19 December 2009

"Climate change" by all of us

There is a problem.  Some people caused it in the course of creating their prosperity.  Others want their opportunity to create prosperity (and add to the problem).  Who should solve it?  

True culprits (in the last 250 years) are US and EU.  Citizens of US, EU and West Asia cause the maximum damage per person.  However the smokestack is currently the worst in China, US and EU.  India, unrestrained, could join the list.

Fair solution requires two steps:  One, impose a quota based on area and population (and levy a penalty on excess); Two, levy a one time tax on past culprits to compensate those who did not cause it in the past.

Is this feasible?  Not unless US, EU, China and India agree.  True test of statesmanship for US/EU mostly and China/India to a lesser extent.

Until this is done, all children (American, European, Chinese and Indian) can look forward to a less comfortable planet to inhabit.

18 December 2009

"Seeds of Terror: The Taliban, the ISI and the new Opium wars" by Gretchen Peters

Gretchen Peters, the Harvard graduate who covers Af-Pak region for ABC News provides an objective analysis of the role of poppy seeds in nourishing terrorism.

If you are a venture capital investor, investing in Afghanistan/Pakistan in poppy seeds is the way to go.  Reasons:

Illegal drugs is a big market.  8% of global trade (against 5.3% for motor cars).

Poor governance in Afghanistan facilitates drug lords to “order” farmers to grow poppy; buy future deliveries under "salaam" system; bribe those in power to overlook trafficking; pay Taliban war lords to oversee safe transportation; produce heroin in the lawless borderland between Afghanistan and Pakistan; export through Iran/Turkey or Pakistan to hungry markets in Europe and launder the money through Middle East.

The farmers get a pittance (and yet that pittance is 12 times what they would get for normal food crops).  But the Taliban warlords net quite a pile; $ 439 million in 2007!

The business model evolved over a period of time.

Cause 1:  In its obsession to win the cold war, US overlooked supporting religious zealots.  Zbignew Brezezinski asked, “What was more important?  A few stirred up Muslims or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the cold war?”.

Cause 2:  US conveniently ignored the drug connection of the mujahideen.  Robert Peck of State Department testified to Congress in 1986 that US did not have enough evidence to believe the rebels were involved in narcotics trade.  In 1989 Ann Wrobleski of State Department defended eloquently that “opium is the only currency the rebels have”.

Cause 3:  Pakistan army and ISI did not have compunction in using drug money to fund covert operations.  Nawaz Sharif, in a 1994 interview to Washington Post confessed that General Aslam Beg, Chief of Army and General Asad Durrani of ISI sought his permission to fund covert foreign operations through large scale drug deals.

Cause 4:  Warlords like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Jalaluddin Haqqani (both now allied with Taliban) saw huge opportunity in being part of the supply chain but cleaned up their prospectuses by providing a religious coat to the business model and allying with Taliban.

Cause 5:  Taliban saw the drug revenue as a reliable source of income to fund its activities.  Selling drugs to non muslims was seen as part of the jihad.  Though Mullah Omar banned poppy cultivation for one year (that was revoked later) in 2000, it was an ultimate insider trading con.  That just pushed up prices ten times.  Net margins went up.  The only folks to suffer were the farmers.

Cause 6:  Post invasion, US pursued stability; but overlooked poppy harvest, heroin production and transport.  Again, obsessive pursuit of one priority and compromise with another that could hurt US in the long run.  The 1988 warning Edmund McWilliams issued to Milton Brearden of CIA that “we are financing our own assassins” is continuing to be ignored.

If Harvard were to issue a degree in being a Commander in Chief, course 101 would be on “cutting the funding for your enemy” and course 102 would be on “not taking your eye off all your other enemies”.

Gretchen Peters has several valuable suggestions:

One, bomb the refineries and chemists.  There are just 24 of them.  Should not be too much to ask after you have spent $ 2 trillion on a war machine.

Two, bomb the drug convoys.  You don’t need drones.  These convoys start in Afghanistan; mostly from Helmand province.

Three, exert influence over money launderers.  In the end, Gretchen Peters says, the drug lords keep their money in western banking institutions.

Four, go easy on the farmers.  They don’t love Taliban.  They hate Taliban.  It is just that they don’t have anyone else to love.  Install a government that can move into that sweet spot.

If not, remember Gretchen Peter's quote, “Amerians may have the watches; but Taliban have the time”.

