Thursday, February 25, 2010

Things fall apart: The story of a conquest -- Part 3

Read Part 1 and Part 2. This part, the final one, continues from when the new king, AH, hurls a "box" given to him. For the sake of continuity, I have repeated the last paragraph of the second part. I have also provided a couple of pictures: first a rendition of AH's capture; and second a glimpse of the mountainous landscape of the region whose history this is (not to be confused with where the battle took place). I took the picture during a visit last December.

From the next post on, I promise not to speak in riddles and hints.

Please also pardon the typos -- will try to fix them in the next couple of days. The last two pieces had some horrendous ones.

In his other hand, the oddly attired man held that looked like a rectangular box, which he gave to AH. But it did not "contain" anything. The cover opened to one side revealing a cluster of rustling, thin and creased pads, one laid over another, and with strange symbols on them. A wonderful aroma wafted from the pads. Though as beautiful as works of art, the symbols made no sense to AH. Yet, the interpreter, who was translating, repeatedly mumbled something about “submission”.

It sounded like nonsense to AH. Irritated, he threw the box from the perch of his litter.

And all hell broke loose.

Later, in captivity, AH would regret that gesture: had he not been so arrogant, he might have slyly outmaneuvered his opponents and trapped them later. But at that moment, drunk from his military victories and the triumphant march from the northern city, Q, to the provincial town, M, control of the kingdom well within his grasp, AH could not have responded in any other way.

The hurling of the “box” was akin to igniting a conflagration. AH had touched a very raw nerve. With loud cries that conveyed unequivocally the insult they had experienced, the warriors exploded out of their positions from the buildings surrounding the square. They seemed prepared for this very moment; the fact that they were impossibly outnumbered did not deter them. Mounted high on their beasts, they attacked with surprising vigor and speed.

But more than anything else, it was the fate of the king that left his massive army in a state of paralysis.

AH’s litter was being carried by his chiefs. The warriors slashed their sharp metal rods to deadly effect, severing off the chiefs’ arms. And yet, in a dizzying exhibition of loyalty, the limbless chiefs continued to support the shaking litter with their shoulders. And when they fell, others would take their place; the warriors would then chop fresh limbs. This continued for a while until the litter itself was tilted and AH was captured alive and taken by the captain FP.

It was inconceivable that the king, considered divine and invincible, should be kidnapped in this way.

The man pulling AH down from the titled litter is FP, the captain of the warrior army. To the left of the painting, holding aloft the symbol with the intersecting pieces is the same man who gave AH that puzzling thing with the strange symbols which he threw in irritation, triggering the warriors' fury. This rendition of the capture is appropriately the cover of Jared Diamond's famous Guns, Germs and Steel.

Taking advantage of the enemy's disbelief and paralysis, the invading warriors charged into the ranks of the countless foot soldiers. Seated on their beasts, which reared, neighed, raced and trampled, they killed at will. Stupefied at the capture of their new king, and terrified by the unprecedented assault, AH’s men fled. At the end of the battle, the plain was littered with dead men -- and all dead men were AH's men.

Incredibly, a hundred and fifty men had defeated an army of a hundred thousand men and had not suffered a single casualty. Only one of the invading warriors was injured. For that reason and because of similar successes in future battles, the warriors – and their beasts especially – would be regarded as powerful as Gods.

In captivity, AH was given his privileges; he kept his servants; he still wielded authority. The shrewd man that he was, he began to understand the weaknesses of his captors. He even became friendly with them; FP chatted with him quite amiably. AH became an expert at the game of moving pieces on a checkered board that FP had taught him. And with that, the invaders’ aura of invincibility faded. AH realized they were men just like him. He understood their greed: they were crazy for metals that shone; they had come to the kingdom primarily in search of them. AH cleverly negotiated his release by promising to deliver a roomful of these metals. There was plenty of it available in his kingdom: in temples and religious places and in shrines where the mummies of his ancestors were kept with care.

