Friday, October 26, 2007

Congratulations, Amit Varma

Congratulations to Amit Varma, one of my favorite bloggers, for winning the Bastiat Prize for journalism. A picture from the ceremony is here. And here is Amit's account of the lead up to the announcement in New York. The essays that won him the prize are here, here and here.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Piers Brendon's The Decline and Fall of the British empire

Two reviews, here and here, of a sweeping new work of history by Piers Brendon, which chronicles more than a hundred years of the British Empire. And it doesn’t appear to be a boring history - consider this wonderful nugget from Maya Jasanoff’s review:
Brendon gleefully traces the career of that characteristic imperial accessory, the moustache. British cultivation of the hairy upper lip was inspired, he suggests, by Indian ideals of virility, and would decline in proportion with the empire's reach: Harold Macmillan was "the last British prime minister to sport a moustache."
But, more seriously, the business of empire was of course a ghastly affair as this excerpt reminds us:
Necessarily, blood flows freely through this book. At Cawnpore in 1857, where nearly 200 British women and children had been notoriously slaughtered by the Indian mutineers, the British forced suspected perpetrators to "lick blood from the slaughter-house floor before they were hanged". At Isandhlwana in 1879, British soldiers were shredded by Zulu iklwas blades, "so named in imitation of the sucking sound they made when pulled from human flesh". But it was mass slaughter, 20th century-style, that would truly bring the empire down. During the Boer war 160,000 white civilians would be rounded up into ghastly concentration camps - creating a precedent explicitly cited by the Nazis. The first world war carried Canadians and Indians to "the bone-chilling, gut-wrenching, soul-destroying shambles of the western front", and Australians and New Zealanders to the hell of Gallipoli, where relentless firing turned "their trenches into cemeteries".
A glimpse there of the disparate peoples that were affected. And that's one reason why a book like this could be very useful: it could help us understand the legacies - dubious or otherwise - the British left behind in different parts of the world.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

A poem from long ago

One of the pleasures (and agonies) of writing, I feel, is browsing through one's own work from very long ago, and realizing with a shake of the head and a smile just how absurd or bad the writing is. Consider this poem that I wrote when I was in the second year of my college in Trichy – I was seventeen then. My intent was to write something that rhymed, was funny and yet conveyed a serious message. I find my phrases and word choices bizarre now - to say the least - but at the time of writing I was quite convinced that this was a brilliant poem. I even put it up proudly on the online bulletin board of our college computing center for everyone to read. Here it is:



Ascending a tree ain't no flattering feat,
specially when you have a man eater at your feet,
snappin' and snarlin' in it's attempt to glean,
all anatomy of mine, neat and clean.

On breathing you feel it's sweltering heat,
that turns your toes to molten feet.
The end of the road is here to greet,
me with death and the tiger with fresh meat!

I rise up the tree up to it's peak,
maybe the branch was a wee bit weak,
as in due time I heard it creak,
a dreadful sound, a nice old tweak
Shock! Surprise! Oh, did I shriek!

Luckily I fell into a creek
the water was cold, deliciously deep
from it's depths did I peek
to hear the croc say, ‘I got you cheap.’
But there were other things that made my soul creep
it was not one of them, it was an entire fleet!

But the tiger ain't no slouch for speed;
it was there at the creek, quick and sleek,
after all, would you miss your fresh meat?

Its TIGER VS CROCS at the creek
but spectators like me never seek
to wait for the winner to shake hands with me,
I had gray cells enough to see
this was my chance, I had to flee!

Later, hidden behind far-off trees
i contemplated rather daintily
that though the tiger was an enemy
it was a friend, life savior indeed!

Decades later, to my offspring i repeat
the same ol' story precise and neat
with a lot of pain, do i discover
that all my children have fallen asleep!

But don't you start to doze or sleep
or soon the tiger shall fall asleep...

Save the tiger, without it a forest is never complete!


That's quite a cheesy message, isn’t it? Despite the poem's obvious flaws I still have a lot of affection for it. It's titled The Jungle Book 1 because this was the first of a series of wildlife poems. The second was set in a waterhole and featured: bathing elephants and hippos; a lion who challenges an elephant to a duel but is sent sulking off "in a narrow lane" (I was trying the patli gali idea here); and a crane that scratches the elephant’s itchy back - it's itchy, the elephant says, because of "the indestructible fungal reign".