12 December 2009

"The Limits of Influence - America's role in Kashmir" by Howard B Schaffer

Howard B Schaffer was Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for US twice; and political counselor in US embassies in Pakistan and later in India in the seventies.  In this book, Schaffer provides an analysis of US role in Kashmir from an insider’s perspective.

Schaffer seems to sincerely believe that United States can fashion its policies based on its interests; but other countries should fashion theirs based on principles!  Unfortunately interest driven policy often produces tactical wins and strategic losses.  Schaffer is quiet about acknowledging the strategic failure of US policy toward Pakistan; and the threat this has created for US and South Asia and vociferous about India's intransigence in not conforming to "equity".

There is no equity about a partition forced by faulty thinking of a colonial ruler.  (Am not one of those who decline to accept partition. I am glad it happened).  Let us get back to basics!  Partition did not create a separate nation for all muslims!  After partition, India continued to remain home to a large population of Muslims spread throughout India.  There is no equity about Pakistan's claim to Kashmir.

Pakistan sees itself as the nation representing muslims in the subcontinent.  India sees itself as a multicultural and multi-religious nation.  It does not accept religion-based majority as sufficient for separation.

Pakistan is going back in time with Military dictators usurping power from weak civilian governments; feudal lords dominating economic assets; fundamentalists hijacking a peaceful religion to deny equality to women; education to young and membership in the Ulema to minority sects amongst Muslims.  India, on the other hand, has a stable and institutionalized democracy; civil liberties; rule of law; modern education; and religious tolerance.

George Washington and Thomas Jefferson would have preferred India over Pakistan.

Not John Foster Dulles.  He saw (at the advice of an equally myopic Philip Noel-Baker of Britain) in Pakistan a “strategic ally” to be the frontline warrior against communism.  More importantly he alienated India by taking a Eurocentric view that Goa is a province of Portugal and resenting India taking control of its land from the colonial ruler.   Dulles ended up supporting a state that does not share American values of liberty, freedom, equality and plurality and was just clever enough to feign anti-communism to get access to American funds. This put US under pressure to, wherever possible, support Pakistan in the Kashmir dispute and in the genocide in Bangladesh.

It was India’s tactical alliance (again driven by interests than principles) with Moscow that saved the United Nations from getting hijacked by friends of Pakistan to resolve the Kashmir issue against India’s interest.

Later, US had to pursue a fine balancing act between its obligations to support Pakistan and wider geopolitical objectives with India.  US acquired a “morally unassailable ability” to remain in sidelines only after Pakistan concluded an agreement with India, replacing the UN defined cease fire line with a bilaterally defined Line of Control and agreeing to resolve Kashmir issue in bilateral discussions.

Pakistan did become an important frontline state in the cold war eventually.  US scored a tactical victory against the Russians using Pakistan. But the strategic price US had to pay is quite heavy:  (a) acquiescence in the development of nuclear bombs by Pakistan and (b) creation of jehadi warriors who are willing to die and therefore limitlessly powerful in killing.

After India and Pakistan exploded their nuclear devices, Schaffer confesses “the importance attached by US to the equities of the Kashmir issue were lessened”.  Preventing escalation is now in US interests.  Lack of US support (and in fact US opposition) encouraged Pakistan to withdraw from an aggressive posture in Kargil.

Pakistan again became important to the US after 9/11.  Pakistan rediscovered the business model of sustaining insurgency in Kashmir.  Schaffer says “Pakistan is delivering the goods in Afghanistan and insurgency in Kashmir did not pose an immediate threat to US interests”.

I have no issue with Schaffer in thinking US should pursue its interests for tactical wins!

What I find unacceptable is Schaffer’s belief that India should act based on equities of Kashmir issue and not based on its interests!  In my view, India too is entitled to advancing its interests by what India considers appropriate strategic or tactical responses.

It is in India's interest to develop a greater bonding with the US through interlinking the two economies.  US would keep its business interests (apart from political interests) in mind in shaping its policies.  In addition to clever pursuit of interests, this would be wise pursuit of principles too!

Additionally, it is in India’s interests to make peace with Kashmiris first; make it advantageous for them to be a part of India.  It is in India’s interests to protect the Indian state.  Against insurgencies exported from neighborhood.  It is in India’s interest to make peace with Pakistan.  Prosperity would facilitate this unity.

The best US can do is to not engage but be available.  That would be clever pursuit of interests; and good principle.

