Sunday, December 9, 2018

The tao of desire

The urge to own and the surge for acquisitions put one onto a never-ending cycle of desire, facilitated by emotional and economic capital.  

Desire is innate to human existence, and love is its prime manifestation. From sexual to asexual and from material to abstract, desire is double-edged something that explores human strengths while simultaneously imploring its vulnerabilities. Lethal as it may seem, desire’s origin as Kama in scriptures and philosophies swings between two extremes – Vatsyayana’s sensuous poetry and Victorian middle-class morality. However, in a world where human sexuality and relationships are up for reinterpretation the chance that a deeper understanding of kama may help knock down the flawed human condition could indeed be a reality. Gurcharan Das is convinced that by repossessing the creative forces of kama can the classical balance between the four goals of life – Dharma, Kama, Artha  and Moksha - be restored in our chaotic lives tossed between tradition and modernity. 

That the essence of kama has been reduced to its sexual context has indeed been the cause for it not been seen as the force behind the life instinct. Vatsyayana understood it more than a natural energy, and sought it be cultivated as an art. The Upanishads found in kama the capacity to beget life, lying in it the origin of civilization. Das pulls leaves out of his own love life to suggest that by only cherishing desire can one attain to live life to its fullest. Nothing comes without pain though, as dangerous emotions such as jealousy, hate, and fear give company to desire. At the core of his thesis is that while dharma is a duty towards others, kama is duty to oneself. How one balances between the two is what differentiates the special from the ordinary! 

Kama, The Riddle of Desire is an intense reading of the ancient scriptures and the western philosophies aimed at unraveling multiple strands of desire, the former offers an optimistic view of creation as the latter evokes feelings of shame and guilt. One might wonder if the ascetic and the erotic are two aspects of the same human nature. The ascetic, or the kama pessimist, seeks renouncement whereas the sybarite, or the kama optimist, favours indulgence. If the story and sub-stories of this part-fiction, part-autographical narrative is anything to go by, each desire springs from a feeling of incompleteness. The urge to own and the surge for acquisitions put one onto a never-ending cycle of desire, facilitated by emotional and economic capital.  

Despite the twists and twirls of his journey in search of love, Das’ staying on the side of kama optimist may have been on account of most of his life spent inside the capitalist world, where controlling desire may merit limited consideration. Only by living life to its fullest can one ever realize the true potential of kama as a game change, argues Das, because to stop desiring and to perform desirelessly do not mean the same. If desire is indestructible, as Lord Krishna said, then desire should not be renounced but instead channelized towards greater public good, if at all.   

It is a ground-breaking narrative that is engaging and enlightening, shedding new light on the irresistibility of desire. It pulls desire from the trap of guilt, and assigns new meanings to it. Das reminds us that kama is our duty to live every moment as though it were our last, because making creative use of kama serves higher purpose of life. It is only by becoming aware of the higher purpose of life, a duty to oneself, which can help reclaim our primordial humanity. Kama, the Riddle of Desire is a sensitive but ambitious undertaking on a subject on which lack of female perspective completes only half the story.     

Kama: The Riddle of Desire 
by Gurcharan Das
Penguin Allen Lane, New Delhi
Extent: 548, Price: Rs 799.

First published in the BusinessLine, issue dated Dec 10, 2018.

(It is perhaps uncommon for a reviewer to review a book twice, but one can surely have two views on the same title. I have attempted it, please scroll down to read the first review). 

Friday, November 23, 2018

The world of frugal possibilities

If there are pluses in pursuing jugaad as an innovative approach, the flip side of maneuvering obstacles has its moments of shame too!

It goes without saying that most Indians are culturally wired to solve problems. There is a seemingly inbuilt cognitive ability in a large impoverished majority for jugaad, a quick-fix frugal innovation to wriggle out of any challenge. Does it not reflect peoples’ self-reliant optimism to confront challenges? It does, else multiple variants of ‘scare crow’ to protect mature crops would not exist, and neither would equally affordable mechanical improvisations like buttermilk churning washing machine and the motorcycle-cum- tractor. ‘Next to impossible is only possible’ has gone under their skin of people, turning every obstacle into an opportunity as if there is no tomorrow.

The search for a cheaper air conditioner by investigative journalist Dean Nelson, who spent few years in Delhi reporting for the London’s Sunday Times, led him on his jugaad journey which has been as much a celebration of inspiring resourcefulness of the poor as also a criticism on the absence of a formal system to optimize such talent. Not only did he discover the low-cost work-in-progress Snowbreezer, a device that generates cooling effect by passing air over an ice brick, which has yet to be perfected for wider adoption, but was surprised to learn that juggad mentality alone helped the country propel its spacecraft Mangalayam at less than the cost of the Oscar-winning Hollywood space thriller Gravity. Incidentally, neither of the two innovations are products of an economy that values and advances jugaad mentality. 

However, it has yet to hamper the spirit of innumerable people who haven’t allowed poverty to get the better of their intellectual ability at solving problems. No surprise that there are innumerable inspiring tales of optimism amid scarcity and poverty that abound in everyday living of a largely impoverished society in the country. It is a blessing in disguise, as it has spurred creative improvisation for developing products and designing processes that are frugal, flexible, and democratic. From handy tips to improvised tools and from enhanced techniques to adaptive practices, there is a rich repository of innovations on offer. 

While it remains intriguing what fuels innovative desire in ordinary people, equally compelling is the reason why such innovations are gifted, often anonymously, to the society at large? 

In his jugaad journey, however, the author discovered that in addition to being inspiring and socially relevant the unending quest for frugal inventions has led people to bend the rules and beat the system all across. As scarcity is deeply ingrained in the psyche of people, they start looking for ways to bypass it rather than question the system that has led them to scarcity in the first place. From jumping queues to offering bribes, the ability to creatively manage obstacles by adopting quick-fix solutions has become a socially-accepted convenient way of life. If there are pluses in pursuing jugaad as an innovative approach, the flip side of maneuvering obstacles has its moments of shame too, asserts Nelson.

Should jugaad mentality be allowed to circumvent the system? As long as people continue to remain spaced by socio-economic disparities, the best chance for them to survive in such an ecosystem of challenges rests on them being relentless on jugaad. Since the existing system cannot accommodate all the innovations and transform them into entrepreneurs, a large number of those left unattended on the margins will need to pursue the survival options at their disposal. It may, therefore, be risky to paint the world of jugaad with a single brush.

Jugaad Yatra is an absorbing, revealing, and reflective journey on the resilience, individualism and resourcefulness of people which further indicts the government of its failure in the wake of people’s fierce survival instinct. The book is a tour d’Horizon of the enriching world of jugaad, from the dusty village roads in Yamunanagar to the swanky corporate arcades in Mumbai. It provides a snapshot into the world of frugal innovations that are finding their way into the mainstream albeit at a snail’s pace. For the country to tackle its growing socio-economic and political challenges over in the decades ahead, jugaad ought to feature in its list of prescriptions to circumvent many of its challenges. 

Like the English traveler who, during the Mughal period, had recorded that ‘the natives are so full of ingenuity that they make any new thing by pattern how hard so ever it seems to be done,’ Nelson echoes that people in India have continued to be innovative, with inbuilt entrepreneurial ability to turn things around. This good news can be fully realized by institutionalizing ‘good jugaad’, by giving it a platform on which bottom-up innovations could be converted to address the mounting social, economic, and environmental challenges. 

Jugaad Yatra 
by Dean Nelson
Aleph, New Delhi
Extent: 175, Price: Rs 599

First published in the Hindustan Times, issue dated Nov 24, 2018.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

GDP on a Reckless Aston

From the British Raj to the License Raj, and now the Resource Raj, the relentless growth has proved to be economically disruptive, socially bruising and environmentally destructive.