But AH ultimately underestimated his captors. These were treacherous and willing to go to any extent to achieve their ends. Once AH had delivered the metals, he was suddenly hanged, by the same men he had become friendly with. The men obeyed orders that came from some distant land, from a different monarch, to whom they proudly owed allegiance; and this distant land kept sending more oddly attired men who preached with great determination, an unparalleled sense of righteousness, and wore pendants that had the same symbol -- the ubiquitous intersecting lines – that AH had seen at the square of M just before his capture; but most importantly, this distant land sent more settlers and beasts – and what terror the beasts wrecked! – so that it became impossible for his people rebel successfully against them.

This was no simple kidnapping and ransom procurement mission; this was settlement on a permanent basis; plunder was institutionalized for perpetuity.

After AH’s death, another brother, TH, emerged and became the invaders’ puppet king; but he died of disease soon. Yet another brother, MC, came forward; he too was treated initially as convenient figurehead, but broke away and organized cleverly thought out rebellions. But in the end, the military might of the invaders and the manner in which they exploited alliances with the local tribes -- who had not forgotten their own subjugation, only a couple of generations ago, by HC and his ancestors -- ensured that MC had to recede with his followers into to the eastern part of the kingdom, where mountains jostled with dense jungle.

Society changed irreversibly during the conquest. The efficient administration the kingdom had possessed gave way to cruel system of exploitation where impossible tributes were levied by the settlers on the natives. The discovery of new ores for metals propelled a vicious cycle of forced labor, misery and demographic decline. The settlers also demolished what they saw was the idolatry of the natives, who worshiped the sun and the earth; they supplanted it with their own faith.

AH’s dramatic capture and his execution a few months later thus marked the beginning of the end. It was a pivotal moment in the history of his kingdom. Nothing would ever be the same again.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Language, grammar and culture: The Pirahã of the Amazon

In this short post from last year, which linked to the work of Lera Boroditsky, we saw that there might be a nontrivial link between the language and worldview. That is, the words we use are not mere words, they influence how we think. The corollary is that if we did not know certain words or phrases -- and this routinely happens as words in one language are often missing in another -- we might look at the world very differently. That is precisely what this essay in the New Yorker about the Pirahã, an isolated Amazonian hunter-gatherer tribe, seems to suggest.

The tribe is different in that they are tremendously resistant to cultural change. Their complex language plays a role in this stubbornness. It is difficult to learn, and plenty of aspects we take for granted in the other languages are missing; it defies -- or may defy: it hasn't been proved fully yet -- some well accepted principles put forth by Noam Chomsky and his colleagues that were thought to apply universally. And the language of the Pirahã drives their culture, which the linguist Everett thinks is obsessively dedicated to empirical reality and has no place for abstraction. To understand, consider this extract:

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Things fall apart: The story of a conquest -- Part 2

Read Part 1. You'll find the preamble there as well.

For names of people, I use two letters; and there are only four characters in the story – three kings or princes, HC, AH, HS, and the captain of the invading warrior army, FP. For names of cities, I use a single letter; and there are three cities, C, Q and M. These abbreviations, too, could provide clues about the place and empire whose fall I am alluding to.


Coincidentally, about a hundred and fifty of the famed warriors – the half men half beasts the kingdom had heard rumors about – were sailing along the coast at the same time, their progress parallel to AH’s victorious advance inland along the mountain range. The warriors were unaware of happenings in the kingdom but they soon made landfall and made their way up the mountains to a small provincial town called M, where AH’s victorious army, consisting of a hundred thousand men, was resting and partying boisterously at the outskirts.

M lay halfway between the northern city Q and the capital C. The main square had buildings on each side and a vast plain stretched from the square. Here, the warriors met the following day with AH and his army.

It was a surreal encounter that would, even centuries later, elicit utter disbelief.

AH had no idea that these curious looking visitors – completely unlike anything he or his people had ever seen – had downed an empire to the north. And that there were out to do something similar now. But AH couldn’t be blamed: however majestic and odd the much feared men looked, they were few in number and hard to take seriously.