"More salt than pepper" by Karan Thapar

I bet every book lover has two traits.

One, she would keep buying new books even though she has not yet read half the books in her possession yet.  She just does not have the time to keep up the reading.  Yet she does not want to miss out on the new arrivals.  (She does not read them on a FIFO basis either.  Her choice often is based on mood; if not random!)

Two, she has to read more than one book at a time.  One book could be heavy (profound ideas that require highlighting and cogitation); another could be quite light and easy on the mind.

I have always had problems locating the second type.  Light. Easy. Yet, engaging.  Preferably light non-fiction (humor, biographies, essays).

Karan Thapar provides a “filler” that is fun to read.

I am not a fan of Karan Thapar.  I find his TV interviews a frustration.  He raises intelligent questions.  He has the ability to “stick to the knitting” and prevent his subject sidestep or obfuscate the issues.  However he hijacks the airtime; talks thirteen to a dozen; prevents even good answers from coming through; and does not know the difference between being firm in extracting an answer and being rude in preventing an answer.

However, I saw the soft and emotional side of Karan when he was interviewed by someone else (on the death of his Oxford classmate, Benazir Bhutto) and was provided decent time to respond!

Karan lets us have a peek at his opinions; his people and his life in this collection of short and light chapters.

One can easily visualize the contemplative Jawaharlal Nehru gazing at the distance and rambling about “stuff” while Karan’s Mamu was more interested in the mundane and immediate matter of securing the elder Nehru’s permission for younger sister Nayantara’s wedding.

One cannot so easily visualize Indira Gandhi chiding the children (including young Karan, his sister and Sanjay) to get ready to go to the President’s home; but ease themselves before going so as to not “spend a penny” in the Presidential palace.  Or replying with a smile how she manages when her schedule involves long lasting events!

One is thankful to Kris Srinivasan for some of his emails to Karan wondering:
1. Why are “wise men” and “wise guys” opposites?
2. Why “overlook” and “oversee” differ so much in their meaning?
3. Why is the guy who handles all your money a “broker”?
4. Do infants enjoy infancy as much as adults enjoy adultery?
5. If people in Poland are Poles, are people in Holland Holes?
6. If electricity comes from electrons, does morality comes from morons?
7. Why are you ‘in” a movie; but “on” TV.

Karan adds his own gem:  If “I am” is the shortest sentence, is “I do” the longest sentence?

Excellent book.

30 November 2009

"Mumbai's winners and losers" by Irfan Husain

"I do not like getting old.  However, given the alternative, I do not mind" said Scot Adams.

"India may not like to initiate peace with Pakistan.  However, what are its alternatives?" says Irfan Husain (in his article in The Dawn).

According to him the true winners of Mumbai were the terrorists and the security establishments; the true losers were the victims and the larger population of both the countries.  Irfan Husain argues that peace is the cleverer thing to do.

Pakistan's army gets its importance, power and money from one source: maintaining an adversarial tension with India.  The army would not, normally, encourage peace with India.

Pakistan's religious extremists would never encourage peace with India.

However, there is a silent and intelligent majority of moderates in Pakistan.

India has an excellent opportunity now:

1.  At the moment, Pakistan's army does not depend on India for its importance, power and budget.  The fight against terrorism is now perceived to be a bigger cause.  Pakistan's army would actually be relieved if India were to take a few steps to ease the tension in the India Pakistan border.

2.  At the moment, Pakistan society is getting alarmed at religious extremism.  They are still at a point where it is possible for a majority to reject religious extremism (if army would contain the radicals) than succumb to it (out of fear).

3.  At the moment, India has a stable government with sufficient majority (that is not based on a co-alition).  Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has enough respect in India to bring a solution that is fair (even if it is not acceptable to everyone in India).

4.  At the moment, Pakistan has a stable government with a leadership that has the toughest task any elected government can be expected to handle.

5.  India is looking to grow.  India cannot afford to let its politics come in the way of economics.

6.  A Pakistan that loses to the Taliban is the worst scenario for India.

India and Pakistan made significant progress in resolving Kashmir in the recent past.  This got stalled because of terrorism incidents.

India has to take the initiative to make peace with Pakistan.  Now.  That is the cleverer thing to do.
Pakistan has to make peace with India.  Now.  That is the wiser thing to do.

How I wish Irfan Hussain's thoughts are echoed by thought leaders in India too.