It has been five years since an Aston Martin, valued at $700,000, hit and spun an Audi A4 onto the opposite carriageway before a collision with another car had its front end crushed. No one was killed in the night of the accident on December 8, 2013, but the identity of the driver remains an unresolved mystery as the mangled remains of the car disappear into oblivion. The case has long been buried, but the skeleton keeps on popping in peoples’ memory. The accident on one of Mumbai’s busiest thoroughfare, Peddar Road, continues to evoke conspiratorial theory even today as the car belonged to the Reliance Industries, and none other than a young man from the country’s pre-eminent business dynasty could have been at the wheel of the invaluable car at that unearthly hour. The confession of a so-called driver claiming to be the one at the wheel during the late-night test drive could be anything but weird, reflective of the tumultuous times when political and economic influence protects the rich.     

Evoking Mark Twain’s The Gilded Age when greedy, corrupt industrialists, bankers and politicians had ruled USA at the turn of the 20th century, the Financial Times’ former Mumbai correspondent James Crabtree provides somewhat similar but an unsettling portrait of the country that claims to uplift itself on the GDP curve but at the expense of its poor and the vulnerable. In each portrait drawn by Crabtree, from Ambani to Adani and from Mallaya to Reddy, none of the wealthy and opulent come out without their share of compelling stories of scams, scandals, and erased crimes. And, the stories are only beginning to unfold in the public. 

The stories may sound familiar on surface but the devil is in the details. The billionaire class may have painted a bright future for the country, but the sanitized capitalism had left public sector banks holding at least $150 billion worth of bad assets in 2017.  Was such a situation unexpected in a democratic set up?  Crony capitalism is at the core of an unholy nexus, which keeps the political machine suitably oiled to fulfill its electoral promises, for regaining power and returning favors back to the businesses to keep it oiled. This unchecked cycle has led to the overnight ascent and dubious finances of the new billionaire class, leading to a shocking trend about the continuing purchase of politics by the wealthy. The die has been cast.

Crabtree has captured what is often considered a given, but for him it is a curious case of a democracy being weakened at its core as the lines between politics and business get blurred to dangerous extremes. No wonder, the country has become a picture postcard story of wealth amidst poverty marked by a growing economy that only widens income inequality. Part of the problem, argues the author, is that India itself, for all the lofty ideals of its constitution, has never actually made the transition to becoming a full liberal democracy, with public institutions capable of guarding in every respect the civil and political rights of its many peoples. 

The Billionaire Raj is a telling account of the pleasures and possibilities of appropriating the state and its systems by an emerging class of political entrepreneurs. In a racy, enlightening, and engaging narrative the author leaves nothing to reader’s imagination as he draws amusing caricatures of the Bollygarchs, a term coined to represent Indian oligarchs. And, these are not without context as the colorful demeanor paints the dark side of the rich and the famous. ‘In his early forties with swept-back black hair and the angle of a crooked nose incongruent with the face’ and ‘a bulky man in a red polo shirt, with gold bracelets on each wrist and chunky diamond ear stud sparkling against his long graying hair’ help the reader see beyond the obvious.  

Much of the foreign correspondent’s memoirs relate to the present political dispensation, on whom alone the blame may not rest, but which hasn’t done much to reverse the trend either. From the British Raj to the License Raj, and now the Resource Raj, the relentless growth has proved to be economically disruptive, socially bruising and environmentally destructive with any number of recent examples to quote from. Having moved to Singapore since completing the book, the author wonders if the country could be any different if it ignores the three major challenges – growing inequality, crony capitalism, and destructive development. 

Crabtree is optimist nonetheless as he draws reference to the Roosevelt-style progressive era, a moment in which anti-corruption campaigns had cleaned up politics and the middle-class had exerted control over government. For this to happen, a lot will need to be done to build state machinery able to create and implement wise public policies, while remaining impartial between different social groups. Without building the state capacity, as Samuel Huntington had cautioned, rapid economic expansion can rip societies apart, resulting in upheaval and social division. The message cannot be more loud and clear!   

The Billionaire Raj
by James Crabtree
HarperCollins, New Delhi
Extent: 358, Price: Rs 799

This review was first published in Outlook magazine, issue dated Nov 26, 2018.

Friday, November 9, 2018

The arrows of outrageous Kama

Not only as a force of nature, kama is a product of culture and history reflected in human emotions ranging from love, affection, compassion and joy to adultery, betrayal, jealousy and violence.

Kama or desire has unsettling but compelling disposition that implores human vulnerability, often at the cost of other three goals of human life enshrined in ancient scriptures as - Dharma, Artha and Moksha. Overt emphasis on these three goals may have devalued kama to the extent that its immense creative force has been left unexplored by most. In reality, it is the middle-class morality that has come in the way of reading kama within the sensuousness of a human body, limiting it to the idea of romantic passion that fulfils one’s capability for (sexual) pleasure alone. Curiously, if it had been as deplorable as has been made out to be then why it features as one of the four goals of life, and is respectfully reflected in ancient scriptures and philosophical treatises?    

With an astute philosophical mind and a keen romantic eye, Gurcharan Das pieces together the riddle of desire to restore some balance as kama continues to oscillate contentiously between what he calls kama optimists and kama pessimists – the optimists seek to draw a meaningful purpose of life from it while the pessimists consider it as sheer human limitation. Simply put, within the confines of seeking pleasure manifests kama’s creative as well as destructive powers.  Not only as a force of nature, kama is a product of culture and history reflected in myriad human emotions ranging from love, affection, compassion and joy to adultery, betrayal, jealousy and violence, and the challenge lies in striking a balance between these extremes. 

Unlike poets and philosophers who are usually pessimistic about kama, protagonist Amar meanders through a romantic journey, from a socialist to the liberal era, without denying kama a place in his life by nurturing it as an investment to transcend human limitations. From a childhood crush to a middle age obsession, with a family with two daughters in between, he is hit by kama’s mythical five arrows during various stages of life only to learn that love is a process that develops and changes with time. The fundamental loneliness of human condition got the better of societal moral constraints as Amar seeks liberation from the myth that attachments beyond what is permitted by the society is anything but infringement on human freedom. Can desire be allowed to remain hostage to the norms set by the society and religion?   

Told as a fictional memoir, the book is an ambitious undertaking on balancing the dichotomy of kama’s existence in the body and its reflection by the mind, as an ultimate duty towards oneself to draw the true meaning of life. Subject to how one perceives the narrative, Kama is a story of desire of a human body seen through the percepts of mind. It views desire, as espoused in Rig Veda, as the first seed in the mind, implying thereby that the formless desires form. It is the unique chemistry between the profane and the sacred, marked by a journey that begins with romantic love and culminates into primal energy. Kama is the very root of being human. 

It is through the story of predictable characters that Das weaves his study of desire which helps the reader relate to the contemporary relevance of desire in the times in which we live. For all the purusharthas, the goals of life, the task is to repossess the creative life force of kama to restore harmony in the chaotic modern experience. It is time to think beyond the narrow confines of kama as a subject of sexual desire. The essence of Kamasutra, as a metaphor, needs to be reinterpreted to free it from the gratuitous sense of guilt, thereby helping people relieve the stresses of life. Were the Kamasutra principles the way of life today, the world would have been on a different intellectual stew!

Kama: The Riddle of Desire could not have come at a better time, as human sexuality and relationships are being ascribed different meanings. Marriage, monogamy, adultery and, vengeance would carry different sense in future. To make it easy to comprehend the irresistible transformation, Das invokes Proust to remind us, ‘What matters in life is not whom or what one loves….it is the fact of loving’. As the book sketches the subtle landscape of desire, it reminds each one of us a duty to fulfill one’s capability for pleasure and live a flourishing life.  

For tracing the history of kama and its multiple strands across history, culture and philosophies of both the East and the West, Das deserves praise in creating a mosaic of meanings and interpretations in addressing the riddle of desire. What must not be forgotten however is, as Tolstoy remarked, ‘.. the evidence of other people is no good, all of us must have personal experience of all the nonsense of life in order to get back to life itself’. 