The third poem was set in the plains of the Serengeti and was about a cheetah futilely chasing a herd of gazelles. And the final one was about a fiercely efficient army of red ants hunting a scorpion before a spider interrupts, weaves a web of magic that stymies the ants, and allows the scorpion to escape. I'd planned a fifth one too, about birds, but that never got completed. But what fun I had concocting these stories in rhyme!

You see, I can get quite carried away - this is what I call wallowing in nostalgia.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Patience and fairness

While I struggle with my next post, I'd like to divert readers to this interesting article in the Economist. It explains recent experiments that try to show differences between apes and humans when it comes “patience” and “fairness” (the definition of fairness in the article is not as straightforward), and also, in the process, reveal the sequence of evolution and genetic underpinnings of these “virtues”.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Some short notes and pictures from Hampi

This isn't a detailed post - just thought I'd put together some thoughts, descriptions, anecdotes and pictures (do click on the pictures for a better view) from my Hampi trip. Most likely, after some reading, I'll write an elaborate article on the historical context of the place.


Just a few days ago, I was in Hampi, a small town on the eastern flank of Karnataka, and once the center of the impressive Vijayanagara Empire of the 14th-16th centuries. The monuments of this empire – large temple complexes with some brilliant sculptures and reliefs, aqueducts, water tanks, fortifications, and markets – were built from large blocks of stone. This doesn’t seem surprising if one looks at the landscape: the region is plentifully endowed with boulders of all sizes. The hills and mounds here are striking, natural agglomerations of such boulders, finely balanced and seemingly precarious.

I became aware of the Vijayanagara Empire only after reading V.S.Naipaul’s interpretation of its historical context in India: A Wounded Civilization. He saw it as the last stand of the “Hindu-Buddhist” tradition that in his view had come to end of its possibilities. He saw it also as a victim of Muslim invasions from the north: the destruction of Hampi in the 16th century was to Naipaul just one example of what had happened elsewhere. But more on that in another post.


The region immediately around Hampi is supposed to be the mythological Kishkinda, the Vanara Kingdom mentioned in the Ramayana. At the top of one of the hills (Anjanadri Hill) is a plain white temple with a domed red top and a saffron flag. Its cool interior houses an abstract, bright orange relief of Hanuman on a slab of stone. With my parents I climbed the six hundred steps to the temple. It was breezy at the top, and the wide meandering curve of the Tungabhadra River was clearly visible. On our side of the river was the extensive patchwork of rice, maize, sugarcane fields and orchards of plantain and coconut; on the other, faintly discernible in the bright sun, were the ruins of Hampi.

A single-story house stood in rocky space opposite the temple, and a man was reclined on a ledge of the verandah. Because of his relaxed posture, and the rather secluded location, I thought he might have chosen to stay here to retire from the affairs of the world. But some time later, when we were ready to leave after our darshan and the ritual offering of bananas to the monkeys around, the man, now standing next to the bearded pujari of the temple, broke this news to us. “Kumaraswamy has agreed to resign,” he said in fluent Hindi, evidently pleased at the development. “He has agreed proceed with the power sharing agreement with the BJP.” This was a reference to the still ongoing political crisis in Karnataka (Kumaraswamy is presently the chief minister of the state).

I thought: what an unlikely place to receive such a dispatch! The mention of politics in the idyll of a remote shrine was incongruous – and somehow comical too. (It is quite another matter that news was untrue and was based perhaps only on speculation. For Kumaraswamy, of the JD-S, has not yet resigned and refuses to yield power to the BJP, as had been agreed when the two parties had jointly formed the government. And just today there’s been a call for fresh elections.)

The pujari, as he helped us dispense our bananas, enthusiastically participated in the brief discussion on politics that followed. He, too, like the man who told us of the resignation, wasn’t from around Hampi – the shrine wasn't managed by locals as I'd expected – but from Pandharpur in Maharashtra. Later I found that there were many Ram-bhakts like him, from the northern states, in the other temples and shrines around Hampi. One of them, a short man, dressed in a brown robe and with a cigarette in hand, hitched a ride with us in our auto. And the passages of some temples were full of the gleaming, just-washed stainless steel utensils of these wandering men.