21 November 2009

"How to fund a startup" by Paul Graham

Before becoming an entrepreneur, I was a CFO.  Raising money from early stage investors, managing the relationships, going public and dealing with the public market were all part of the territory.  Met several bankers, fund managers, analysts and retail investors in different corners of the world.

Most of them are good partners.  Keen to grow their wealth.  Keen to protect it.  Eager to find the next big opportunity.

However, the goal of an investor is different from the goal of an entrepreneur.  Understanding and managing the conflicts is important.  As important as getting your business vision and execution right.  Make a mistake there; and you could end up spending too much time dealing with yourself instead of your market.

As a start up, I have stayed with "bootstrapping".  The freedom to build the business for the long term is delectable.  (Of course there is a concern that the enterprise may end up becoming an echo chamber of my thoughts; but ensuring this does not happen is a lesser challenge than managing goal conflicts at an early stage).  This is probably easy when you become an entrepreneur in late forties; may not necessarily be possible when you are young.

Paul Graham's article (written about four years back) about "funding for startups" continues to remain current; and provides an excellent insight into the subject.  (Click here to read).

Anand Rajaraman has a different view in his blog.  (Click here to read).   It is not easy to differ with a young billionaire with a doctorate from Stanford.  However, am not sure excellent businesses are, as a rule, always characterized by "market, team and technology".  Venture investment has been sufficiently scarce so far and therefore has the luxury of staying focused on the "sexy end of the pyramid".  However, it is possible to prosper with "simple ideas neatly executed".

My advice to young entrepreneurs:  Stay away from third party investors until you can.  But do not shy away from raising funds when you can "feel" your muscles.

20 November 2009

"Learn from Karim Khan's notes" by Jawed Naqvi in The Dawn

I was a child going to Grade II when the Federal Government attempted to impose Hindi on Tamil Nadu.  I remember the cartoons in Tamil newspapers depicting the Hindi demon trying to kill the demure Tamil "mother".  Without any understanding of the issue, my young mind was seeded with an unfair bias against Hindi.

It changed only when, in my early twenties, I discovered "Suhane raat dal chuki", "Chaudwi ka chand hai" and Mohammed Rafi.  It was so easy to stay in love with Tamil and yet admire the language spoken by most in India.

When we returned back to India and Chennai after a long gap, it was gratifying to see Hindi gaining acceptance among the children without disturbing the position Tamil deserves and merits in the State.

Keeping alive the threads that unite us is a good idea.  Imposing the thread is a bad idea.

Jawed Naqvi's article about imposing our culture on others in The Dawn is an excellent articulation of this view.  The Dawn is one of my favorite newspapers to get the perspective of Pakistan.  Jawed does leave you "thinking".

I dont understand the chaste (and probably poetic) pieces he teases us with in this excellent article.  However, I get the drift.  That is the beauty of being able to understand another person's ideas; even if you do not understand his language.

Have fun.  Read this "article" in The Dawn.

05 November 2009

"To Understand Pakistan, 1947 is the wrong lens" by Khurram Hussain

Twelve years back I was in Jamnagar; as one tiny cog in a tiny wheel in the larger scheme of things that went on to create a truly gargantuan refinery.  I held an energizing cup of coffee and drew the drapes of my hotel window one nice morning.  And stumbled into a world I never experienced earlier.  Two young and agile men were tracking something I cannot see in the sky with a really large anti-aircraft gun.  The waiter explained that this was routine air defense against Pakistan’s jets in the sky.

I remembered the other time I was close to an international border as an exchange student in Michigan.  My hosts used to drive down (yes, not up) from Detroit to Windsor in Canada freely.  Cars used to race past the border tunnel without anyone stopping us.  In practice, there was no border!

Why cannot Pakistan and India accept the geography instead of remembering the history?  If co-existence is made inexpensive, the resources released can make a difference to thousands of families on either side of the border.

It appears seemingly rational to see India as a stable multicultural society with popular governments and rule of law; and see Pakistan as an unstable polity dominated by religious bigotry and an eagerness to destabilize India.  Quite convenient a view if you are an Indian.

Khurram Hussain’s article in the Outlook magazine brings a different viewpoint to understand Pakistan. 

India tries to see Pakistan from a 1947 perspective: A religious minority carving itself out into a political entity to escape domination in a “majority rules” democracy and preserving its “anti majority” psyche well past expiry date.  Pakistan remembers India from a 1971 perspective:  An unacceptable treatment of one province by the rest in Pakistan “used’ by India to dismember the country and redraw the map.

