Farewell to Anti-Intellectualism

Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic candidate who lost two successive runs for the President's Office in the 1950s, was once told by an admirer that he had the vote of every thinking American. To which he responded, "That is not enough-- I need a majority."

The end of the gruelling election season and the rise of its charismatic winner has restored faith in politics and justice among many Americans. While the world jubilates at the falling of racial barriers, a sizeable population is hopeful that the new president will usher in an era of American intellectualism that has all but disappeared under the current occupant of the White House.

Despite the fact that the United States arguably houses the largest number of top Universities, research laboratories and other academic institutions, one of the insults that has gained ground in the last several years is the misuse, and possible abuse, of the term "elite". In sociological circles, elitism is used to describe a minority group that enjoys privileged status, usually due to the possession of power or money. Americans are somewhat unique in also using the term to describe one's educational level, with these achievements being a source of mockery in political circles. The public's preference for folksy presidents who make good beer-companions explains why highly educated presidents like Nixon and Clinton routinely self-deprecated their laurels.

While it is tempting and somewhat simplistic to point towards the prevailing infotainment culture for the intellectual black-hole that American society finds itself in, even serious media cannot be absolved of their portion of blame. One of the oddest features of the American news media that strikes an outsider is their sense of bogus objectivity which assumes truth is always equidistant from two points, according equal importance to both sides of an argument regardless of their intrinsic merits. Effects of this variety of forced impartiality result in an environment where a literal interpretation of the Old Testament, for instance, is offered as a legitimate alternative to the scientific theory of evolution. Oversimplification of issues not only robs them of their complexities and associated human costs, but also paints a picture in garish black and white which is a far cry from the colourful image it is supposed to truthfully portray.

Only time will tell if the inauguration will be a precursor to a new age of intellectual curiousity, respect for the sciences and abandonment of dogma. Of course, intellectual ability does not equate to administrative skills, as evident from the disastrous presidency of Woodrow Wilson (formerly the president of Princeton University) and the ancient reign of Emperor Nero (who literally fiddled while Rome burnt to the ground). However, there is no harm in hoping that the fullest capacity of human intellect will no longer need to be sheltered in the shadows of academic buildings. And the election of the new president, who is undeniably black and unabashedly brainy, means that history has been made in more ways than meets the eye.

Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don't stand in the doorway
Don't block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
There's a battle outside
And it is ragin'.
It'll soon shake your windows
And rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin'.
Bob Dylan, The Times They Are A-Changin'

Ramapo Trials

My first encounter with the Ramapo Indians was at the première of "Toxic Legacy" at the New Jersey Film Festival two summers ago. The documentary was produced by "The Record" to accompany the newspaper's exposé of Ford's complicity in contaminating the watersheds of northern New Jersey by dumping sludge and other industrial waste from their erstwhile Mahwah plant in the surrounding areas of Stag Hill, Hillburn and Ringwood. Coincidentally or not, all three towns have significant concentrations of these Native American Indians.

The 5000-people strong Ramapo community share their ancestry with Lenape Indians and Dutch soldiers who fought the colonists during the American Revolutionary War. After the defeat of the British, many of the mercenaries deserted their ranks and took refuge in the Ramapo mountains, where the inaccessible and inhospitable terrain shielded them from capture, but eventually isolated them from the frenetic pace of development in New York City, only thirty miles away. Although the Ramapo people formed the backbone of the mining activities that thrived in the Ringwood area, they still hold on to their traditional ways, such as fishing and hunting rabbits and deer. Their distrust of the "white man" has also been responsible for the myths circulating around them, including the pejorative use of the term "Jackson Whites" (allegedly a contraction of Jacks, or freed slaves, and Whites) in referring to them.

Even though the states of New Jersey and New York acknowledge the Ramapo as a Native American Indian tribe, they have not been granted federal recognition and all the benefits that accompany it, as a consequence of successful lobbying by big gambling interests. David Cohen's sympathetic study of the mountain people, while denying that they have direct Native Indian heritage, offers instances of the prejudice and discrimination that the Ramapo Indians have had to face, including segregated schools and churches as late as the mid-20th century. However, all these struggles pale into insignificance when compared to the injustice they have been meted out by unbridled corporate greed that has polluted their land and water. A visit to Peters Mine today, which had 17 levels and reached 2000 feet underground, is shocking not only because the huge honeycomb of shafts, tunnels and caverns has been stuffed with toxic paint sludge and automobile parts, but because it is a mere stone's throw away from the ramshackle company houses that are inhabited by the Ramapo Indians. Prolonged exposure to these pollutants has resulted in this community having a much higher incidence of cancer and asthma, even while the Environmental Protection Agency has declared the area off-bounds as a Superfund site.

The Ramapo mountain people, who had come out in full force to the film's screening, dominated the question-and-answer session with the director trying to unearth the truth behind successive mishandled government clean-up operations and repeated cover-ups by Ford. While it was heartbreaking to watch the families trying to come to terms with the greed and corruption that have wreaked havoc on their lives and livelihood, it also highlighted the need for another Erin Brockovich to take on the corporate behemoth that is responsible for this callous disregard of humanity and destruction of nature.

No, I'll not take the half,
Give me the whole sky! The far-flung earth!
Seas and rivers and mountain avalanches--
All these are mine! I'll accept no less!
Yevgeny Yevtushenko, No, I'll Not Take the Half

Godless Capitalism

Death, and taxes, have traditionally been the great levellers of society. This week, however, as news of laid-off Wall Street accountants dominated the airwaves, the vagaries of the economy emerged as a powerful equaliser of wealth. Faith in the free market may have been shaken by this financial crisis, but it also forces one to objectively reevaluate the culture of laissez-faire economics.

While frenzied fingers point in different directions to find a scapegoat, one is reminded of the old Nigerian saying that when one points a finger at somebody, there are three fingers pointing towards oneself. The current meltdown was orchestrated by the environment of deregulation that has been sweeping American markets for the last couple of decades. The theory was that competition would automatically convert a free-market into a fair-market, and a stable equilibrium would be maintained between the seller and the buyer, the employer and the employee, the lender and the borrower. Unfortunately, anybody remotely familiar with the tragedy of the commons knows that, without the supervision of a law-enforcer, human greed will always prioritise selfish gain over societal good.

The same is true for the free market. As is becoming increasingly clear, left to their own devices, the unregulated financial industry did not accomplish the goal of self-policing that would have provided long-term benefits to its employees, its shareholders and to society. On the contrary, the cumulative effect of years of malfeasance was so far-reaching that, ironically, big-government needed to be called in to save the day. Such an instance of heads-I-win-tails-you-lose would have been less likely in the presence of a government oversight body entrusted with the responsibility of raising flags for dicey transactions. Of course, a free market economy would allow a private company to make a risky investment, if it is approved by its board, but it should not expect to be saved by taxpayers if the deal sours.

Unfortunately, the ideology of deregulation is not just limited to the financial market. For instance, Nobel laureate Milton Friedman, father of modern American capitalism, had argued for the abolition of the Food and Drug Administration since, in his view, no private company would gamble with the health of its consumers. Although the FDA survived his campaign, years of budget cuts and gradual asphyxiation have rendered the watchdog as ineffective as a toothless tiger and the recent food contamination scandals demonstrate that faith in the moral compass of merchants is misplaced.