Kama: The Riddle of Desire 
by Gurcharan Das
Penguin Allen Lane, New Delhi
Extent: 548, Price: Rs 799

First published in Hindustan Times on Nov 10, 2018.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Good sister, Bad sister

Wanting women to be admirable and admired, the author neither desires women to be ignorant nor ignored by the society.

In his 13th century philosophical treatise on ethics, domestic economy and politics Akhlaq-I Nasiri, theologian Nasir al-Din Tusi had enlisted prescriptions for boys and girls to become gentlemen and ideal women. Although the idea of universal education for women didn’t exist, Tusi had advocated the need for acquiring virtues from everyday living for good conduct by women. This dogmatic child-rearing manual was virtual self-help book in most Muslim households but was to lose its relevance with changing times. Lack of inspiring non-religious literature which could uplift natural instincts of young women to conduct themselves in their married life was felt for a long time. Conservative as it was, the society has had its limitations in imparting moral education to growing children during large periods of imperial dominance. 

Nazir Ahmad had felt such need among his own daughters. That his daughters had a longing for acquiring non-religious knowledge led him to build a fictional narrative that had the cult following after its publication in 1869. Simple in diction and pure in sentiments, Mirat ul –Arus was to become a best-seller in no time, selling over 100,000 copies through multiple editions. It was an experiment in book publishing with Ahmad’s hand written drafts being read by his daughters and neighbors, helping him gain suggestions alongside winning unsolicited publicity. 

The award winning book, considered to be the first Urdu novel, was translated as The Bride’s Mirror in 1903. It is a story of two sisters married to two brothers in the same family: Akbari, the spoilt elder, mean-tempered, an uneducated failure and the younger, Asghari, a competent youngster, who makes a success of everything she turns her hand on. Between the two of them, Asghari wades her way through all sorts of disappointments and setback to rebuild the family and its fortunes while Akbari pulls the family few paces back by pulling out of the household to live separately with her husband. Isn’t it a familiar story that continues to play up till this day? 

Oscillating between joint and nuclear families, The Bride’s Mirror holds reflections on the rapid transformation the society is going through in general and the ceaseless turmoil many households are passing through in particular. Its context may have changed but the basic philosophy persists, and that is, even in changing social dynamics and gender relations women has considerable influence in the affairs of the household and cultivation of morality plays a key role in building harmonious inter-personal relationships. Consequently, in every incident in the story there emerges some counsel about the cultivation of morality or the refinement of social behaviour. 

In recent times, perverse sides of such stories have become a toast of television audiences. While describing good and bad possibilities, The Bride’s Mirror instead provides many moral maxims along the way as it highlights the virtuous and not the wicked. The true reality of life is presented through conversation and dialogues, without loquacity and shows of temperament. This is what makes the book distinct; even the predictable plot has enduring value for the invaluable nuggets of wisdom that lie splashed across the narrative. With a long exhortation addressed to its readers, the author stresses home the instructive purpose of the story. 

Translated by G. E. Ward, the book had earned the praise from its imperial readers as it exposed them to the lived realities of their fellow-subjects. It must have been a revelation for the British that joint families in Delhi could comfortably survive on Rs 15 a month during those days. That the cultural tenacity of interdependence and mutual respect held the traditional households together must have interested the British public in general, who not only gained insights on household arrangements but also learnt that even in conservative society women had a significant role to play in the household. 

Narrated with a vividness and colloquial detail, the story dispels the common notion that past times were more repressive and unenlightened than today. It is a story of women told by man, stacking women with total responsibility of managing and running the households. For feminists, this approach might be somewhat problematic. But not for Ahmad who desires women to stake claim to authority through good deeds and not otherwise.  Wanting women to be admirable and admired, the author neither desires women to be ignorant nor ignored by the society. 

Nazir Ahmad had cemented his literary acumen by completing a trilogy of books, Banat un-Nash  (for teaching useful facts) and Taubat un-Nasuh (for teaching piety) were award winning additions to his first book. Much might have changed ever since The Bride’s Mirror was published; the story remains relevant as the quest for making life and relationships virtuous remains never ending.  

The Bride’s Miirror
by Nazir Ahmad, translated by G E Ward
Aleph, New Delhi
Extent: 188, Price: Rs 399

An abridged version of this review was first published on the Literary Review of The Hindu on Oct 28, 2018.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

From one of the Queens to the only Empress

‘On the grave of this poor stranger, let there be neither lamp nor rose. Let neither butterfly’s wing burn nor nightingale sing.’

Her self-assessment was in contrast to her role as an astute politician, an enigmatic queen, and an innovative architect. The only woman with a non-imperial lineage to acquire the stature of an empress, Nur Jahan sought to inscribe on her tomb in Lahore ‘On the grave of this poor stranger, let there be neither lamp nor rose. Let neither butterfly’s wing burn nor nightingale sing.’ For one who rewrote history, the epitaph marks her boundless generosity and unlimited humility come alive. History may not have been as kind to her as she was to her fellow beings. During her lifetime, Nur Jahan was always eager to help orphans, beggars, and the homeless. She would often intervene to protect peasants from harassment or over taxation by provincial authorities. Farid Bhakkri, who served the Mughal court, noted that the Empress supported the weddings of orphan girls, and even designed an inexpensive wedding dress Nur Mahali, still used by brides of poorer families. By offering choice of marriage to the most vulnerable inhabitants of the harem, Nur became the earliest feminist in a male Mughal dynasty.     

Till recently, historians failed to recognize her exceptional talents and instead attributed Nur’s meteoric rise to the vulnerability of an inebriated Jahangir, her Emperor husband. Although many of her male contemporaries were in awe of Nur, it was hard for them to swallow that a woman could attain unprecedented political and cultural acumen. Even the Europeans like Thomas Roe and Peter Mundy, who were privy to the Mughal court, could not quite wrap their minds around a woman coming to power because of her sheer talents. No surprise, therefore, most attributed her cunning and conniving nature for gaining co-sovereign authority over a lovelorn king.  

Historian Ruby Lal thinks otherwise. Taking a deep dive into the historical records, she yields provocative and extensive evidence of the forces that shaped Nur Jahan. Who could have ever thought that a baby girl born on a roadside to parents who were fleeing repressive Persia for Indian green pastures would not only become the most favored wife of emperor Jahangir but would attain the status of an Empress? How did it happen? And, how could she do it? From enlightened parental education in early years to an independent existence after first marriage, times favored her expressive inheritance. Also, it must have helped Nur develop a distinct identity as, unlike most Mughal women, she spent the least period in the imperial harem.

Nur Jahan was a product of her time, and did not miss any opportunity to hone and demonstrate her skills. Jahangir’s vow to give up hunting gave Nur an opportunity to show her shooting prowess. No one is sure where and when did she learn shooting but she could amaze everybody by slaying four tigers in only six shots. Jahangir’s mobility too helped Nur deepen and broaden her leadership skills. While the Emperor pursued his interests in nature, geography, art, and philosophy, Nur took on administrative responsibilities by issuing imperial orders under her seal. 

Empress provides an extraordinary detailed account of a remarkable woman, who lived through the reign of three great Mughal rulers. Hailing from a family of Nobles, her father served the Mughal courts of Akbar and Jahangir, she learnt imperial demeanor from her father and brothers. As a result, Nur seemed more canny than other royal women of her age about the workings of the empire. It reflected in the manner in which she conducted herself, both within the court and with the masses. Lal provides a detailed account of how Nur liberated the Emperor from the captivity of a rebellion nobleman, something that doesn’t get as much attention in historical literature.   