The asymmetry in Indian perspectives about East Bengal and Kashmir (one a “good” war to liberate the dominated and another an “intervention” in internal affairs) is rarely discussed in a fair and comparable manner by Indian intellect.

On the other hand Pakistan’s intellect has a different memory.  It does not necessarily accept challenges to popular governments; challenges to rule of law; challenges from religion; and even terrorism.  However, it tacitly accepts intervention in Kashmir seeing Kashmir as a mirror of East Bengal.

When your existence has been challenged, “running for life” seems more important than “running for lunch”.

India would have to appreciate the alternate viewpoint of 1971 war and understand Pakistan from that perspective.  India’s Pakistan policy would have to be shaped by addressing the “existential fears” unleashed by the 1971 strategies. 

In the recent past, Pakistan’s intellectuals have published several books (some of them covered in my blog) that are not afraid to challenge the traditionally held views in Pakistan with intellectual honesty and candor.  We need similar books in India to challenge our own traditionally held views with equal honesty in intellect and candor.

If praising Jinnah can be unacceptable in India (and sufficient to criticize one leader and ostracize another), we would not get smart enough to understand Pakistan and progress toward the normalcy that Khurram Hussain, the Yale University scholar thinks is invaluable for both the countries.

02 October 2009

"Tanjore" in Princeton NJ

Do you want to know how to make something vanish into thin air? Totally?

Just make it my favorite.

Woodlands Drive-in in Chennai was a favorite from my student days. I had my first date with a young lady (currently my wife) there. (Just don’t believe her story about the mess I made savoring ice cream on a cone in a warm climate. Not all of it is entirely true. Don’t listen to my daughters either. Two reasons. One: They exaggerate. Two: They were not there). We continued to visit Woodlands Drive-in quite often in the later years. Pop. It was gone. It was as though Chennai is not any more fully Chennai.

Virgin Megastores in Oxford Street was another favorite.  I collect movies. Virgin had a great collection. You can count on getting stuff that you cannot get elsewhere. There was the additional joy of stumbling into a movie you have not heard of. And, discover a gem. When my daughter moved into her pad near Regent Park, within walking distance from the store, I was quite joyous. Pop. Virgin too was gone. Suddenly, for me, Oxford Street is not any more fully Oxford Street.

Tanjore in Princeton was a more important favorite. I spend a third of my time in the US; and half of it in Princeton NJ. Tanjore provided high quality vegetarian food. The couple who owned and ran it were warm; the waitress from Dominican Republic picked up enough insight about the various levels of crispiness with which you can make Onion rava oothappam. Bisi bele bath was prepared to Kamath restaurant standards (more vegetables than rice). The hour long drive from the City to Princeton in the soul-less New Jersey Turnpike had a reward en route at Tanjore. Pop. It has gone. I am re-evaluating whether Princeton should continue to be my base in the United States.

25 August 2009

"Three Presidents and an Aide" by Arshad Sami Khan

Salman Rushdie called Pakistan an “incomplete imagination” at its birth.  Religious affinity brought the nation together.  Differing cultural, linguistic, ethnic, geographic and political affinities are tearing it apart.  Arshad Sami Khan, in his book, provides a ringside view of how this challenge was handled by three Heads of State (Ayub Khan, Yahya Khan and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto) for whom Sami was the aide de camp.  Sami is a decorated war hero (fighter pilot in air force) and later a diplomat.

Sami steers clear of the typical pitfalls of memoirs of bystanders to history.  Sami keeps the focus on the three heads of state; their personalities; and their roles in the events that unfolded during their reign.  Ayub is portrayed as a “gentleman officer” with tolerance for the aspirations of his family. Believable. Bhutto is portrayed as an intelligent and cunning politician who could get haughty at times.  Fits.  Yahya is portrayed as a “straight talking army guy” with a teenager’s open mindedness and adventurism; and all rumors about “the fiddle playing Nero when Rome was burning” are dismissed as false.  Not easy to believe.