Paradoxically, most proponents of free markets, who dismiss the need for rules and regulations in the financial world, do not hesitate to sneer at a communist for believing that there is no need for a God who governs the lives of men.

I used to rule the world
Seas would rise when I gave the word
Now in the morning I sleep alone
Sweep the streets I used to own.
Coldplay, Viva la Vida

One Year Later

It has been a year since this column was begun in a myopic spurt of enthusiasm that now shows signs of waning. The frequency with which essays were thrust on an unsuspecting and democratic internet has been steadily decreasing, and every minute spent on the computer is a minute taken away from something more substantial in the constant reprioritisation that is today's urban life.

Together we have chartered all kinds of waters-- a gamut ranging from politics to sports, history to literature, and religion to popular culture. The writing has been uneven, from the spontaneous and passionate to the laborious and mundane. Through it all, the common threads have been personal experiences and selfish opinions (with the slightest attempt at impartiality) on topics that are meaningful only to the writer.

Among the kind criticisms received from various quarters, for which I am deeply grateful, is an oft-repeated question about the exact purpose of these scattered thoughts. The answer is simply a desire to cleanse the mind in a coherent and structured manner. As was indicated in the preamble, in the eyes of this beholder, a weblog is more akin to an online public diary and serves no other noble aim of either systematising all of human knowledge (à la Encyclopedia Britannica) or "to go with thee and be thy guide" (as Knowledge told Everyman in the medieval play bearing the latter's name).

Interestingly, the emerging pattern of serialising famous literary diaries in blog-form suggests that our most profound bloggers are now dead. From Samuel Pepys to George Orwell (with more projects to come undoubtedly), publishing the everyday observations of these literary stalwarts makes them intimately available to a new generation, while revealing that notwithstanding the garb of modernity and complexity, the thoughts that we think alone are not that different from those of our forefathers.

"Hear my words that I might teach you,
Take my arms that I might reach you."
But my words like silent raindrops fell
And echoed in the wells of silence.
Simon and Garfunkel, The Sound of Silence

Princess and the Pauper

One of my favourite film scenes is the press conference that Audrey Hepburn, as Princess Ann, attends in the final act of Roman Holiday. Here she follows up her earlier statement that she is aware of her responsibilities to her family and her country, with a remarkable performance that shows her torn between her royal duties and the memories of her escapade with Gregory Peck. Of course, duty prevails and she leaves a heartbroken Peck ruminating on the possibilities of the what-ifs.

Roman Holiday captured the imagination of movie-goers, not only because of the captivating performance of debutante Hepburn, but because it closely paralleled Princess Margaret's ongoing romance with an older divorcé that was frowned upon both by Buckingham Palace and the Church of England. The princess eventually brought the relationship to a close after her advisers misled her into believing that marriage would require her to give up her title.

Her uncle King Edward VIII, on the other hand, had selected affairs of the heart over affairs of the state, and surrendered his throne to marry a twice-divorced American socialite. The passage of time has morphed Edward's abdication into one of the most romantic stories of the twentieth century, but the reality (as perceived in the tumultuous thirties) was less rosy. The general consensus among members of the British Parliament and prime ministers of the Commonwealth countries was one of relief that the union was not ratified, and as it turned out, brought comfort to the English that this pro-Nazi monarch was not at the helm of the British Empire during World War II.

It is said that art imitates life. However, for those who have witnessed Hepburn's Oscar-winning characterisation in Roman Holiday, nothing is more gut-wretchingly real than the dilemma that the young princess portrays on screen. She gives up a lifetime of freedom and happiness to satisfy the archaic demands of the regal station she was born into-- donning a public façade and living vicariously via the expectations of society. Unlike Princess Margaret, she made the right decision for the right reasons. And like Princess Ann, when we face a moral crisis in our lives, it should not take the props of law or religion to realise that the more painful choice is probably the correct one.

I slept, and dreamed that life was Beauty;
I woke, and found that life was Duty.
Was thy dream then a shadowy lie?
Toil on, sad heart, courageously,
And thou shalt find thy dream to be
A noonday light and truth to thee.
Ellen Sturgis Hooper, The Dial

Fire in the Sky

Lord Macaulay had memorably observed that the puritan hated bear baiting, not because it gave pain to the bear, but because it gave pleasure to the spectators. Given that puritanism forms the backbone of much of Anglo-Saxon society, it is not surprising that this principle has survived in the West, where, with the exception of sports (which has been reduced to a business like any other), governments do not promote the kind of "irrational" activities that result in collective pleasure.

An exception is the practice of public fireworks display, be it on the anniversary of America's independence or Guy Fawkes Night in England. Fortuitous circumstances led to my spending this Fourth of July with my sister in the New England area, where after much deliberation, we decided to join half a million Bostonians to view 16,000 pounds of explosives literally go up in smoke!

The Boston Commons was a sight to behold, as thousands of enthusiastic families lay scattered all over the park, with or without a sheet to protect themselves from the damp grass. The picnic mood was accentuated by the cool breeze blowing in from the Charles river, while the variety of colour and costume was a study in contrasts, skewed somewhat by the presence of Chinatown a stone's throw away. As adults huddled together and children roamed around in gay abandon, the crowded scene appeared to be an artist's macabre interpretation of William Blake's Songs of Experience and Songs of Innocence.

However as soon as the first firework launched skyward shattering the darkness in a wild explosion of colour, every pair of wakeful eyes fixed itself to the unfolding spectacle like a well-trained orchestra following the baton of an invisible conductor. And the synchronized exclamation of delight escaping from unanimous lips is possibly the most rewarding sound an artist can hope to hear. In that instant, one could feel the kinship between humans as they stood in awe before mysterious forces greater than themselves that have haunted their primitive ancestors forever-- the seductive strength of beauty and the primeval power of fire.

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favour fire.
Robert Frost, Fire and Ice

New Record

A long-standing desire was fulfilled last week when Coldplay released their new album Viva la Vida. Regular readers of this column are aware of my love for the long-playing record and one of my regrets has always been that, due to the limited release of vinyls nowadays, the days of queueing for a new album on the day of release have eluded me. Now that records are making a phoenix-like comeback (with rampant re-releases), record companies are not averse to the risk of launching albums simultaneously on vinyl and CD.

The revival of the LP in the age of MP3 may appear anachronistic, as is the growing legion of listeners who are rediscovering the warmer sound of turntables compared to the cold precision of digital music. According to Nielsen Soundscan, almost a million LPs were purchased in the United States alone in 2007, while over half a million turntables were sold. These numbers exclude the sale of used albums and record players that has always flourished on eBay and local record stores.

When the sale of vinyl records was eclipsed by the audio cassette for the first time in 1983, not only was an inferior audio technology crowned king, but it also paved the path for copying of music either from vinyl or another cassette. The high hiss and low signal-to-noise ratio of tapes meant that the cassette was never the format of choice for purists, while the sequential access to tracks ruled out its use in discotheques and radio stations. However, the compact size of the cassette popularised its use in cars, and provided a welcome alternative to radio on long commutes. Given its technical deficiencies, however, it was not surprising that the cassette ceded its leadership position in less than a decade to the compact disc, a more worthy successor to the LP. But as music formats "evolved", the already high and bright sound of CDs was further exacerbated as digitally compressed music began gaining popularity in the last few years.