While Nur Jahan rise to power was relatively swift, her downfall was even swifter. Her political scheme to anoint her son-in-law Shahryar as the future Emperor did not go to well with the Emperor-in-Waiting Shah Jahan, who made every possible attempt at erasing her legacy by holding her responsible for the succession chaos that took place in the last years of Jahangir’s reign. All attempts at demonetizing currency coins of the Jahangir-NurJahan era were unsuccessful, some coins bearing Nur Jahan's seal survived and are safely preserved in museum(s). Lal’s Empress gives Nur Jahan the due, and acknowledges that if she had her strengths she had her raw ambition and vulnerabilities too.    

Nur Jahan’s last years’ were of isolated existence in Lahore, much of which she spent in building her own mausoleum. That she was a remarkable woman, a perfect example of beauty with brains, whose legend will continue to be remembered with affection, awe and pride. As a discerning reader of medieval history, I yearn to know more about the life of Nur's daughter Ladli, the widow of Shahryar. 

by Ruby Lall
Penguin, New Delhi
Extent: 188, Price: Rs 599

Monday, September 17, 2018

Because there are buyers around!

Pulling the world of knowledge from the trap of capitalist economy warrants a shift towards restoring academic freedom.

Neoliberal approaches in higher education have largely failed, as:  it has not led to greater efficiencies but to more bureaucracy; it has not led to greater liberties but to more constraints on teaching, research, and engagement; it has not led to more robust and autonomous institutions but to weakened institutions linked too closely to the immediate concerns of the day; and it has not led to new ways to grapple with the crises that face us but to treading farther down the same paths that created those crises. Prof. Lawrence Busch contends that as the capitalist economy promotes the marketing and branding of everything and everyone, pulling the world of knowledge out from the trap of the business model that aims at investing in education for getting a good job would warrant a shift towards restoring academic freedom.     

Knowledge for Sale could not have appeared at a more important time, as it reflects the painful decline the institutions of higher learning are going through. At stake is the role of higher education as a crucial public good, which is being compromised under the influence of the markets. The crisis is so stark that its symptoms are spread all over: decline of humanities education, escalating student debt, and underpaid contract faculty. One would imagine that with the only knowledge worth pursuing is that which has more or less immediate market value, such a situation was bound to occur.  

Lawrence Busch is not convinced, and challenges this market-driven approach. His thesis is based on the premise that most of the present-day problems – from climate change to water shortages, and from obesity to financial crises – would need new knowledge in addressing each of these issues. To imagine that market alone will resolve such issues is a fallacy worth challenging, because the market is neither inclusive nor transformative. It does alter consumptive habits only to the extent of minting profits, and almost always by externalizing costs of such a transition. Consider how market incentives in our food system promote diets that create obesity, thereby putting extra demands on medical institutions. Markets on their own cannot substitute institutions of higher education and research which co-create knowledge for the state to act upon. 

Drawing a distinction between liberals of 18th and 19th centuries with neo-liberals of 20th and 21st centuries, the author explains that while the liberals had argued that the State should merely leave the market alone, the neo-liberals sought nation-states active involvement in the market instead. No surprise, therefore, that the market has intervened at individual and institutional levels by changing the rules of the game. Hence, markets and market-like competitions have replaced direct government intervention in promoting higher education and research. 

Professor emeritus of sociology at Michigan State University, with research interests in environmental and agricultural research, Busch argues that education is a public good and that an educated citizenry is an essential component of functional democracy. Through an in-depth analysis on the influence of neo-liberalism the book provides a crucial rationale for defending higher education as an important public good, which ought to be protected from corporate control as defined by agents of privatization, deregulation, and commodification. For this to be realized, universities and research institutions must be remade as places where the future is neither already made in the mold of the market nor in which the market is to be avoided at all costs, but where many possible futures are proposed, debated, and discussed.

Among many cases of the kind, the case of 10-year lease agreement worth Canadian $7 million biotechnology research between Monsanto and the University of Manitoba illustrates how market influences research that may not necessarily be in the public interest. For three years, much to the dismay of many faculty members, the university administration unsuccessfully suppressed the news. This isn’t an isolated case of market influenced research. What is more, such dubious agreements erode public faith in research institutions.  

Knowledge for Sale peels many layers of the crises, including individual researchers’ laid back attitude awaiting pay-checks to those who capitalize public resources to maximize personal goals. Such situations have created a ‘moral hazard’ for the public sector, which only helped create an opening for the market to make inroads through open competition for external grants and by tagging institutions as products in the market. Although there is some merit in this approach as it promises to increase efficiency, productivity and profits, it eventually undermines research, education, public engagement, and fails to contribute to promoting democracy. In the nutshell, public good gets compromised! 

In making a case for the promoting and strengthening public good, Busch investigates four institutional core areas - administration, education, research, and extension – in enlisting specific proposals for change. Ranging from making research institutions secure places with attached conditions to making universities models of democratic discourse, the book challenges the pervasive idea that higher education needs to be run like a business. Citing successful initiatives at many universities and research institutions, Busch has drawn an actionable agenda at the core of which the leading question before the society at large is: what kind of universities and research institutes we want to help us come out of the wicked problems afflicting us?    

For those in the spheres of academics, Knowledge for Sale offers substance to view the current predicaments while at the same time remaining brief and accessible. 

Knowledge for Sale
by Lawrence Busch
The MIT Press, USA
Extent: 153, Price: $25.95

Friday, September 7, 2018

Music to the years

During the decades in which the nation was made, unmade and remade, songs captured the mood, sentiments, and consciousness of the country’s identity.

Could there be any political underpinnings of the time reflected in this unforgettable song Hum bewafa hargiz na thay, par hum wafa kar na sake of the late 70’s? Not much is there to write home about Anand Bakshi’s lyrics, but Kishore Kumar’s pitch, tone and tenor of delivery made the song a timeless classic. Give a discerning year to the song and one can draw an interesting parallel to this hit-song from a flop-film. Much like the short-lived Janata Party rule at the centre at that time, the much-hyped film Shalimar too had flopped at the box office the same year. And, the song conveyed the message that letting down the people was neither the objective nor the intention. It applied as much to the characters in reel life as to the politicians in real life. 

Differing in their journalistic experiences and personal interests, Ankur Bhardwaj, Seema Chisti and Sushant Singh teamed together to draw such parallels, one song per year, to complement the twists and travails of seventy years of post-independent era. As much a book of general knowledge, Note by Note captures the rhythm of country’s socio-economic and political rumblings to the beat of popular film music. The symphony it creates is imaginative, interesting and engaging albeit in parts.

There is no denying the fact that Bollywood songs have held relevance beyond the narratives and situations unfolding in the films. Living in our collective memory, songs articulate some of our deepest desires, delights and even nightmares. Written by some of the great contemporary poets and composed by pre-eminent musicians, film songs have tended to reflect upon our everyday existential, social, national, and universal concerns. The authors argue that rather than narrowing the notion of ‘India’, popular music has continued to expand it. During the decades in which the nation was made, unmade and remade, songs captured the mood, sentiments, and consciousness of the country’s identity. . 

If Guru Dutt’s reaction to the persistent corruption and degradation of society a decade after independence was masterfully captured in the song Jinhe naaz hai Hind par who kahan hai, the end of jury system following the landmark Nanavati case was epitomized by Pyar kiya to darna kya. Without doubt, much of the 60s and 70s were youthful years of post-independence generation, the whiff of romance in the air found reflections in first, Oh haseena zulfon waali as an attempt to woo lady love, and second,  Chura liya hai tumne jo dil ko confirming  that love has finally found its mark. With one song representing each year of independent India’s history, the book gives music to the years by picking one Hindi film song that was composed and widely heard during the year. 

Nothing could be more challenging than to pick one popular from among hundreds of songs to mirror the development of the nation during a particular year. Some lyrics closely reflect the unfolding realities whereas many other songs need interpretation to match the situation. While the authors argue that the link between words and tunes of songs with the people has been deeper and stronger, the present-day lyricists and composers have the added challenge to generate the level of feelings that can sustain that link. 