Most of them had thick hair growing on their faces; it covered their cheeks, chins; the same shock of hair, sometimes smooth, sometimes messy, often drooped to their chests. They were dressed in some kind of hard metal that covered much of their faces and bodies. They held a long, gleaming rod in their hands. But, strikingly, each of them was in union with a beast that was six feet tall and had a long and powerful snout. The animals looked spectacular but benign. Each warrior’s torso was positioned at the back of his beast, straddling it. This gave them the advantage of height: they towered over AH’s foot soldiers, who held clubs and maces.

Only AH who was carried in a high, caparisoned litter looked down on the warrior army.

The meeting at the square of CM was supposed to be one in which AH sized up these strange visitors. The previous day the captain of the visitors, FP, had met peacefully with AH at the outskirts where the army was camped, and AH had promised to come to the square the next day.

He did come, but late and at an inexorable pace with his massive army. Like his father, AH was a proud man and held ferocious authority over his subjects. He led a lavish lifestyle; everything that he used was revered and retained by his servants. The bones of the meat that he ate were kept with care; as were clothes of his that were soiled. When he expectorated, the spit was not allowed to touch the ground, but a woman collected it in her hand. It was understandable that AH, well aware of the feelings of submissiveness he generated among his people – he was the son of the great, divine king HC after all – should treat the new entrants to his lands with disdain.

At the meeting in the square, one of the warriors was dressed in attire noticeably different from others. He started speaking passionately. He clasped in his hand an item that seemed to be made from two metal pieces: the shorter piece, two inches long, intersected near one end of the much longer piece. It meant nothing to AH, but in the coming years, this pattern of two intersecting straight lines would become commonplace in the kingdom.

In his other hand, the oddly attired man held that looked like a rectangular box, which he gave to AH. But it did not "contain" anything. The cover opened to one side revealing a cluster of rustling, thin and creased pads, one laid over another, and with strange symbols on them. A wonderful aroma wafted from these pads. It was beautiful as works of art are, but the symbols made no sense to AH and yet, the interpreter, who was translating, repeatedly pointed to the box, and kept mumbling about “submitting”.

It all sounded like nonsense to AH. Irritated, he threw the ‘box” from the perch of his litter.

And all hell broke loose.

(final part to come...)

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Things fall apart: The story of a conquest -- Part 1

What I’ve tried here is to tell, in my own words, the story – only the basic outline – of a empire’s fall. The actual story is very famous, and some of you will be able to identify immediately the specific historical encounter I am recounting. But irrespective of how well read you are, it is hard to be knowledgeable about all things in the world. So, if at all you find such things interesting, I invite you guess, as I deliver this retelling in two or three parts, the place and empire I am alluding to.

For names of people, I use two letters; and there are only four characters in the story – three kings or princes, HC, AH, HS, and the captain of the invading warrior army, FP. For names of cities, I use a single letter; and there are three cities, C, Q and M. These abbreviations, too, could provide clues.


Once upon a time there was a mighty but isolated kingdom. Its contours followed the entire length of a famous mountain range that ran in an unrelenting line from the north to the south. To the west of the range was a thin, largely dry coastal strip; to the east was dense jungle through which an immense river made its way, for hundreds of miles, to the ocean.

The king, HC, was respected by his people. His ancestors had laid the foundations of the empire, but he had expanded their realm both north and south along the range, blazing his way through fierce tribes that refused to give in easily. Indeed, at the time this story begins, HC was at battle in the north with the bulk of his army. The going had been tough and HC had been in this part of his kingdom for years now. The capital, C, the seat of power, was well to the south, and had been left to his regents; with the recent bloody imperial conquests, the kingdom had reached the limits of its expansion. Yet, its administration worked smoothly. Every day runners ran the length of mountain range – at breakneck speeds even at incredibly high altitudes -- to relay messages and keep the lines of communication open.

HC began to like the north; he contemplated building a second capital at Q, where the winter temperatures were milder than at C and the land more arable. What he did not know, however, was the fate that was to befall him and his people. A few hundred miles north of where HC was stationed, the mountains gave way to a largely impenetrable jungle; and further beyond, this difficult terrain narrowed to a strip only seventy kilometers wide, flanked on both sides by two vast oceans. When emissaries arrived from these unconquered parts to the kingdom, they brought news that sounded strange – too strange to be taken seriously.