Ironically, it may be the venerable long-playing record that pulls out the music industry from the prolonged depression that was onset by the simplicity of illegal copying. While turntables that allow conversion of albums from analogue to MP3 are now available, vinyl buyers pay a premium price for the sound quality of LPs and are less likely to settle for a recorded copy on tape or MP3.

Record companies are also being forced to think outside the box (or outside the case for CDs!) to regain the loyalty of music lovers and prevent themselves becoming obsolete. The success of iTunes and Amazon's MP3 store has made physical albums redundant to a vast majority of young listeners, and with groups like British rock band Radiohead allowing the buyer to name their own price for music downloads (zero dollars is also an option), the equation between the artist and the consumer is constantly being redefined. It was interesting to see Coldplay's LP include a copy of the CD inside the box (for in-car use), and it is hoped that this is a model that more and more labels will begin to adopt. Not to mention that this would allow millions of audiophiles to have their cake and eat it too!

I went down to the sacred store
Where I’d heard the music years before,
But the man there said the music wouldn’t play.
Don McLean, American Pie

Musical Prodigy

In 1929, after listening to a violin recital by a thirteen-year artist, a Nobel prize winning physicist rushed backstage and exclaimed, "Now I know that there is a God in heaven." The child prodigy was Yehudi Menuhin and the Nobel laureate was Albert Einstein.

Music, more than any other art or science (with the possible exception of mathematics and chess), has had its unfair share of child prodigies or wunderkinds (German for "wonder child"). Classical composers like Mozart and Chopin, Liszt and Bizet had all performed publicly before hitting their teenage years. In fact, legend has it that six-year old Mozart had proposed marriage to the future Queen Marie Antoinette after performing before the Austrian royal family!

Child prodigy accounts trigger the age-old debate between nature and nurture. In several cases, parents of prodigies are involved in the same field as their offspring and goad them to follow in their footsteps at an early age; for instance, Picasso's father was an artist, Mozart's father was a musician, and Nijinsky's parents were dancers. There is no doubt that family conditioning plays an important role in the prodigy phenomenon, as does the greater environment, which would explain the abundance of young chess champions in Russia, gymnasts in eastern Europe and musicians among Jewish families. A more recent trend has been to discover young talents in Asia, where hard work is still venerated and discipline is more stringent than in the liberal west. It should also be remembered that the prodigies we read or hear about are only those who have been brought to the limelight of publicity by families or schools capitalising on, or even exploiting, the savant's skillset, while there may be an iceberg's worth of latent talents immersed below the surface.

All these thoughts come to mind as I read about Robert Vijay Gupta becoming the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra's youngest violinist at the age of twenty. Almost ten years ago, I had the good fortune of attending young Gupta's solo recital at the Calcutta Town Hall. The city's celebrities had come out in full force to witness the precocious child's talents, and were silenced by the poise and self-confidence with which he regaled the audience. Standing on a platform so he may be visible above the conductor, Gupta's tiny fingers flew across the strings of his Stradivarius even as his no-nonsense face reflected an expression of adult intensity. To this day I remember the night like a Cinderella fantasy, with the crumbling venue made resplendent in its original Doric grandeur, and a ten-year-old prodigy leading the Calcutta Chamber Orchestra with the same Sarasate piece that the Spanish artist himself had played at St James Hall in the presence of Sherlock Holmes.

Sociologists often make a distinction between an extremely gifted child who mimics existing art at an early age, and one who has a highly-focused talent along with a powerful drive to develop it as she matures. Usually only time can reveal which category a wunderkind belongs to. In the case of Gupta, given that he has also picked up a pre-medical degree at seventeen, let us hope that his motivation for music may make him a modern Mozart.

For the first twenty years you are still growing
Bodily that is: as a poet, of course,
You are not born yet. It's the next ten
You cut your teeth on to emerge smirking
For your brash courtship of the muse.
R S Thomas, To a Young Poet

Let Them Eat Rice

The world took umbrage at the US President's recent remark that increased consumption by the prospering Indian middle class, as well as other developing countries, is responsible for the emerging global food crisis. The Indian minister of state for commerce pointed out that the President is not known for his knowledge of economics, to which one may add that he is not acquainted with the art of diplomacy either. However tempting (and visceral) it may be to criticise the misguided attempt to impugn a sovereign nation, let us take a closer look at the statement and separate the wheat from the chaff.

It cannot be denied that the economies of India and China have been growing by leaps and bounds and one of the main beneficiaries of this upturn is the huge middle class, but this decade-long trend can hardly be held liable for the recent spike in food prices. Economists agree that a change in consumption pattern, particularly transitioning from a vegetarian diet to a meat-based diet, is not without consequences since it takes about 6 kilogrammes of grain to produce a kilogramme of meat. However, this changed behaviour of edible grain being diverted for fodder is more of a phenomenon in today's China (where increased wealth has made meat affordable to many people), than India where religion and not wealth (or health) influences eating habits. To digress onto a subject that deserves its own essay, it is interesting that the religions native to India placed importance on the sanctity of animals that were needed to irrigate the land in an (historically) agrarian nation.

Similarly, the argument that globalisation has benefited Indian farmers goes completely against the grain of ground reality. Dictates from the WTO have in fact forced India to import wheat and soya at inflated prices despite a surplus of produce in the country. While this has resulted in the loss of livelihood for millions of coconut, mustard, sesame, linseed and groundnut farmers, it also replaced India's traditional edible oils with unhealthy and genetically engineered oils like palm and soya oil. In addition, deplorable arm-twisting tactics by biotech companies like Monsanto (which developed a GM strain called Terminator that sterilises natural seeds in plants making farmers dependent on the company for seeds) has bankrupted farmers who cannot afford the cost of seeds each year and is culpable for a string of suicides across southern India.

There are three undisputed reasons for the rise of food prices in the United States. The first is the myth of biofuel as an energy policy-- with increased government subsidy for corn-based ethanol, it is in the short-term interest of farmers to raise cash crops, rather than food crops, especially in the face of soaring gas prices. This folly was pointed out in the World Economic Outlook by the International Monetary Fund: "Although biofuels still account for only 1.5% of the global liquid fuel supply, they accounted for almost half of the increase in consumption of major food crops in 2006-07, mostly because of corn-based ethanol produced in the US." The second reason is the weakening US dollar in the international market, which is a poor bargaining chip for the many grains that are imported into the country. The decision by some countries, including India, to raise customs duty on food exports in anticipation of hoarding also hit the Americans. Finally, the meteoric rise of gas prices (diesel is hovering around $5/gallon), in a country with an under-developed electric railway network, meant that the end-consumer had to foot the bill for hauling food items in trucks from one state to another.

What usually remains unsaid in food debates is the tragic effect of the West's successful export of its fast-food culture as a desirable ritual, despite dubious nutritional value and its fait accompli in the rise of obesity. Unfortunately, underfunded government health agencies are no match for the muscle of marketing dollars, with the result that India and China now present a strange dichotomy-- the poor are worse off because of lower agricultural produce, while the middle-class are worse off because of increasing quantities of processed and junk-food.