Although the efforts by Bhardwaj, Chishti and Singh are commendable, midway through the book a reader starts to wonder if it is a general knowledge book peppered with songs or a book of songs interspersed with general knowledge. However, the authors succeed in making reading modern history musical by juxtaposing short analyses of the songs with thumbnail sketches of development. Papa kehte hain bada naam karega bore little resemblance to the events in the country in 1988, but the lyrics by celebrated poet Majrooh Sultanpuri sought hope amidst all round anxiety. Whether or not one accepts the choice of songs, the selection not only captures the overall mood and groove of the year but the poetic sensitivity with which it was musically expressed as well. 

Be it a reflection of Jawaharlal Nehru drafting country’s future through Afsana likh rahe hoon in 1947 to the period of deaths and strife in 1993 which sought nothing less than a mourner to hum Dil hoom hoom kare, Ghabaraae, the songs of the past seven decades clearly reflect the innate resilience that has seen the country emerge unscathed from each bout of uncertainty. Nothing but the number Anhoni ko honi kar dein, honi ko anhoni, from the movie Amar Akbar Anthony, released in 1977, reflects our national character of pulling ourselves out from all odds. 

Having grown up with the memorable film music of yesteryears, the book evokes nostalgia of the era when rhythm and melody reigned supreme in conveying emotions of all hues. The songs of the past were part of the cultural fabric of the society, stirring emotional chord with its listeners. In the predominant market culture, however, songs are like products on the supermarket shelves! 

Note By Note
by Ankur Bhardwaj, Seema Chisti, Sushant Singh
Harper Collins, Delhi
Extent: 159, Price: $35  

First published in Hindustan Times dated Sept 8, 2018       

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Those days of the month

Why is a biological activity viewed as a disgusting aspect of women’s daily lives, and why it remains a subject less worthy of social and psychological inquiry?

Nothing could be more unreasonable to imagine than blood in blue color, and yet it evokes collective embarrassment on spotting sanitary napkin ad on the television screen. No sooner the visuals pop on screen; the channel gets a hasty switch over. This is how our society tackles self-inflicted shame imposed on menstrual periods, head on. Despite half of the world’s population menstruating for large periods of their lives, menstrual-negative culture of shame and taboo has been allowed to persist. Feminists argue that part of the blame must rest with women who have hidden their perfectly natural bodily function, and have in the process punished themselves for being women.

Breanne Fahs, a professor of gender studies at Arizona University, is outraged at the lack of a culture of menstruation. She raises two valid questions: why is this biological activity viewed as a disgusting aspect of women’s daily lives, and why it remains a subject less worthy of social and psychological inquiry? Isn’t the missing public discourse on the subject a reason for menstruation being tagged secretive, hidden, taboo, and somewhat silly? There is little denying that there have been  many improvements in gender inequities in recent years, but little has changed in common perception about women’s bodies and sexuality. In effect, it may only have worsened. 

Fahs loathes at the idea of feminine hygiene, presented with aplomb in a recent movie Padman, because it only seeks to fix women’s leaky and troublesome bodies.  The products to counter unhygienic fixation seem scary as these only give additional cultural momentum to the prevailing notion about menstruation. Contrast it with products for men (e.g. razor, deodorant, aftershave) which directly refer to their individual functions, without being clubbed together under a descriptive phrase like masculine hygiene products. Such linguistic distinctions, feminists argue, hold immense implications for projecting another sex as clean and powerful. 

Using her academic research and drawing lessons from clinical sessions, Fahs forcefully argues for a new culture of menstruation where it gets viewed as an event of joyous rhythms. Only by doing so we could undermine the institutions that deplete and eradicate the natural cycles of human life by favoring sexism and profit. Authoritative, intense, and controversial, Out for Blood takes reader into the world of menstruation where coming-of-age narratives are beginning to challenge the entrenched notions of silence and shame. Only by bringing in new stories on defiance and rebellion can the long history of panics surrounding menstruation ever be rewritten. Else, it will remain trapped within the boundaries of patriarchy. It is a man’s world after all!

Padman: Fixing leaky and troublesome bodies
In her academic journey of viewing women bodies using a radical feminist lens, Fahs has often been chided for writing on such trivial subjects like orgasms, human hair, and fatness. For writing about and engaging her students in the discourse on body hair, she received death threats from conservatives who thought she was ‘ruining America’. Not to be let down by such threats, her resolve in studying women’s bodies became even stronger. ‘The body, after all, absorbs, reflects, and mirrors the fundamental social forces of our times.’ 

Out for Blood is lively interdisciplinary interrogation packaged in a dozen odd chapters which move through feminist theory, social science, psychotherapy discourses, cultural studies, sexuality and gender studies in challenging the gendered notion of feminine hygiene as a fait accompli for women, and demonstrates the expansive potential for menstruation as a radical form of feminist resistance. From menstrual art to menstrual stunts, and from menstrual zines to menstrual graffiti, the book provides provocative case stories that examine menstrual activism, and a possible playful menstrual future. 

The strength of the narrative lies in it being explicit about equating the taboo of menstruation with womanhood, detaching body physiology (sex) from gender identity. The book is a call for women to emerge out of the ‘menstrual closet’, and engage in what activists’ term the notion of the menstrual party. Will such a transformation be a reality in near future?  

From women being ostracized during ‘that time of the month’ to young girls shying away from school to avoid any ‘embarrassment’, restricting the unavoidable bodily function to just a case of menstrual hygiene will serve a limited purpose. Fahs argues that unless menstruation disrupts the boundaries of patriarchy, and underscore the realities of misogyny, the case for writing a new story to destroy conventional narratives of women bodies will remain to be written. It is a book that clears all the misconceptions about what essentially defines womanhood.

Out for Blood
by Breanne Fahs
State University of New York, New York
Extent: 139, Price: $25.95

A short version of this write-up appeared in The Tribune, issue dated Dec 19, 2018.

Friday, August 3, 2018

The power behind the veil

The Mughals held their women in gratitude for being robust and enduring in suffering along their men in periods of war and peace, who in turn exerted significant influence in shaping their history.

Much of the Mughal history - from Babur’s invasion at Panipat in 1526 to the death of Aurnagzeb in 1707 - is marked by the Europeans experience and their interpretation of the glorious period. Though meticulous in keeping records of their transactions and experiences, these traders, missionaries, and ambassadors to the Mughal courts were not privy to the finer nuances of the culture and comportment of the times as they did not speak Persian or Turki, Though fascinated by the notion of the private space of the Mughal women, the Europeans could hardly comprehend the Mughal women’s influence and power as they were physically and culturally separated from the world of women. For them, it reflected an emperor’s weakness, or worse, incest. 

As their understanding was loaded with whimsical misinformation and bazaar gossip, the Europeans reduced the carefully crafted world of ‘zenana’ into a ‘harem’, which only justified their perception of this forbidden space for satisfying endlessly lascivious appetite of the emperor. The image and the imagination of a place to which the polygamous emperor alone had access gained widespread acceptance as a harem. It was this misconceived notion that led many to believe that harem was a claustrophobic place where the women ruthlessly schemed against one another and wasted the hours of their days in frustrated languor, competing for attention of the emperor for pinning down their sexual frustration. Nothing could be farther from the truth, discovered Ira Mukhoty, whose research on the Mughal zenana has led her to conclude that it was instead a busy, well-ordered place where each woman knew her place and her worth.  What’s more, ‘it was a place where accomplished, educated women were prized; well-spoken, articulate, and cultured women most likely to advance.’ That the harem was a sexual charged place created a void in narrative on the feminine influence on the luminous destinies of the Mughal padshahs. 