According to Sami, in 1962, Ayub wanted to open a quick surgical war front (to cut off Kashmir from rest of India and walk away with the contested land) when the Indian army was deeply engaged with China.  According to Ayub, US and UK prevailed on Pakistan to not do this promising to resolve the Kashmir dispute in favor of Pakistan in near future.  Ayub regretted ceding to this pressure.  In 1965, US embassy and State department assured Ayub that if Pakistan invades Kashmir, India would fight in Kashmir theatre alone and not open multiple fronts; and US would provide diplomatic support in international forums for Pakistan’s military operations in Kashmir.  Ostensibly this was the reason Ayub deployed most of his firepower in Kashmir while the X division (defending Lahore) was hosting a football tournament.   However India “declared an all out war”; opened multiple fronts; reached the gates of Lahore and its officers were promising to BBC that they would “drink double pegs in Lahore Gymkhana by midnight”.  Sami says Ayub felt betrayed by the US Ambassador, who was promptly withdrawn from Pakistan.  Some strategic thinker, this Ayub!

Yahya Khan’s strategic mistakes were political.  He was shocked when, in a free and fair elections (for which he deserves credit) the underprivileged majority Bengali Muslims voted Awami league into power.  He instructed his Security Council advisor Major General Umar to ensure that the results are different in the provincial elections that were to follow so that Yahya can discredit Awami League’s victory and retain power with the West.  Hearing the praise for free and fair elections, he revoked the instruction to influence polls and negotiated with Mujib-ur-Rehman for an unconstitutional power sharing.  He should have taken better counsel: from his aide de camp who has a more profound view on making a nation.  Religion alone, according to Sami, is not sufficient as a binding force to make a nation.  Cultural, ethnic, geographic and political affinities are important.  If the founding fathers of Pakistan had designed it as “a loose federation of constitutionally autonomous units” Bengali Muslims would not have separated from Pakistan.  If Sami’s masters had ceded to the rightful demands of Bengalis instead of imprisoning Mujib-ur-Rahman for conspiracy, Pakistan would not have lost its eastern arm.  

Sami narrates one story that sounds uncharacteristic.  When Yahya threatened to walk out of an Islamic summit because the Saudi monarch wanted to invite India (as the country with a large population of Muslims; in fact more than that of Pakistan), King Hussein intervened to apologize confessing he and the Saudi monarch were “conned into” inviting India by the crafty Indian diplomat.  King Hussein offered to declare the Indian diplomat persona non grata for “interfering and misguiding members of the Conference”.  Sami thinks of this as an accomplishment.  Could this be true?  Is ummat al-mu'minin, the Diaspora of Believers in Islam worldwide, defined by politics and not by religion?

10 August 2009

"Making sense of Pakistan" by Farzana Shaikh

Dr Farzana Shaikh (a Ph D from Columbia University and a visitor at Princeton) provides an excellent insight into the evolution of Pakistan as a state and a nation.

Pakistan was born when the minority Muslim community in British India was unified by concerns (about potential oppression in the electoral politics of a democracy) and morphed into a nation with political aspirations. The community had several challenges: lack of territorial contiguity, lack of ethnic homogeneity, differences in culture, differences in language and even differences in the way they practiced Islam. Once the unifying cause of threat from a majority was eliminated, the divisive factors played a bigger role in shaping the identity and future of Pakistan. Pakistan has morphed from the higher ideal of a “homeland for Muslims” to a “frontline state for jehad by the Wahabi Muslims”.

Pakistan, in its attempt to define itself, has disenfranchised to various levels its religious minorities; its sectarian minorities (Ahmediyas, Shias); its ethnic minorities (Bengali Muslims, Sindhi Muslims, Mohajirs); and even segments of its Sunni population (Sufi Muslims and more importantly all women who are no more equal to men under law) veering away from the Universalist message of peaceful Islam. Political leaders and the Army have been eager to legitimize their tenure by whipping up fervor for puritanical Islam or fervor against neighboring India to serve their political causes and have damaged the social fabric of this great community that was once the compassionate and tolerant jewel of the Moghul empire.

However, there are winds of change blowing through the land. There is an increasing emphasis on representative politics, rule of law.

In Farzana Shaikh’s view, Pakistan has to "recast its quest for religious consensus in terms of a cultural heritage rooted in the discourse of Indian Islam to salvage a pluralist alternative consistent with democratic citizenship".

Pakistan may very well find its "identity based on reconciliation of Islam's Universalist message with respect for the rich diversity of its peoples".

A truly remarkable book by this daughter of Pakistan. I wish someone writes about India likewise with equal measures of love and honesty.

