite being sought by millions. Then there Ramana, an orphan with the street-sense that takes him far.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Battle in India for e-commerce market leadership is no longer between just Amazon and Flipkart

Amazon Launches Prime Music in India. What It Means for the Indian e-commerce Market



O
n a day when it was reported that the online streaming music app Gaana was raising $115 million (about ₹750 crores) from Chinese Internet investment company Tencent Holdings Ltd and Times Internet Ltd (Gaana to raise $115 million from Tencent, Times Internet – Livemint), came the news that online retailer Amazon had launched its PrimeMusic streaming music service in India.

According to Amazon, “Prime Music provides unlimited, ad-free access to on-demand streaming of curated playlists and stations, plus millions of songs and albums at no additional cost for eligible Amazon Prime members.”

The Amazon Prime service in India costs ₹999 annually and provides “free One-Day, Two-Day and Standard Delivery on eligible items”, PrimeVideo – Amazon’s video streaming service, and now PrimeMusic. According to Midis Research, Amazon had become the third-largest music subscription service globally, behind Spotify (40%) and Apple Music (19%).

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

The OM Mala - Meanings Of The Mystic Sound, by Nityanand Misra - Review


The OM Mala - Meanings Of The Mystic Sound, by Nityanand Misra

The meaning of the word Om is not something most of us ponder over. Om is a sacred incantation, a symbol, a mantra, and more to countless believers. But the word is a lot more. Its meaning and significance is beyond the mere word or the sound or the symbol. Nityananda Misra's book, "The Om Mala: Meanings of the Mystic Sound", brings to the lay reader, perhaps for the first time, all the myriad meanings of this wondrous word. In the author's words, "This book presents eighty-four names of OM and their meanings in accordance with multiple Sanskrit texts including not only Hindu scriptures but also secular texts like dictionaries, poems, plays, and treatises on music, grammar, and Ayurveda." These eighty-four names are explained in 109 beads - 108 chanting beads and one sumeru bead, each bead taking up approximately two pages each.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Attention Merchants, by Tim Wu - Review

The Attention Merchants - The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads, by Tim Wu

T
he business of selling requires that the target consumer pay - attention at the very least, for without attention, there is no interest, no sale, and no market. Even, and especially so, with services that are sold and advertised as free, there is still a valuable personal resource that is sold in exchange - your time.

Tim Wu's book is an engrossing, well-researched, and fascinating look into the evolution of the advertising business - the attention merchants, as he calls them. It helps put into perspective many of the advertising practices we see today.

Each one of Brahma's days may well be more than four billion years long, but for humans the time available to each one of us is far limited in comparison. What we do with the time available to us is decided by what we choose to pay attention to. The job of those looking to sell us their wares is to take a bite out of that span of attention and to broker it to the other party in the transaction.