Daughters of the Sun is an authoritative attempt at bringing to life the dynamic zenana, which grew from an imperial sanctuary for elderly matrons, widowed women, unmarried relatives and royal concubines to an imposing place that contributed feminine wisdom on matters of governance, trade, and literary scholarship. The book examines lives and influence of some fifteen women – over a period of almost 200 years of Mughal rule - in shaping and strengthening the empire that carefully nurtured the old Perso-Chinizid symbol of the sun. The Mughals traced their lineage through Timur and Chinghez Khan to Princess Alanquwa of Mughalistan who were believed to be impregnated by the divine light of the sun, and hence these influential women were deservedly credited for being the daughters of the sun. And, the astounding efforts of these women were suitably acknowledged by each of the Mughal emperors.   

Through the rule of each of the six great Mughals, one woman of enormous prestige and respect was bestowed the title of ‘Padshah Begum’ which she used to retain till her death. Such woman was very rarely the wife of the emperor, signifying the enormous respect and gratitude the emperor had for the matriarchs of the clan, the mothers and grandmothers, for keeping the warring brothers together and empire intact. It began with the supreme sacrifice of Babur’s elder sister Khanzada who was left as a captive of the Uzbek warlord Shaybani Khan, to secure Babur’s safety. Upon her return ten years later, by which time Babur had become the Emperor of Hindustan, she was bestowed the title of ‘Padshah Begum’ which she continued to hold without any stigma well into the reign of Emperor Humayun. 

Mukhoty’s research pieces together that part of the Mughal history which has gone unnoticed despite the existence of extraordinary biographies of Babur and Humayun written by Gulbadan Begum, a member of the zenana and daughter of Babur and sister of Humayun, who was commissioned by Akbar for this onerous task. That the zenana had space for literary foray comes clear from Gulbadan’s account, ‘there are no rigid limitations to the women’s freedom, and the matriarchs, especially, are constantly called upon to fulfill public roles’. She further observed it ‘as a raucous place filled with camaraderie, disagreements, hurt feelings, song and laughter’.       

From the secluded space of the zenana emerged some of most versatile women of the Mughal period - unmarried daughters, eccentric sisters, fiery milk mothers and powerful wives - who not only engaged in diplomacy from behind the jaalis but traded with foreigners, built stunning monuments, and joined their men in the battlefields as well. The Mughal treatment of their women had been exemplary; they held their women in gratitude for being robust and enduring in suffering along their men in periods of war and peace. The life they led and the influence they exerted contributed significantly to shaping the history of the Mughals. 

Aunt Khanzada begum rode 750 kilometers on horseback braving icy winds to parley on behalf of her nephew Humayun; sister Gulbadan begum wrote the only biographies written by a woman of the Mughal court;  milk mothers like Jiji Anaga and Maham Anaga shielded and guided the thirteen-year-old emperor Akbar until he came of age; favorite wife Noor Jahan ran the imperial proceedings from behind the jaali; and writer of two Sufi treatises daughter Jahanara owned the most lucrative port in medieval India. These were women of real mettle and substance, political strategists, spiritual scholars and successful entrepreneurs in their own rights. One begins to feel for these women who, despite their immense contribution, remained a footnote in history. 

Daughters of the Sun uplifts these amazing women from the closet of the zenana.  Mukhoty confesses ‘I did not realize that the idea of a constantly evolving and dynamic zenana would become central to this book.’ Not all women in the zenana were sexually available to the emperor. They all had a role to play, a duty to perform, and were respected and paid for their crucial jobs. However, the strength of the zenana would continue to grow as ‘it was an established custom at the Mughal court that the padshah must protect all the widows and dependent members of those who have served him.’ That there was no love life for the Mughal women in the zenana would only be an absurd figment of imagination. Curiously, however, most relations for these medieval Muslim women were based on a number of considerations – expediency, practicality, and complicated genealogical calculations. The marriage of Babur’s sister Khanzada to a nobleman was one such, a marriage of propriety and convenience.

While avoiding the titillating tales of concubines, the book makes reading the Mughal history no less intriguing, engrossing and gripping. It captures one of significant aspects of the chequered Mughal history that has been grossly ignored by the mainstream history. In a well-researched and well-crafted narrative, Ira Mukhoty fills the curious gaps in the Mughal history by swinging the male-dominated narrative away from the prevailing Eurocentric vision. In most history books that deal with the life of the Mughals, the royal harem or zenana is usually a single chapter sandwiched between the imperial court and the royal kitchen. That there was something cooking at all the times within the confines of the forbidden place is what lends historical value to this book. 

By viewing history from the women’s perspective, Ira Mukhoty has opened a new window to view the complementing world of zenana in re-narrating that part of Indian history.  It is must-read parallel history of the Mughal Empire and its women. The book shows that the Mughal women were not just names in dull history textbooks, but were people with emotions and ambitions, loves and jealousies, and were equally accomplished, educated, articulate and cultured.

Daughters of the Sun
by Ira Mukhoty
Aleph Book Company, New Delhi
Extent: 246, Price: Rs 699 

First published in Biblio, the issue dated July-Sept 2018.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Where arts meets mathematics

‘I am attracted to curves that I find in the mountains of my country, in the sinuousness of its rivers, in the waves of the ocean, and on the body of the beloved woman’

Einstein had remarked that to appreciate the universe one would need to understand curves. Not sure if he was seduced by curves, but it is clear that straight lines and square corners do not determine what we make of the universe. Like human body, the universe is beautiful because of its magical patterns and exquisite shapes. Be it the human cell, the lowly creatures or the distant galaxies, the remarkable theory of curve is at work everywhere. Such is the magic of this theory that the entire universe manifests itself in curves, from the fold to a wigwam.

Reproductive biologist may consider curve as a work of evolution but for a structural engineer curve is what connects mathematics with art. And, within this connection may lie insights on understanding why things are shaped the way they are. While we often take shapes for granted but deep within each must be a cause for the object to take a particular form. University of Cambridge structural engineer Allan McRobie, who previously designed boringly rectilinear bridges and towers, found that the stability of engineering structures is essentially governed by their smoothly curved energy surfaces. This is how an unexpected link between the world of careful engineering calculation and a freer graphical expression emerged, leading to a beautiful language of folds, cusps and swallowtails.

Nothing comes closer than ‘human nude’ to draw a connection between art and mathematics, as a large part of our fascination for curves originates there. Need it be said that evolutionary biology rests on curves, our genes guide us to like the body shapes of our mates. The pervasiveness of these curves is striking because human body is a one-stop object for viewing different type of curves, a perfect justification for a book connecting mathematics with art to have a seductive curve on the cover. The curve resembles a swallowtail, the essence of beauty depicted by two back-to-back cusps connected by folds. Beautiful though it may be, a swallowtail on the waist of a human body is nowhere near as profound as the immense organization required to create all the components of that living, breathing, thinking human. The question worth exploring is how biological shapes emerge to be the shapes they finally become.

In some ways, the beauty in the swallowtail curve is indeed a precarious point of stability which engineers use to explain the catastrophe theory, the sudden change that induces abrupt outputs, developed by noted mathematician Rene Thom. However, the final shape of an object is on account of the energy of a protein that folds itself into any one of a number of possible configurations, indicating which stable pathway will eventually be followed. That is how some cells arrange to become bones and others into hair follicles.

The Swallow's Tail
The Seduction of Curves is a colorful and richly illustrated book in which human bodies are described through geometry, and connected to structural engineering, optical physics and more. The beauty of the book is that it pulls curves out from the confines of subjectivity, and situates them in the objectivity of mathematics. It is a book of mathematics nonetheless, which can be simply seen as a work of fine arts. By giving special attention to outrageous Spanish surrealist Salvador Dali’s iconic painting The Swallow’s Tail, McRobie brings together the theme of the catastrophe theory in understanding curves. Having met Thom towards later part of his life, much of Dali’s work then on was reflective of their intense association ‘everything I do from now on will be devoted to the phenomenon of catastrophes’.