The reports spoke of the sudden and violent conquest of a similarly large kingdom a thousand miles north of the narrow strip. The conquerors were a race of warriors who had come from the ocean. It was said they looked utterly different. The terrifying thing was that they were half men and half beasts, but with the added advantage that each man could detach from the beast and then rejoin at will. There was news that the warriors now had bases in the narrow strip, and were sailing in ships close to the coast.

Something even more deadly was afoot. Wherever the warriors went, the locals would develop painful rashes that pocked their faces and bodies, rendering them unbearably ugly. Most of them eventually died. The mortality was so severe that there was no one to bury the bodies. Entire villages perished. Not only that, this deadly epidemic of rashes seemed to precede the warriors, like a secret weapon, and never affected the warriors themselves.

HC died suddenly in one such epidemic: the rashes overcome him until he was bedridden, barely able to speak. He was in immense pain; he turned blind as the blisters invaded his eyes. Hundreds of thousands around him died too, but it was the king’s death that triggered what would eventually turn into a brutal civil war.

Or, more appropriately, sibling war.

It was traditional for a king to marry his blood sister; a son born of such a union was the most legitimate successor. It was also common for the king to have dozens of other wives, legitimate and illegitimate. This meant there were dozens of princes, anxiously awaiting their chance after HC’s death. But in his deathbed, HC seemed to prefer two princes: AH and HS. What he really wanted was AH to handle the northern part of the kingdom, with his new capital at Q, and HS to continue ruling from the ancestral capital C. AH in fact was with his father at the time of his death in the north.

What actually happened was no surprise: the brothers began a violent succession battle. Their armies clashed repeatedly. Thousands lost their lives. HS gained the upper hand initially; his generals captured AH and chopped a portion of his ear off. But AH escaped secretly with the help of his wife, gathered his generals – the same generals who had been with HC at the time of his death, and had been bogged down fighting the fierce tribes of the north – and launched a spectacular counterattack.

The northern army – AH’s army now – began to advance south, to the capital C, inflicting terrible punishments on those of the kingdom who sided had with HS.

AH was set to become the undisputed new king.

(To be continued...)

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Dil to Bachcha Hai Ji

For me, the most delightful moment in the new movie Ishqiya is the scene that goes with the melodious Dil To Bachcha Hai Ji – crudely “The heart is a child after all”. That translation doesn’t do the song justice but it does convey something elemental: we may age but we can be occasionally possessed of a carefree happiness that makes us young again.

Khalujan, the character that Naseruddin Shah plays, is in his late forties, or early fifties – it’s a testament to the actor’s versatility that in Firaaq he plays, and looks, a much older man. He is old in Ishqiya too; his beard is mostly gray. But as soon as he meets Krishna (Vidya Balan), the beautiful, alluring widow some twenty years his junior, he colors his beard black. And with the knowledge that he is falling in love, a kind of babyish joy suffuses his face.

Dil To Bachcha Hai Ji plays when Khalujan is standing in a crowded bus. A woman seated by the window looks at him adoringly; the man next to her notices this and offers Khalujan his seat. Khalujan, flattered by the woman’s glances – and she too, like Krishna, is young – refuses politely, but the woman continues look at him. He finally relents and takes the seat. Later, asleep, he leans his head unknowingly against the woman’s shoulder, and dreams of Krishna with contentment, the lilting melody of the song in the background. He is woken suddenly by the laughter of the other women in the bus and smiles sheepishly -- they are laughing at him. “Is umar mein ab khaogey dhoke” – the song goes at one point (“disappointments await you at this age” in my unsubtle translation).

It’s a brilliant scene in which Khalujan’s charm, joy and vulnerability all come together.

The song is Vishal Bharadwaj’s composition, and is sung by Rahat Fateh Ali Khan; the sublime lyrics are Gulzar’s. The tune plays in the style of old Hindi songs, but to accompaniment of Latin beats and strumming; there's an Arabic interlude as well. It’s an exquisite blend – take a listen.

An earlier post about a song in a very different kind of movie, Om Shanti Om.