There is a sufficiency in the world for every man's need, but not for every man's greed.
Mohandas Gandhi

Just Not Cricket

Shashi Tharoor drew the ire of New York Times readers when he wrote a column analyzing American disdain for cricket, concluding that "the notion that anyone would watch a game that, in its highest form, could take five days and still end in a draw provokes widespread disbelief among results-oriented Americans." A colonial game that dates back to the sixteenth century (and still uses terms like "silly point" and "fine leg" in all seriousness), cricket has evolved through the ages to make it less time-consuming and yes, more result-oriented. Unfortunately in its latest incarnation, the Twenty20, the game seems to have set back the evolutionary clock, reducing a once-elegant sport to a fast and furious version of itself that is played in an environment resembling a cross between a circus and a carnival.

There was a time (not so long ago) when cricket was all it took to attract spectators to stadiums, students to sick-days, and sponsors to television. Ever since the limited-overs version of the game was introduced in the late-sixties, a result was all but guaranteed at the end of the day, leading to the debut of the four-yearly World Cup tournament in 1975. However, as the public's attention span began to wither and wilt (no doubt conditioned by faster games like football and tennis), organisers flirted with the idea of 20-over matches that would produce a result in less than three hours.

By the time this abridged version of the game reached its adopted motherland, India, it had become a potent cocktail of cricket, Bollywood and celebrity shows geared towards prime-time television. The inaugural match of the current Indian Premier League (complete with high-stake contracts like its English namesake) was hosted in Bangalore and featured cheerleaders from America, stilt-walkers from Holland, stunt acrobats from Germany and laser operators from Malaysia. There must have been some irony in that the modern mecca of outsourcing had to fly in entertainers from different parts of the world to promote the tournament! While purists debate whether this entertainment package devalues the devotion of the cricket-watching public, there is no denying that many of these distractions (such as cheerleaders, or utsaah-utpaadak-pradarshak naari, a Hindi translation proposed by a professor at NYU's Stern School of Business) were unnecessary in a region where cricket-worship already borders on religious fanaticism. This is also symbolic of the transformation of the game at more fundamental levels-- firstly, teams in the league cut across national identities which is an experiment that has not been attempted in cricket outside of exhibition matches, and secondly, it demonstrates how British cultural influence on the game as played in India is gradually being replaced by American superficiality.

All this brouhaha makes one feel sorry for the late Kerry Packer whose World Series Cricket was often mocked as "pyjama cricket" for espousing colourful uniforms and day-and-night matches. In comparison to the indignity that is Twenty20, the World Series may be compared to a benign first circle of Dante's Inferno, and only time will tell whether the modern version of the game will gain as wide an acceptance as the Packer Circus eventually did.

If the wild bowler thinks he bowls,
Or if the batsman thinks he's bowled,
They know not, poor misguided souls,
They too shall perish unconsoled.
I am the batsman and the bat,
I am the bowler and the ball,
The umpire, the pavilion cat,
The roller, pitch, and stumps, and all.
Andrew Lang, Brahma

Emasculating the Media

Many Asian cultures have parables about a frog-in-the-well (kupamanduka in Sanskrit), an idiom that is not as common in the United States. This is ironic, since it is actually a very apt description for the American media, and the role they have played in creating an insular society that is largely ignorant of global events. For a visitor from any land of thriving media, watching the local news in the USA is an exercise in despair as the focus is more on entertaining and extolling the excruciating minutiae of the neighbourhood, rather than a genuine desire to inform the public.

One of the reasons for the abysmal record of the American media to act as independent checks of the political and legislative wings of the government is that they are owned by corporations who owe allegiance to the administration to continue currying favours. This is true both of the print media, where consolidation is increasingly the order of the day, and of broadcast where General Electric, the Walt Disney Company and Rupert Murdoch's News Corp own three of the biggest players. This complicity was exposed all too clearly last month when a Pulitzer-worthy New York Times investigation revealed that the Pentagon had plotted a propaganda campaign with these news corporations to deceive Americans about the status of the occupation of Iraq. Not surprisingly, this disclosure has been all but blacked out by the corporate media.

This failure of the Fourth Estate to challenge the government li(n)e makes one appreciate the vigorous Press that is present in India and the constructive role they have played in exposing scandals and kickbacks that would otherwise never have seen the light of day. An alert and unbiased media raises an awareness among people that is vital for a strong democracy, and the wide variety of newspapers thriving in India is an indication of the health of the state. However, there is also a subtle difference between an impartial reporting of news (performed quite capably by London's free newspapers, for instance) and taking a principled stand against injustice at great personal risk (attempted by the truly great). One cannot but acclaim the role played by The Statesman and Indian Express, in this regard, who stood up against Indira Gandhi's declaration of emergency in 1975-1977 and criticised it in unambiguous words-- the Government retaliated by blocking advertisements and bringing them close to financial ruin, but not once did these two newspapers houses yield to the pressure tactics.

Stories like these are few and far between in today's environment of superficial newsbites and anticipatory compliance, especially in the Western hemisphere which, ironically, has traditionally accused Communist leadership of such nepotism, propaganda and deceit. The recent debate between American presidential contenders is a case in point, where a pair of prejudiced moderators encouraged comments on non-issues for the better part of an hour, while touching upon plebeian concerns only as a rapid-fire questionnaire in the dying minutes. Happily, there is reason to rejoice in the knowledge that vocal viewers rejected this shameful display as an affront to their intelligence and complained in large numbers and in no-uncertain terms, leading one to wonder (with apologies to Carl Sandburg), "What if they called a debate, and nobody came?" The irrelevance and irreverence displayed by many of these so-called purveyors of American media do a grave disservice to the hallowed school of journalism and contribute to the disdain and distrust for mainstream media. This alienation also pushes readers to seek alternative news sources on the Internet that match one's political leanings-- not because these websites respect the sanctity of facts, but because they contribute to preserving one's ideological bubble.

But does not, though the name Parliament subsists, the parliamentary debate go on now, everywhere and at all times, in a far more comprehensive way, out of Parliament altogether? Burke said there were Three Estates in Parliament; but, in the Reporters' Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important far than they all. It is not a figure of speech, or a witty saying; it is a literal fact,--very momentous to us in these times.
Thomas Carlyle, On Heroes and Hero Worship

Resting in Peace

There is something romantic about old cemeteries. Whether it is the sobering symbolism of socialism in action, or the visual stimulus of ancient crypts, the thought that the hallowed ground inters the bones of generations long gone sends a primitive shiver through the body, reminding one of the mortality and equality of Man.

It is particularly humbling to be at the grave site of a personal hero, and be re-inspired by the work and contribution that have lived on long after the creator is gone. In that light, I have always wanted to visit the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris (resting place of Chopin, Bizet, Marcel Marceau, J R D Tata and Oscar Wilde), Basilica di Santa Croce in Florence (resting place of Galileo, Machiavelli and Michelangelo) and London's Westminster Abbey (home to Newton, Darwin, Dickens and Lord Tennyson among many other literary greats).

One of my favourite burial grounds is the Princeton Cemetery. Small and intimate like the town, this eighteenth century cemetery has been described as the "Westminster Abbey of the United States", and has its share of scientists and mathematicians, thanks largely in part to the drawing power of the nearby Institute of Advanced Study (IAS).

Although there are no literary stalwarts resting at Princeton, it is home to Sylvia Beech, the founder of the Shakespeare and Company bookstore and lending library in Paris, who took the risk of publishing James Joyce's Ulysses when no other publisher dared approach the controversial manuscript. While the English speaking world owes her a debt of gratitude for this courageous decision, the book proved to be her bête noire as it put her in a debt from which she never recovered, especially when Joyce took the book to Bodley Head after its striking success, thereby stranding Beech financially and cutting her off from the book's royalties.