Spread across nineteen profusely illustrated chapters, the book is about seven curves, four from cuspoid (fold, cusp, swallowtail and butterfly) and three of umbilic family (elliptic, hyperbolic and parabolic), which are the basic building blocks, the fundamental components of curved form. These curves also represent a way by which something can suddenly change. This is the essence of the catastrophe theory, which studies how smooth and subtle changes in a system can result in sudden and abrupt outputs. Collapse of elevated roads or oil rigs are classic examples of such drastic end results. Given the significance of curves, one wonders if as children we should have been taught alphabets of curved geometry beginning with fold, cusp, swallowtail and butterfly in place of straight-line Euclidean geometry sequence of terms like triangle, square, pentagon and so on. Will it begin to change anytime soon?

In many ways this is a remarkable book which has more visuals than text, and it will be a pity if it goes unread. Interestingly, the illustrations and pictures are a study in themselves providing depth, dimension and relevance of curves in our lives, making one wonder if there were no curves in our universe. At some point in reading through the book one begins to view straight lines and angles with disdain, much like well known Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer, who was influenced by Le Corbusier but had developed an aversion for straight lines. Niemeyer was attracted to free-flowing, sensual curves, and had remarked ‘I am attracted to curves that I find in the mountains of my country, in the sinuousness of its rivers, in the waves of the ocean, and on the body of the beloved woman’. Several of the famous architectural structures standing today bear testimony to the power of the curved form. The future seems to be in triggering sensuous resonances in the minds of observers.  

The book is a bold attempt at evoking multiple feelings towards curves. Allan McRobie deserves praise for sensually drawing parallels between natural and the constructed world.

The Seduction of Curves
by Allan McRobie
Princeton University Press, Oxford
Extent: 159, Price: $35

First published in Current Science, dated Aug 25, 2018.

Friday, July 20, 2018

Not that desires didn't exist!

Far from what the laws state and what the state feels, Indian women have come of age in exploring their sexiness.

Rich in the forbidden content, Cyber Sexy tracks the search for satiating desire from those mythical days in the elusive garden to the brave new world of virtual flesh. Howsoever the individuals may shun it publicly for being politically and morally incorrect, desire runs deep through various facets of our individual and collective lives. Demand meets supply as countless categories of desire dotted across the internet help people in their daily swim across the fleshy landscape. If we were to look within ourselves without judgement or shame, as Richa Kaul Padte echoes, there is a high chance that we will find ourselves faced with variations of the same desires that we condemn others for. Variants may range from sheer pleasure to dreadful perversion. 
Taking readers on a cyber tour of online pleasure, the author provides a nuanced understanding on why our foregone conclusions on the topics of sex, identity, and desire are gender-biased and flawed. Why is it that sexual desire, and not sexual pleasure, a moral problem? Why is there an undue emphasis on male desire for seeking sexual pleasure? Why does society make women feel ashamed of expressing their desires?  And, why is there an almost default assumption that online sex (read porn) is worse for women? 

David Leeming, author of upcoming Sex in the World of Myth, lends a helping hand by arguing that sex is as important in myths as it is in our lives. Despite ancient sculptures and medieval paintings bearing testimony to desire being eternal to humans, the irony is that reality manifests itself between the sheets or behind the closets. Further, the colonial idea that anything related to sex is immoral and dirty persists under regressive laws, holding forth the obligatory need for the state to protect women from its purported impact, both moral and physical.

The book blows the lid off such assumptions. Far from what the laws state and what the state feels, Indian women have come of age in exploring their sexiness. They are as adventurous as their counterparts, or even more if the case stories are any indication, as 30 per cent of all visitors on the porn websites were women in 2017. This does indicate that women have agency and autonomy to explore their hidden desires, caveat being that their conversation on the subject can refresh the narrative on the harms of obscenity or objectification. Not many will agree though! 

Cyber Sexy is a provocative undertaking on a subject that is pregnant with hitherto unnoticed categories of desire. Not that these desires did not exist, internet only enabled people who desired differently to feel a little less alone by giving shape and support to the thing that lives inside them. And, it proliferates because it stirs the universal set of emotions that lie buried underneath. But not for the conservatives who frown at such notion being outrageous and insane as it ends up corrupting unsuspecting minds. Little is realized, and the book offers enough evidence, that people are exploring each other’s bodies, sexting one another, and uploading their unmet desires on the internet. To pretend that these aren’t happening does not make them any less true.

Taking a deep dive into the kinky treasure of online porn, Richa comes out holding a mirror on society’s totally subjective moral judgement. As the country runs through its millennial churn, the question worth probing is why women’s bodies are often the battleground on which the fight for morality takes place? Why cyber technology is held dangerous for women only? Reading through this intrepid narrative, it is tough not to agree that the solo aim of pushing desire into morality’s deepest trench is to monopolize the power for defining gender roles in a man’s world

Cyber Sexy provides an equalizing narrative on how the artificial binaries have begun to blur. Although concerns regarding seeking consent, avoiding objectification and curbing coercion are not entirely misplaced, the need to redefine our approach towards fleshy fruits freely hanging on the internet is critical for the society to begin acknowledging desire as an integral part of human rights to sexuality. While there is no denying the need to fix the parts that are going wrong, there is an equally compelling reason to prioritize peoples’ rights to bodily autonomy and agency. 

Radical and uncompromising, Cyber Sexy is a book on woman’s perspective on cyber porn by a woman. This is a timely study as the impact of internet outreach has yet to be felt by two-third of the country’s population. But it puts to rest the fallacy that by valuing desire one compromise on family values, societal norms, and inner spirituality. It is an engaging and must read book on a subject on which only male giggles been heard in the past. Richa Kaul Padte invites the other half to join in serious conversations, but cautions upfront that women are not coy anymore – we have agency and autonomy, and have desires and fears too.  

Cyber Sexy
by Richa Kaul Padte
Penguin, New Delhi
Extent: 255, Price: Rs. 399

First published in Outlook on July 19, 2018.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

The coming of conscious machines?

The development of thinking machines evokes as much hope in the future as fearful dystopia.

Mankind has gone through three distinct turning points in its evolutionary history - discovered fire 100,000 years ago; developed language 10,000 years, and invented wheel 5.000 years ago – which triggered multitudes of other advances that have revolutionized human existence. Since then, within the overall arc of human history, not much seems to have changed. Else, we wouldn’t be living like those who lived five millennia ago, with parents and pals in cities with markets and governments. And, we wouldn’t fear life, share gossip, build relationships and celebrate birthdays like those in the past. Isn’t it a trivia that lot has changed without much remaining the same?

With a deep understanding of human history, tech entrepreneur and futurist Byron Reese offers a nuanced understanding of the change that is at our doorsteps, in the form of what he terms ‘the Fourth age’. This age will unleash the power of artificial intelligence and conscious computers in our daily existence, seemingly intelligent non-humans who will act autonomously to perform tasks that will ease our lives. There is every reason to believe that automation will bring efficient and healthy living within the reach of everybody on the planet. The prevailing technological turbulence will bring about dramatic breakthroughs in artificial intelligence and robotics in the next fifty years compared to what has been witnessed during the last five thousand years. 

The next generation artificial intelligent machines will outsmart its predecessors – from self-driven car to the talking robot – by being as smart as you and me. These will do more than what it would have been programmed to do, by figuring out what the new task expects it to perform. Within the emerging world of artificial general intelligence (AGI), the development of thinking machines evoke as much hope in future as fearful dystopia. Will machines make human redundant? Will smart automation gobble up all the jobs? Will it usher permanent Great Depression? 

Since it is about the change we haven’t seen yet, any discussions on the subject leads to confusion and misconception. The confusion is further compounded when the likes of Elon Musk, Stephen Hawking, and Bill Gates propound that artificial intelligence is a fundamental risk to the existence of human civilization, while their illustrious compatriots Mark Zuckerberg, Andrew Ng, and Pedro Domingos lend weight to the argument that human future is safe in the hands of intelligent machines. Despite such polarized positions, the foremost fear concerning AGI is about its impact on jobs. Fears of a permanent Great Depression are beginning to cast its impact on people in the streets. Everyone seems to be asking: Will I lose my job? Will smart robots eliminate more jobs than the economy will create?  What should I do to protect my job? 