Friday, February 05, 2010

Class, privacy and Facebook

Charles Petersen's engrossing essay in the New York Review of Books on the role class played in Facebook's conception (at Harvard) and early evolution. He also has thoughts on FB and privacy:

The class basis of Facebook's early success is most evident in comparison with its greatest rival: MySpace. To join Facebook, you needed a college e-mail address; for everyone else—once Friendster, for various reasons, became less popular—there was MySpace. The result, as David Brooks observed in 2006, was a "huge class distinction between the people on Facebook and the much larger and less educated population that uses MySpace."

Even after Facebook opened its membership, successively, to high schools, corporations, and the world at large—trying to capitalize on the site's early success, which, Zuckerberg and his inventors hoped, was due to more than mere exclusivity—class distinctions re- mained important. Danah Boyd, a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society who is one of the best- informed academics studying social networks, wrote a much-discussed essay in 2007 that laid out, in broadly stereotypical terms, the preferred sites of many high school students:

The goodie two shoes, jocks, athletes, or other "good" kids are now going to Facebook. These kids tend to come from families who emphasize education and going to college.... MySpace is still home for Latino/Hispanic teens, immigrant teens, "burnouts," "alternative kids," "art fags," punks...and other kids ...whose parents didn't go to college, who are expected to get a job when they finish high school.

One of the most notable examples of class distinction, as Boyd noted, came from the US military, which permitted soldiers to use Facebook but banned MySpace in 2007:

Facebook is extremely popular in the military, but it's not the [social network] of choice for 18-year-old soldiers, a group that is primarily from poorer, less educated communities. They are using MySpace. The officers, many of whom have already received college training, are using Facebook.

MySpace remains banned within the military to this day, while Facebook, despite security concerns, is still available to American troops.


Given the common fatalism about the "death of privacy," I find it encouraging that Facebook's problems have resulted not from a complete lack of privacy, but rather from widespread paranoia about whether the site's privacy system could be trusted. Before the site launched in 2004, an insistence on online privacy had come to seem, at least in cutting-edge quarters, like a kind of snobbery. Facebook, precisely thanks to the elitist nature of its founding, was able to show millions of college students—those who use the Internet most—that excluding the wider world actually expanded what you could do online. As we have known offline for centuries, and as these students learned on the Web, there are many things, from party photos to Marquis de Sade quotes, that one might comfortably pin over a desk or hang on a wall, but that would best not be made visible to just anyone online.


It's true that Facebook can lead to a false sense of connection to faraway friends, since few members post about the true difficulties of their lives. But most of us still know, despite Facebook's abuse of what should be the holiest word in the language, that a News Feed full of constantly updating "friends," like a room full of chattering people, is no substitute for a conversation. Indeed, so much of what has made Facebook worthwhile comes from the site's provisions for both hiding and sharing. It is not hard to draw the conclusion that some things shouldn't be "shared" at all, but rather said, whether through e-mail, instant message, text message, Facebook's own "private message" system, or over the phone, or with a cup of coffee, or beside a pitcher of beer. All of these "technologies," however laconic or verbose, can express an intimacy reserved for one alone.

Monday, February 01, 2010

The beauty of mathematics

Steven Strogatz's column on mathematics -- the first of many to come -- in the New York Times:
[Numbers] apparently exist in some sort of Platonic realm, a level above reality. In that respect they are more like other lofty concepts (e.g., truth and justice), and less like the ordinary objects of daily life. Upon further reflection, their philosophical status becomes even murkier. Where exactly do numbers come from? Did humanity invent them? Or discover them?

A further subtlety is that numbers (and all mathematical ideas, for that matter) have lives of their own. We can’t control them. Even though they exist in our minds, once we decide what we mean by them we have no say in how they behave. They obey certain laws and have certain properties, personalities, and ways of combining with one another, and there’s nothing we can do about it except watch and try to understand. In that sense they are eerily reminiscent of atoms and stars, the things of this world, which are likewise subject to laws beyond our control … except that those things exist outside our heads.

This dual aspect of numbers — as part- heaven, and part- earth — is perhaps the most paradoxical thing about them, and the feature that makes them so useful. It is what the physicist Eugene Wigner had in mind when he wrote of “the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in the natural sciences.”