The unassuming tombstone of John von Neumann is my biggest draw at the Princeton cemetery. Within a stone's throw away from Kurt Gödel, the grave is difficult to locate even with a map, and is almost unworthy of the role played by von Neumann in fields as diverse as mathematics, computer science and quantum mechanics (sadly, he was also a member of the Manhattan Project and had proposed Kyoto as the target of the bomb; this was overruled in favour of Hiroshima and Nagasaki). Despite his immense contributions to the architecture of modern computers, the lasting bone of contention today is whether von Neumann was first and foremost a mathematician or a physicist. One of the stories that my college physics teacher enjoyed telling, in the context of discussing a Resnick-Halliday problem about the total distance travelled by a bird flying back and forth between two approaching trains, was that von Neumann had confounded scholars by solving a similar problem using the long-winded mathematician's approach (forming an infinite geometric series) but faster than the quicker common-sense physicist's strategy (calculating the time elapsed before the trains collide and multiplying it by the bird's constant speed)!

Von Neumann, Gödel and Einstein were among the first set of faculty members hired by the newly formed IAS in 1930, allegedly as an asylum for Jewish émigré who were refused positions at Princeton University because of its anti-Semitic policies. Stories abound about Einstein and Gödel walking to work during the summer months, and even today driving past Einstein's simple house at 112 Mercer Street is an inspiring experience.

Einstein himself was not buried. After his brain was removed and preserved for scientific research, his body was cremated and ashes scattered in the nearby Raritan river. Interestingly, during the ceremony, lines from a half-forgotten elegy were repeated: "He gleams like some departing meteor bright/Combining, with his own, eternal light." This dirge had been written by the grief-stricken Goethe for his friend Friedrich Schiller, whose Ode to Joy was put to music by Beethoven in his Ninth Symphony, and which Einstein would play on his piano (he was adept at it in addition to the violin). Thus, Einstein's funeral miraculously combined elements from some of his greatest compatriots, and was a fitting farewell to a man who had claimed if not a physicist, he would probably have been a musician.

The glories of our blood and state
Are shadows not substantial things;
There is no armour against Fate;
Death lays his icy hand on kings:
Sceptre and Crown
Must tumble down,
And in the dust be equal made
With the poor crooked scythe and spade.

James Shirley, Death the Leveller

Dial M for Moriarty

Any child growing up with Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats may be forgiven for thinking that T S Eliot is the master par excellence of children's literature, a post-modern cross between Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear. Indeed, this slim volume's whimsical verses have delighted children and adults alike, especially after Andrew Lloyd Webber adapted the poems for his musical hit Cats, and introduced us to the hitherto hidden world of complex cat-names. Who would have thought that the felines we trivially call Tabby or Kitty or Pussy, are actually named Mungojerrie or Deuteronomy or Skimbleshanks? And of all the cats that have captured our imagination, none is more infamous than Macavity, the mystery cat.

What is less known is that Macavity, the criminal mastermind behind every domestic disturbance and national crisis, was modelled after Professor Moriarty, Sherlock Holmes' arch nemesis. Not only did they resemble each other physically (tall and thin with high domed foreheads and reptilian body movements), but even intellectually they shared a similar interest in mathematics.

Moriarty, who was born to a respectable family and received an upper class education, won acclaim and adulation at the early age of twenty-one with his Treatise on the Binomial Theorem and the subsequent publication of his esoteric tome, The Dynamics of an Asteroid. These were instrumental in catapulting him to a wider European audience and raised him to the Chair of Mathematics at a small English university. He was however forced to resign his position after it became apparent that his academic robe was a facade for his role as Mafia Godfather of the criminal underworld.

Since his death on May 4, 1891, literally in the hands of Holmes at the Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland (the actual spot is immortalised by a plaque), speculation has been rife as to the true identity of Professor Moriarty and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's inspiration for the character. Disregarding the school of thought that believes that Holmes and Moriarty are one and the same (since Watson never actually meets Moriarty, it is alleged that Holmes created this alter-ego to relieve his tedium), the scientific works on which Moriarty's academic credentials rest are similar to Srinivasa Ramanujan's generalisations of the binomial theorem and Carl Friedrich Gauss' paper on the orbit of the planetoid Ceres Ferdinandea. Even as the Journal of British Astronomical Association bemoaned in a 1993 article that Britain's greatest criminal was regretfully a member of the astronomy community, it also revealed that Moriarty may have been modelled after astronomer Simon Newcomb, just as Moriarty's henchman Sebastian Moran was inspired by Newcomb's professional peer Alfred Drayson.

Another interesting parallel is drawn by Holmes scholar, H R F Keating, who highlights a biographical similarity between Professor Moriarty and German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, a contemporary who gained the Chair of Classical Philology at the University of Basel at the age of twenty-four, but had to resign it due to his deteriorating health and unconventional ideas ("God is dead"). Holmes himself has compared Moriarty with eighteenth century thief-taker Jonathan Wild, while the expression "Napoleon of Crime", used by Holmes to describe Moriarty, was actually reserved by Scotland Yard for Adam Worth, a German-born gentleman criminal.

Whatever be the antecedents and pedigree of Moriarty and Macavity, their exploits have spiced up the annals of criminology, offering timeless thrills to readers, and may have caused Satyajit Ray to christen his detective Feluda's sworn adversary, Maganlal Meghraj, with the letter M.

Macavity's a ginger cat, he's very tall and thin;
You would know him if you saw him, for his eyes are sunken in.
His brow is deeply lined with thought, his head is highly domed;
His coat is dusty from neglect, his whiskers are uncombed.
He sways his head from side to side, with movements like a snake;
And when you think he's half asleep, he's always wide awake.

T S Eliot, Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats

Bengali Buffet

It is said that the easiest way to a man's heart is through his stomach. Nowhere is this more true than in the state of Bengal, where the proverbial thirteen festivals in twelve months fall short of the excuses needed to eat, drink and be merry (for tomorrow we diet!).

Bengali hospitality centres around the culinary satisfaction of the guest, and no stone is left unturned (or dish left unstirred) towards this objective. Long hours of labour, patience and ingenuity are of the essence in the preparation of Bengali cuisine, and the slightest error is likely to tarnish the subtle interplay of nuanced flavours that characterise a delicacy. The final product can neither be stored for long periods nor be repeatedly heated without destroying the taste, and is not easy to reproduce on a large scale, which explained the dearth of authentic Bengali restaurants while growing up in Calcutta (a notable exception was Suruchi on Eliot Road, a small diner run by a women's group that rehabilitated destitute women).

Today the number of expensive restaurants in Calcutta purporting to serve Bengali food is proliferating, with film and sports celebrities venturing into the catering business, either as entrepreneurs or endorsers. While one cannot but feel proud that Bengali food is carving a niche for itself in the limited commercial space available for fine cuisine, the fact that these eateries are frequented by Bengalis or their guests indicates that the timeless art of cooking traditional food is dying out in Bengali households. Fast lives and nuclear families have long taken a toll on dinner rituals, simplifying the process and occasionally modernising social mores (such as allowing ladies to eat along with men, instead of having them sit and serve). However, the rigid rules associated with the sequence in which courses are laid out (typically in small silver or brass bowls surrounding the main plate) or the manner in which the food is partaken (one's social background can be interpreted from the way the fingers are employed in eating) are so sophisticated that they would not seem out of place at a royal table, and that is why the very thought of a Bengali buffet in a crowded restaurant seems almost like an oxymoron.