09 August 2009

"Caritas in Veritate" by His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI

Pope Benedict XVI has recently issued an encyclical (translating to "Charity in Truth") that emphasizes, among other things, ethics in business. The encyclical avers that outsourcing by business enterprises "weakens responsibility towards stakeholders such as workers, suppliers, consumers, natural environment and broader society in favor of shareholders". The Pope does not approve "outsourcing" because it shifts economic activity from one community to another!

Question 1 from a "moral perspective": I can understand someone responsible for a geographic constituency lamenting the loss of "economic activity" to a different geographic constituency. How can someone whose constituency covers the entire world lament loss of jobs from one region to another? Does the Pope care more for stakeholders in one economic region than another?

Question 2 from an "economic perspective": All trades (in goods and services) shift "economic activity" from buyer region to seller region. Outsourcing is just one more form of trade. Does the encyclical apply therefore to all trade? Does this mean it is "Christian" behavior for Indians to not buy American aircraft, Canadian tractors, French wine, German cars or see English movies? If the encyclical does not apply to all trade, is it because the Pope believes these purchases are being made because of superior quality of products/services and not because of value in use? Would the encyclical then exclude "outsourcing" attributable to superior quality of goods and services?

I often imagine what would Jesus Christ do if He were to talk with us today. I am sure, in this instance, he would recognize that outsourcing (a) enhances value to consumer (b) knits people together and (c) spreads wealth more evenly. He would have been happy about the latter two for He is compassionate to all mankind; not just the Asia He hailed from. He would not have had strong opinions about economic value to consumer because he probably would have thought that you should "render unto Caesar things that are Caesar's and render unto God things that are God's".

I sincerely hope it does not take the Church too long to modify its views on outsourcing. St Thomas (the apostle who landed in India twenty centuries back to spread His message) would yearn that for his constituency!

03 August 2009

"Letter to the Editor from Vanni/Sri Lanka" in Kalachuvadu

I felt sad and angry.

It is not easy to tell you how sad I was and how angry I was.

It would be a tad easier if you were a Tamil; if you had a taste for “Kalachuvadu” (“Footprints on sands of time”) the Tamil magazine; if you read an anonymous letter to the editor on what happened in Sri Lanka in the recent past. The letter was 14 pages long and was written by an inmate in a refugee camp in Vanni that holds civilians caught in the war theater. The vivid description of the the last days of the war are very disturbing.

The anonymous writer says:

The Sri Lanka Government, in acquiring control over its territory, has been unmindful of the death of thousands of uninvolved civilians detained in the war theater by LTTE.

LTTE fought for a noble cause; its leaders and cadets gave their lives for the cause. But LTTE made several mistakes including: forced recruitment of "volunteers" to its cadets; forced retention of uninvolved civilians in the war theater as a protection; seeing everyone as either a friend or a foe; elimination of all opponents in Sri Lankan Tamil politics; elimination of any form of dissent; alienation of Tamil Muslims and alienation of India.

The Tamils in Sri Lanka were caught between Schylla and Charybdis; between an unfair majority and ruthless freedom fighters. (Each makes the other a supportable candidate!) Both were successful in creating a setback for the Tamils.

As an Indian, I am not a fan of any freedom fighter movement that kills a leader of my country. (He may or may not have my vote; but he is a fellow citizen and his life is protected by my country).

As a Tamil, I expect the Tamil minority in Sri Lanka to be treated in a fair manner; the same fair treatment I would expect India to provide its minorities.

I am sad and angry.

I hope a leader who understands inclusive politics, who can understand and use international opinion and who can institutionalize the striving for fair treatment emerges to handle the Sri Lanka/Tamil issue.

If that happens to be a Sri Lankan Prime Minister, even better.

26 July 2009

"The importance of being trivial" by Mark Mason

I have been a quiz buff from early childhood till about a dozen years back.

In the seventies, at 11 am on Sundays we used to stay glued to the radio to hear Amin Sayani conduct the Bournvita Quiz Contest; and get the printed list of questions and answers by mail midweek.
In the eighties, “Book of Lists” by Irving Wallace and “Book of Facts” by Isaac Asimov augmented the love for trivia. Then, it was the monthly quiz event organized in Muscat by "trivia diva" Sushi Natraj. We all took turns hosting them at our homes.

Later, it was the annual Dunhill Quiz contest; the questions were tough and prizes very modest. But the champions were held in high esteem.