Reese takes the question head on, although it is devilishly complex because it isn’t known what all jobs robots can replace; to what level business will invest in developing artificial intelligence; and how will cost of labor impact the adoption of technology? Therefore, it is not a back-of-the-envelope calculation to determine the net effect of technology on jobs. What is perhaps easy is to realize that there are just three possible scenarios i.e., robot will take all jobs; robots will take some of the jobs; and robots will take none of the jobs, to make some sense of it.

Without doubt, introduction of technology does reduce the need for workers in particular sectors. Although the transition is often difficult, those eliminated from low-skilled jobs graduate into improving their skills to take on different jobs. However, the question is whether these numbers add.  The Bank ATMs and online trading websites are two interesting examples. It did rattle the bank tellers and the stockbrokers but over time technology has not only helped employ more people in building ATMs but the stockbrokers have exhibited their cognitive abilities too. The erstwhile low-skilled jobs have gained value through the use of computing technology. 

Although understanding the ever-expanding job market is mindboggling, no visible relationship between the use of robots and loss of job has yet been established. Despite the installation of far more robots between 1993 and 2007, Germany lost just 19 per cent of its manufacturing jobs compared to a 33 per cent in the US. Same has been true in other countries such as Italy, South Korea, and France that deployed more robots, lending credence to the widely held view that technology mostly augments workers, not replaces them. On top, people have always been able to create new jobs, more in the changing time now than ever in the past.   

The Fourth Age is about comprehending the accelerating change, and about understanding the universals of technology that drive progress. Understanding those universals will give us new insights on humanity’s unmistakable journey toward social justice and personal empowerment aimed at liberating humans, in the words of Charles Dickens, from the clutches of dehumanizing jobs. The need is to gain clarity on duality of co-existence with machines.

For robots to replace humans at home and in the workplace, AGI would need to exhibit the entire range of the various types of intelligence that humans have, such as social and emotional intelligence, the ability to ponder the past and the future, as well as creativity and true originality. To overcome the hurdles of attaining consciousness in computers, Elon Musk is proposing commingling computers with human brain to take directions. To make the best of both, the challenge lies in decoding the billions of synapses between a hundred billion neurons.  

While the cost of building robots is coming down, the challenge to build an AGI on the structure of the human brain has yet to show any tangible results. After spending a billion of dollars, the Human Brain Project is in total disarray. Reese provides a detailed account of the current competing societal perspectives on the relation between humans and our machines, on accelerating technological change, and on the future of mankind in a world of robots and humanoids. 

The core of the argument, however, is draw distinction between monism and dualism as two dominant beliefs about the nature of reality. While for monists creating a machine with human attributes is a serious possibility, dualists fervently disagree that a silicon-based computer will ever grasp the intricacies of a carbon-based human. Science is nowhere close to describing something like consciousness yet, but our relentless move forward and upward characteristic will reduce us from being Homo sapiens to Homo dissatisfactus. Byron Reese takes the reader into the rapidly unfolding world of artificial intelligence and robots, the one that is sure to revolutionize our physical being but our mental domain as well. Without doubt, The Fourth Age, is upon us. 

The Fourth Age
by Byron Reese
Simon & Schuster, New Delhi
Extent: 320, Price: Rs 399.

First published in the Hindu BusinessLine, dated July 9, 2018

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

The new metaphor of life

Farming is no bed of roses; comprehending weather vagaries, understanding crop rotations, learning cow milking, and dealing with rural eccentricity makes it more challenging than punching keyboards in air-conditioned cubicles.

Midway through this racy narrative, one pauses to wonder what the fuss is all about being a farmer’s wife. In these troubling times when farmers are in the news for all the wrong reasons, no woman in her wildest dream would imagine being a farmer’s wife. Neither did she, a working mother of three hyper-active kids, whose life twirls between the extremes of managing a dreary boss fixated on selling chunking-looking tabs to the kids to a surefire husband in pursuit of creating a steady supply of organic milk from his own farm. Between these extremes lies a life which is as ordinary as it could be, and as exclusive as she has made it look like. 

Part memoir and part fiction, How I became a Farmer’s Wife reflects an unending quest for change from the urbane life laced with repetitive conditioning. Outwardly everything may look calm; it is the turmoil deep down that disturbs life’s rhythms. Metaphorically, it is akin to the tea cup which seems normal on the surface, but for the soggy biscuit bits which lump disgustingly at the bottom to destroy the tea-drinking experience. The comfortable steel-and-chrome high-rises of Gurugram are like the tea cup, with its soggy posse of challenges.  

Within the familiar off-beat tales of techies quitting their high-paying jobs, this story is about the coming to life of Vijay who only a few months ago was slump-shouldered and resigned to his daily routine. That he found a new meaning of life in cows and crops is only part of the breezy narrative, his better half finds comfort in yoga as she unwillingly pursues a corporate career to help him with his dream is the second part. Only one sacrifice in the real world will suffice. 

Running on two parallel tracks, the tongue-in-cheek narrative is about de-stressing life as the leitmotif of urban existence. ‘Why don’t you take up yoga again, you seemed to feel a little better at that time’ is a subtle advice to the lady of the house to keep cool while the budding farmer gains roots in the startling unfamiliar territory. With an incredible knack of story-telling, Yash captures the microcosm of change sweeping the household amidst its daily ordeal. Capturing delicate moments, cheeky encounters, and weird incidents, she lets the writer in her take control of expressing what it takes to be a farmer’s wife. 

With the choice thrust on her, there is little that Yash could do but float in Vijay’s dream world of fresh milk and organic gobhi. The list of items coming out of the leased farm did grow in the dream sequence, but it was only milk which started flowing with some packs of organic veggie tossed in. Getting into farming was an on-the job-exposure that the entire family was forced into. Away from tabs, the weekly visits to the farm were engaging experiences for kids. Choosing nature over technology, the kids learnt to be empathetic towards puppies, cows and the crows. 

Amidst the unending efforts of getting the city out of her, the lingua franca of farming weighed heavy on her and the kids. While jatropha sounded like Jethro Tull to her, the kids took a fancy at savoring some dung cakes. Nonetheless, prodigious vocabulary and distinctive techniques turned farming into an engaging and entertaining vocation for everybody. Despite her initial reservation, Yash soon discovered similarities in tending cows and mending kids. Her sympathy for Vijay translated into an unconditional support to let him be a farmer, and she a farmer’s wife. 

Written with wit, humor, flair and purpose, How I became a Farmer’s Wife chronicles the mid-career crises that most discerning techies often go through. After all, there is a limit to which urbanscape comforts can comfort these upward mobile couples. But farming is no bed of roses either; comprehending weather vagaries, understanding crop rotations, learning cow milking, and dealing with rural eccentricity makes it more challenging than punching keyboards in air-conditioned cubicles. Not only challenging, the transition could fall short of expectations too. 

Towards the latter half of the story, Yash realizes that success is more than just winning the race. Even if the transition didn’t go the full circle, it did create a farmer in Vijay and converted Yash to accept herself as a farmer’s wife. The passion he exuded and the freedom he acquired had lifted the morale of the entire family. As the couple rode out of the farm for the last time, Yash felt an incredible sense of freedom and a distinct sense of connection with the man whose waist she hung on to for dear life. Finally, the parallel tracks had begun to merge. Freedom comes at a price, only if one is willing to pay for. 

How I became a farmer’s wife
by Yashodhara Lal
Harper Collins, New Delhi
Extent: 318, Price: Rs. 250

First published in the Hindustan Times on June 8, 2018