My hunt for a Bengali restaurant in the United States came to a delightful halt last weekend when my sister took me to a humble hole-in-the-wall in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Catering mainly to the expatriate student population in and around Harvard and MIT, the little restaurant, run by a middle-aged couple hailing from Calcutta's suburbs, also draws Indian and foreign connoisseurs from different parts of the country. Small enough to provide an intimate setting without appearing claustrophobic, the restaurant embodies function over form (songs of Tagore in the background being the only indulgence), and we devoured the delectable taste of authentic Bengali dishes like the parched earth soaks up rain. While the restaurateur brought the choicest pieces of ilish maachh (hilsa fish) to our table and regaled us with stories of her immigrant experience, the mood created by the language, the music and the aroma transported us in time and place to a nostalgic past and left us begging for more.

The most sophisticated transmutation of milk in Bengal has been in the form of infinitely varied sweets, some made at home and some professionally. Certainly, no other region in India has shown such passionate absorption in sweets and appreciation of subtlety or variety in their preparation. The plump Bengali with his sweet tooth takes seriously the ancient Sanskrit recommendation, madhurena samapayet-- a meal should be finished with something sweet-- to the heights of finicky epicureanism.
Chitrita Banerji, Bengali Cooking

Falling From Love

A friend finalised her divorce last week. Barely three years after proclaiming eternal love until death did them apart, the couple were explaining irreconcilable differences to an indifferent judge. Having wisened up to the machinations of love, and the lack thereof, I learnt that the proceedings were quite civil by today's standards, since many modern marriages end not with a whimper but a bang (usually accompanied by a verbal airing of dirty linen in public).

Cynics over the centuries, who have defined love as a state of temporary insanity, did not know how close they were to the truth until February 2006 when National Geographic featured a Rutgers anthropologist's study of brain chemistry suggesting infatuation was akin to a mental illness. However, a momentary lapse of reason does not explain why some marriages succeed and many do not. In this age of instant gratification, a courtship is often as violent in its intensity as it is swift towards its consummation, with the result that partners remain perfect strangers when the passion subsides. This has not only had an enormous emotional impact on the adult psyche, but has also resulted in a situation where the government's Centre for Disease Control finds one in four American teenage girls infected with a sexually transmitted disease.

Several societies believe that marriages are not made, but arranged, in heaven. In India, where the practice of arranged marriages is still widely prevalent, the rate of divorces is much lower (although creeping up in tune with the winds of globalisation). Occidentals are quick to criticise the system claiming that it robs the individual of an opportunity to evaluate their partner. On the contrary, a modern "arranged marriage" encourages communication between the prospective partners whose meeting is merely facilitated by family or friends, and is not much different from relying on a prop like the club, the Church or online classified listings to make the initial contact. The other criticism about family or financial pressure coercing young women into unwanted unions is also less relevant today-- as a friend recently explained, the instinct for survival is far too strong in the human heart to agree to a match one is intuitively against, and one does not need to possess the strength of character of an Elizabeth Bennet in such a situation to stand up against Lady Catherine de Bourgh.

Ultimately, one wonders if the romanticised image of love is at odds with the English idioms that describe it. "Falling in love" is suggestive of an activity as undesirable as falling in debt (or even an open manhole!), while "falling out" mirrors the notion of a disagreement without as far-reaching a consequence. Perhaps the importance of love can be better conveyed by expressions like "rising in love" and "falling from love"-- literally, one can visualise rising like Icarus until the heat of passion becomes overpowering, or falling from the heavens like a chastised Lucifer.

You want her, you need her,
And yet you don't believe her
When she says her love is dead,
You think she needs you.
And in her eyes you see nothing,
No sign of love behind the tears
Cried for no one,
A love that should have lasted years.

The Beatles, For No One

Peace de Résistance

The peace symbol has turned fifty! And while we are not any closer to world peace than we were at its birth, the fact that it is now a universally recognised sign (with its own Unicode keystroke, hexadecimal 262E) is a just cause for celebration.

Ironically, the symbol was not created as a peace sign. It was designed by an English anti-nuclear activist named Gerald Holtom for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), whose first president was Sir Bertrand Russell. The symbol is a combination of the semaphore flags for "N" and "D", representing "nuclear disarmament". The sign made its debut during the Easter weekend in 1958 when nuclear protesters marched from London to Aldermaston to oppose the perceived British eagerness to join the nuclear arms race (Britain carried out a series of nuclear tests, code-named Operation Grapple, in 1957-58). The "peace" buttons adorning the sign during the march were made of fired porcelain, symbolising the fact that clay would be among the few human artifacts to survive a nuclear inferno.

The metamorphosis of the symbol from nuclear disarmament to peace protests, is due in part to Martin Luther King, Jr, who borrowed it for the American civil rights movement. It became closely associated with peace when a freshman at the University of Chicago brought back one of the porcelain buttons from London, and convinced the Student Peace Union to embrace it as their symbol. As America got itself embroiled in Vietnam, the popularity of the peace symbol shot up overnight, with even conscientious objectors in the military chalking the sign on their helmets.

In the history of human symbolism, one cannot overstate the importance of simplicity, and the role it plays in public acceptance. Cases in point include Churchill's "V" sign for victory (also adapted as a peace sign by the hippie movement), and the clenched fist sign popularised by the Black Panther Party as a symbol of defiance. The peace symbol falls in the same category (with proportions more flexible than the similar Mercedes-Benz crest, it can be drawn accurately even by a child), and this explains why its popularity has eclipsed the Judeo-Christian peace symbol of a white dove carrying an olive branch.

Unfortunately, because the peace symbol is closely identified with its political pedigree, it has not crossed the line of establishmentarian acceptance the way that doves are released in a symbolic gesture at the Olympics, or "extending an olive branch" has become a mainstream diplomatic expression. On the one hand, it has drawn the ire and mockery of the war-baiting fundamentalist right-wing, who (using a creative stretch of the imagination) describe it as the "footprint of the American chicken", suggesting that protesters are cowards. On the other, it has made in-roads into the world of advertising and commerce, and is increasingly visible as a fashion appendage, in part because the symbol was never subject to copyright (the CND continues to believe that a symbol for freedom should be free for all). However, as long as the sign is continued to be used (and worn) in the spirit in which it was designed-- to make an individual statement against mutually assured destruction-- publicity for peace will do less harm than good.

Everybody's talking about ministers,
Sinisters, banisters and canisters,
Bishops and fishops, and Rabbis and Popeyes,
And bye-byes, bye-byes.
All we are saying is give peace a chance
All we are saying is give peace a chance.

John Lennon, Give Peace a Chance

Yesterday Once More

One of the highlights of this past weekend was embarking on a magical memory tour thanks to The Darjeeling Limited, a lyrical comedy that is also a light-hearted allegory of letting go of one's earthly possessions (portrayed as baggage in the movie) in the quest for absolute freedom. The soundtrack benefits heavily from various films of Satyajit Ray, to whom director Wes Anderson dedicates the movie. The incongruity of these timeless tunes blaring from a modern Hollywood movie is made somewhat palatable by the director's sensitive handling of the rich visual innuendos of Indian society. But what really caught me by surprise was the central role played by a half-forgotten ditty, "Where Do You Go To (My Lovely)", both in the movie, and in its short prequel Hotel Chevalier.