Dunhill was replaced by the annual Times of Oman contest conducted by Derek O’Brien (held in a Soccer stadium holding an audience in excess of 10,000). The questions were probably only a shade above the average intellect of the crowd to keep the crowd engaged. Boy, the prizes were very attractive. (Dr Satish Nambiar, Nitin Khimji and I won the first championship. It was twice joyous since even the three of us did not think we would make it given the quality of competition. I guess it was the prize amount that motivated a practising doctor, a billionaire businessman and an oil company executive to team up and go gung-ho).

I have often wondered what drives folks to pick up, store, recall and regale trivial information? What explains the joy in doing all this? How does one counter the seemingly innocent and cleverly crafted enquiry of a life partner and friend on what is the use of all this information? Is there a limit to the number of facts we can store and recall? Why do we remember something forever; and forget others quickly?

Mark Mason provides a brilliant analysis in his book.

Some snippets:
1 Our brain has several billion neurons. When a new fact “hits” you, some neurons connect and form synapses (excitatory neuronal feedback systems). A brain of hundred million neurons could trigger a hundred trillion synapses! These connections help you store and recall. (“Cells that fire together wire together”).
2 Male brain (53% of males and 42% of females have this) is “systematic”. It organizes details bottoms up to strive toward the big picture. Female brain (yes, lots of males have them too) is “empathetic” and feels the big picture instead of going after the details.
3 Mark Mason meets several people to understand what makes a fact “perfect” enough to be “stored and recalled”. Several tests are proposed. The fact should be true; should be charming; should be surprising; should help you understand; should be good enough to pass on to children; should link unlinked stuff; should relate to a system etc. In the end, Mark finds his own conclusion. Read the book to know what it is.

Hey, forget the analysis. Mark Mason has several “bombs of delight”. Did you know that:
1 When you stand near the Big Ben tower, you can hear Big Ben chime on the radio (live broadcast by Channel 4 in London) earlier than the real chime itself (because light travels faster than sound)
2 Sleuth is the only film where the entire cast was nominated for Oscar (the film had just two actors: Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine)
3 Chicken tikka masala is not an Indian dish. It was invented in Britain to suit British tastes.
4 Monopoly prints more US money every day than US Treasury (over 200 times actually)
5 Elephant and Castle in London got its name from Infanta de Castille, the Spanish princess who lived there (and was engaged to Charles I).
6 When Woodrow Wyatt, the journalist/diarist, was asked by a receptionist in a French Hotel to spell his name, he responded: Waterloo, Ypres, Agincourt, Trafalgar and Trafalgar!
7 The Grand Canyon is big enough to store every human being in the World. Not like canned sardines. We all could have a small room to ourselves!
8 European Union exports more to Switzerland than to China!
9 My favorite: Dustin Hoffman stayed up all night, in true method-actor style, to simulate the exhaustion of his character in “Marathon Man”. Hearing this, Laurence Olivier responded: “Dear Boy, Why don’t you just act?”

Read for more snippets. Read for insightful analyses: by Mark Mason and by the various folks he meets who share his (your and certainly my) interests in joyous facts!

06 July 2009

"Mamma Mia" by Varalakshmi Sarathkumar (and Abba)

I was a teenager then. We had no music system at home. My friend next door (currently a movie actor and play back singer) acquired one. The neighborhood was reasonably well packed and the friend, thankfully, insensitive to noise pollution. That was when Anni-Frid Lyngstad (the sexy siren) and Agnitha Faltskog walked into my life. I went crazy. And continue to remain crazy about Abba.

Must have seen "Mamma mia", the theater production at least six times in three cities. Toronto was the best. London a close second. Broadway was good for its acoustics! The Canadian actor who played Donna Sheridan in 2004 had us moving and shaking to the beats. The Cambodian actor who played Pepper in New York jumped the highest in awe of "now you are cute, I like your style" Tanya. The English girl who portrayed Sophie Sheridan in London in 2006 was awesome. (Curious about what was the worst? Easy. The movie!)

But Varalakshmi Sarathkumar's (yes, the daughter of Tamil actor Sarathkumar) Mamma Mia in Chennai was very different and very good in several respects.

First, the choreography was awesome. Easily, the best.

Second, the creative alteration to the script and the set was refreshing.

Third, the songs were rendered to excellent standards.

Great job. They plan to tour. Watch out. Enjoy.