"Where Do You Go To (My Lovely)" was a 1969 single by one-hit wonder Peter Sarstedt, an Anglo-Indian pop singer/writer who spent his childhood in Calcutta and Kurseong (which is near Darjeeling!). His ballad about an attractive society girl of humble origins (often wrongly identified as Sophia Lauren), set to a wistful faux-French waltz tune, seemed to embody the ultimate European jet-setter's life to my juvenile ears, and I would wait with boyish anticipation for its rare broadcast on All India Radio's "Musical Bandbox" on Sunday afternoons. As I look back now, the thrill of those days is heightened by the fact that the state-run radio station would play the unedited version of the song (very daring for a corporation that was otherwise trapped in Victorian morality), including the verse that prudish American labels consider too incendiary for mainstream playback to this day (it was also excised from The Darjeeling Limited):

"You're in between twenty and thirty,
A very desirable age,
Your body is firm and inviting,
But you live on a glittering stage."

Being able to add the extremely rare 45 rpm single "Where Do You Go To (My Lovely)/Morning Mountain" to my record collection was an adventure in itself. In the leisurely student days of my youth, when time was at a surplus and disposable money at a premium, I used to scour the advertisements for estate sales in the Sunday classifieds in the hope of coming across uncommon records at an affordable price. One such listing led me to a nineteenth-century colonial mansion in central Calcutta, whose wealthy occupants were moving to a modern flat in a fashionable locality, and were auctioning off items that would seem archaic or superfluous amidst their new lifestyle. The sale catalogue listed a huge record collection, that included the single my heart was set on. Despite my best efforts, I could not persuade the auctioneer, Russell Exchange, to allow the single to be sold individually, and I stood helpless as the complete set of records was sold at a price that I could never hope to challenge on my meagre budget. At the end of the auction, I gathered all my courage (and my savings) and approached the winning bidder with the intention of buying the single from his recently acquired stack of vinyl albums. To the proverb that fortune favours the bold, I would add that it also favours the young, for the old gentleman (who, I suspect, was more of a classical music enthusiast) rewarded my tenacity by gifting me the record with a nod and a wink!

I often wonder why this song continues to discover new audiences, in spite of its somewhat trite lyrics and pretentious name-dropping, and can only conclude the reason is that it allows a jilted lover to come to terms with the loss of the unattainable ("desire of the moth for the star", as Shelley would say). After all, unlike the over-simplification of a silver-screen love-triangle that is inevitably resolved in favour of the hero (the good guy!), in real-life one courts one's beloved in competition with rivals who are often just as good, noble and qualified. Thus, a rejection, although not indicative of one's deficiencies, may have the unfortunate consequence of sending the loser into a spiral of depression and low self-esteem. By contrast, in daring the object of one's affection to "remember just who you are / Then go and forget me forever", this song allows the vanquished to adopt a moral high ground by pretending that one's life could be better off because, not despite, of the unbearable loss. It may be a cynical, scornful and unhealthy attitude, but it is effective under certain circumstances.

I'd sit alone and watch your light,
My only friend through teenage nights,
And everything I had to know
I heard it on my radio.
Queen, Radio Ga Ga

Scents and Sensibility

The famous Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot, thought he had an ace up his sleeve in Five Little Pigs when he waved a scented handkerchief to trigger memories in one of his suspects. Modern research suggests that he would have had a better chance of success if he had, in fact, done it while his target was in deep slumber.

The results of a controlled experiment, published in the journal Science last year, showed that the smell of roses-- delivered to people’s nostrils as they studied and, later, as they slept-- improved their performance on a memory test by about 13 percent. It is now only a matter of time before an entrepreneur exploits the commercial possibilities of this finding by promising struggling students the elixir of memorability.

Smell is said to be the most primitive of our senses, and olfactory senses follow a more direct path to the hippocampus, which is the brain's memory archive, compared to other sensory perceptions like sight and sound which are pre-processed by the thalamus. Since deep sleep is the state when the brain most effectively records each day's memories in the hippocampus, the burst of a previous fragrance at this time reactivates the same set of neurons that had fired when the fact was first observed by the cortex, the thinking part of the brain.

Other studies claim that memories triggered by a scent are not any more accurate than memories triggered by other stimuli, but they are more emotional. This could be a result of conditioning, where every smell or odour has a personal positive or negative connotation to the individual. For instance, someone who is first exposed to the smell of lilies at a funeral is likely to have negative associations with that smell all her life, whereas the perfume worn by a loved one elicits excitement even on others.

One of the challenges of fragrance research, at least to my mind, is that smell is a difficult variable to control, define and reproduce in the laboratory. Unlike colours that can be defined by a red-blue-green ratio, or sound that can be defined by a pitch-loudness-timbre triplet, scent is still a subjective sense that can best be described by comparison with common everyday smells. That would explain advertisements for room fresheners that evoke clean laundry or green meadows-- borrowing from visual stimuli and depending on cross-association.

If fragrance could be quantified by a cold calculating mathematical number, it would sound the death-knell of the perfume industry-- after all, Calvin Klein could no more patent a smell than Sherwin-Williams can copyright a colour or EMI can register a note. In fact, if you will indulge my cynicism, unlike a painting which is merely a sequence of colour-codes in two-dimensional space, and music which is a linear sequence of notes in time, a smell is a more prosaic presence frozen in the here and now.

All alone in the moonlight,
I can smile at the old days,
I was beautiful then.
I remember the time I knew what happiness was,
Let the memory live again.
Andrew Lloyd Webber, Cats

Flower Power Failure

The fortieth anniversary of The Beatles' pathbreaking Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album last year gave birth to a virtual cottage industry of nostalgic journalists comparing today's events with those of four decades ago. Sure there are a few superficial similarities between 1968 and 2008 (America embroiled in an unpopular war abroad, for instance), but analysts are misreading the zeitgeist if they expect this generation to react to the political turbulence in the same way as the late lamented flower power children.

The flower power movement is arguably the most misunderstood of the sixties' legacies, being reviled equally by the left and the right. It has been accused of being cultish and immoral, ornamental and repulsive, substance lacking and substance abusing. The ambiguity in pigeonholing this mass community movement is evidence that it was nothing like anything before. While being readily embraced by counter-culture media like the Berkeley Barb, it remained relatively insulated from the passions being unleashed in Paris where students were flirting with a violent mix of Molotov cocktails.

In fact, flower power opposed the politics not only of the mainstream but also of the left. Hippies saw the confrontation tactics and mass demonstration of the anti-war movement as a mirror of the status quo, and attacked the Establishment with methods that were more evocative of Gandhian ahimsa. In one of the most poignant photographs of the era, flower children can be seen not only standing impassively before fully armed National Guards, but inserting flowers in the barrels of rifles that are pointed at them.

The movement realised that government policies were not the only forms of oppression that needed to be challenged-- liberation of the mind should impact both the workplace and the home, from the boardroom to the bedroom. They believed they had to go beyond traditional criticism and protests in order to challenge the square society; and this they accomplished with flair, using methods that were playful, imaginative, and improvised. When buses brought tourists to stare at Haight-Ashbury in 1967, hippies ran alongside holding up mirrors. This style made its mark on the movement's tactics, and demonstrated how new forms of protest and resistance could be created. The mind boggles at what could have been accomplished if these brilliant liberal free-thinkers had the power of the Internet in their hands!

Even as the movement imploded from an overdependence on drugs, the Establishment struck back with astonishing speed, demonising the excesses of the period and establishing a consumerist society to ensure that such social experiments were never attempted again. If it is true that art imitates life, then there is some truth in the caricature of today's latte-sipping YouTube generation who is not just impassive, but inert to events unfolding beyond the boundary of her personal space. Happily, the Presidential primaries in the United States have demonstrated a discernible growth in political awareness, as first-time voters are making their voices heard through the ballot-box.

Unfortunately, these faint rumblings have not yet reached the intensity of a mass movement, and therefore, drawing premature parallels between the sixties and the noughts stretch the limits of rational reasoning. It should also be remembered, if only as a wish-defiance, that 1968 killed the voices of two powerful hopemongers--Martin Luther King, Jr and Bobby Kennedy.

There's nothing in the streets,
Looks any different to me,
And the slogans are replaced, by-the-bye.
And the parting on the left,
Are now parting on the right,
And the beards have all grown longer overnight.
Meet the new boss
Same as the old boss.
The Who, Won't Get Fooled Again

Birds of a Feather

Have you noticed a reduction in the number of news stories about Indian aeroplanes forced to re-land as a result of hitting a bird during take-off? While this is having a beneficial effect on the airline industry's punctuality records, according to many environmentalists, the decline in carrion-eaters like vultures, eagles and even the common crow is a result of the use of diclofenac, a painkiller administered to cattle and sheep (the drug was finally banned by the Government in 2006). In many Indian states where it is illegal to kill cows, livestock is raised not for consumption and therefore steroids and painkillers are used to prolong their usefulness in the field. When these dead animals are eventually eaten by vultures and their ilk, they succumb to these drugs' after-effects.

Besides scientists and ornithologists, one other group that is anxiously assessing this fallout is India's Parsi community, who leave their dead on dakhmas or "Towers of Silence" to be devoured by vultures, believing it to be the cleanest and most hygienic way to get rid of the immortal soul's temporary home.

Parsis or Zoroastrians are followers of the Persian philosopher Zoroaster or Zarathustra, who is believed to have lived in Central Asia around the first millennium before the common era. His belief in the single god Ahuda Mazda makes Zoroastrianism the most ancient of the great monotheistic religions. However, after the invasion of their homeland by Islam in the eighth century, the community fled to the Indian coastal states of Gujarat and Maharashtra in an attempt to escape religious persecution.

One apocryphal legend from an eighteenth century epic poem, Qissa-i Sanjan, perfectly captures the position of Parsis in India. When the Zoroastrian immigrants landed in ancient India and seeked asylum from the local Hindu king Jadi Rana, he (not knowing the Farsi language, even though it is very closely related to Sanskrit) motioned to a vessel of milk filled to the very brim to signify that his kingdom was already full and could not accept any refugee. In response, one of the Zoroastrian priests added some sugar to the milk, indicating that they would not bring the vessel to overflowing and indeed make the lives of the citizens sweeter and richer. Chagrined and suitably chastened, the Rana gave shelter to the community and granted them full religious freedom.

In exchange, the community made no attempts to proselytise (to the extent that inter-faith marriages are not allowed), enthusiastically participated in India's freedom movement (Sir Pherozeshah Mehta and Sir Dadabhai Naoroji were leading members of the Indian National Congress and close counsels of Mahatma Gandhi) and were crusaders in the subsequent indigenous economic growth where the House of the Tatas, for instance, stands out both in terms of instilling a sense of self-pride and for making charitable contributions to independent India's development. As a community, Parsis have the highest literacy rate in India (97.9% according to the 2001 census) and have made immense contributions to the arts (Zubin Mehta, Rohinton Mistry, Freddie Mercury) and the sciences (Homi J Bhabha was the father of India's nuclear programme).

Today there are fewer than 1,00,000 Parsis worldwide, of which 75% reside in India. However, their number is rapidly dwindling as the younger generation puts career first and marries late, and because of their education and ambition have only one or two children. While the Parsi panchayat are taking steps to breed pure vultures in an aviary to solve the dakhma problem, it is hoped that they are also looking at the very real problem of their own survival, so that the community may continue to sweeten and enrich the diversity of Indian society.

I am driven out of fatherlands and motherlands. Thus I now love only my children's land, yet undiscovered, in the farthest sea; for this I bid my sails search and search.
Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra

Who Killed the Compact Car?

I was browsing through the March 1977 issue of National Geographic for a story on Egypt when I came across an advertisement for the 1977 Honda Civic, promising an EPA estimated 54 miles per gallon (mpg) on the highway. In contrast, the 2008 Civic's fuel economy is only 29 mpg highway.

Why has the efficiency of America's greenest car company dropped by nearly half in a span of thirty years?

It is, of course, not fair to conclude that the forward march of technological advancement somehow left the automotive industry by the wayside. A modern car has many performance and safety features that would embarrass the 1977 Civic. And many of these features come at a heavy cost. As a Center for Auto Safety statistic demonstrates, cars with inertia weight less than 2,500 pounds dropped from 10.8% in 1975 to a mere 2.6% in year 2000 models. The Honda Civic, in particular, increased its curb weight over 50%, from 1,687 pounds in 1977 to 2,738 pounds in 2008.

But besides the necessary add-ons for safety and comfort, there is also the question of size. Vehicle sizes have been growing at such an alarming rate that the sub-compact category has been rendered almost obsolete. Many will testify to being upgraded from an economy or compact car at a rental agency to an intermediate or standard, simply because there are so few of the former. In fact, the traditional basic cars have grown so obese that the Big Three (comprising Honda, Nissan and Toyota, who are arguably more worthy holders of the title today than Detroit's Big Three) had to introduce three new models (Fit, Versa and Yaris) to cater to the sub-compact segment that used to be dominated by their Civic, Sentra and Corolla cars.

While automotive obesity is correlated with human obesity, the lust for bigger and more powerful cars is a legacy from a bygone era before the OPEC oil embargo, when fuel-economy was an oxymoron and energy conservation considered an European fad. With the popularity of pick-up trucks, and more recently SUVs, motorists in America have been used to gas mileages that barely reached double digits. It is joked that the gas tank of the Hummer (the most atrocious affront on aesthetics and the environment) was designed to hold enough petrol to transport it from one gas station to the next! I was recently in the market for a 4-door luxury sedan, and could find only two 4-cylinder cars with an acceptable carbon footprint (BMW 318i and Infiniti G20). Not surprisingly, both cars have been discontinued for years!

That is why Tata Motors' introduction of the 50 mpg Nano is a reason to rejoice for environmentalists of every colour and creed. The one-lakh-rupee car is also a dream fulfilled for thousands of Indians who have seen the original version of the "peoples' car" (Maruti 800) pass them by as it has shot up in price and stature. India's urban designers and developers now have a different kind of challenge on their hands, attempting to accommodate upto 10 lakh new Nanos every year on the country's crumbling infrastructure.

In the day we sweat it out in the streets
Of a runaway American dream,
At night we ride through mansions of glory
In suicide machines.
Bruce Springsteen, Born to Run