Krishna on M.S. Subbulakshmi

Lot of outrage and support for these remarks by the musician T.M. Krishna on the life of Smt. M.S. Subbulakshmi. [Link]

I am not sure why there should be. He is not saying anything new. Moreover, the question that came to my mind is ‘So what?’.

(1) May be, he is unaware of how communities, groups form, coalesce and how that makes them commit sacrifices for each other. That is how nations and societies bind.

As with many (may be, almost all) things in life, there is both good and bad in group identity.

If one wished to belong to a group, one had to follow the group’s customs, practices and methods. That is how one belonged.

Humans may forget narrow identities when confronted with a common threat – like natural calamity. But, otherwise, group identities matter and they have been a reality of life when societies got organised and when sapiens learnt to farm. Once they grew roots in a place, they became rooted and group customs, norms and practices are all about rootedness.

Without identity and belonging to a group, humans lose their anchor and feel rootless. Too much immigration and outsiders into a community can destroy and have destroyed its order, stability and its cohesion.

Recommended reading: Jonathan Haidt’s ‘The Righteous Mind’. Indeed, coincidentally, on the morning of the 30th, I came across this article about the end of ‘The end of history’. It talks about the importance of ‘Nation-states’. It applies to smaller ‘groups’ or ‘groupings’ too.

These sentences, in particular, are relevant in the context of Mr. Krishna’s remarks:

It is not very helpful to speak of training people to think of themselves as citizens of the world. This might be good for globalizing your markets and your labor force, but it is not so good for fostering a sense of place, or for forming a proper regard for your neighbors, not to mention those who came before you and made your way of life possible. Citizenship is always particular and exclusive, citizenship “of” something, of some place, some jurisdiction, one entity rather than another. To call oneself a citizen of the world, as Diogenes did, is a grand rhetorical flourish, but it amounts to little more than a sentimental metaphor, and may be a way of dodging the commitments that come in tandem with our embrace of our duties and loyalties to particular people, places, and things—a way of loving humanity while despising actual people. ….

… It is hard to see how a vast collection of people could ever be persuaded over the long run to make sacrifices for the common good, if that commonality is not somehow rooted in fellow-feeling, in a sense of “us” that is something more than shared belief in a philosophical abstraction. [Link]

These paragraphs reinforce the relevance of groups and communities except that a nation is a larger version of that with even more common elements than smaller groups will have.

(2) Whether she was forced into being part of a Brahmin family or whether she chose that life because it offered her certain things she wanted in her life (while denying her certain other things, no doubt) is something we would never know. She is not around to corroborate or deny.

To each his version of history even if facts are immutable.

In fact, even if she were around, it would be difficult for her to say whether she regretted or felt vindicated about the choices she made. That would be with the benefit of hindsight whereas actual decisions are made in real time and there is no way to verify if the counterfactual would have been better for her.

Neither Mr. Krishna nor anyone else, for that matter, could either prove or disprove that.

The timing of it all

On the release of Hafeez Saeed:

(1) Richard Haas tweets:

Pakistan has harboured terrorists for years and provides sanctuary to the Taliban. It is a mystery why they are designated and treated as a Major Non-NATO Ally when the reality is Pakistan is anything but. [Link]

(2) NYT article  that strikes a balanced stance only when India is the victim. It gives due space to the claims of the perpetrators! [Link]

(3) A day later, the United States warned Pakistan of consequences. [Link]

(4) This is a good opportunity to read two of Shankkar Aiyar’s pieces – one from 2012 and one from 2016:

  • The audacity of pretence – The New Indian Express [Link]
  • The rogue state of Pakistan and the perfidy in geopolitics – The New Indian Express [Link]

Let us not forget the name of the gentleman who said that Pakistan too was a victim of terror.

It is an incredible stroke of deliberate timing that the Pakistani court released him few days before the anniversary of 26/11. They know a thing or two about timing.

‘Moving’ can be progress

It is often said in physical sciences that movement is not progress.  Tony Rothman had reminded us of that in his perceptive article on the myth of technological upgrades being deemed technological progress. If you had not read that article, it is worth your time doing so.

I am referring to the different kind of movement here. I am referring to ‘moving’ – moving from one house to another. That too is progress. In fact, it is spiritual progress. Doubtless, the gentleman will explain himself adequately to the satisfaction of the readers!

First, let us get the logistics out of the way. Being amateurs, we did it somewhat clumsily. Perhaps, we can learn from this experience and so too can others. ‘Moving’ houses is like a South Indian Brahmin wedding. Well, almost. It has too many moving parts (pun intended). It needs many people and many hands ideally. A lot can go wrong and if you are lucky, only some do.

Those who have made ‘moving’ a habit or have become habituated to it because their jobs forced them to, would find this post boring. They can skip most of it and move to the last part as to why moving is spiritual progress. If they are interested, that is.

Those who are compensated for their ‘move’ can choose the most expensive professional movers, assuming that high expenditure brings and means high experience and competence on the job. What does one mean by that?

First, they have to do the assessment of the task involved carefully and give an accurate estimate instead of shocking us in the end with a higher bill than their initial estimate.

Second, they need to pack each room separately, neatly, label the contents as thoroughly as possible and in as much detail as possible.

Third, importantly, they should bring as many small containers or as many and types of containers of appropriate sizes as possible to pack small items, medicines, toiletries, etc.

Especially, if you have a spouse who has a liking for small artefacts and buys all the wind chimes in the world and hangs them wherever possible in the house, they need to be packed delicately. If they have to be functional again, that is. Small things like pens, pencils, office stationary, files, etc. have to be packed in such a manner that one can set up one’s professional work-space speedily and be ‘up and running’.

Fourth, there should be a clear identification of the number of boxes per room and the total number of boxes. They have to tally with the boxes being moved and boxes being received in the new house. Ideally, there has to be a sign-off at both the ends. That is why one needs more people. Friends may not know where to arrange the stuff. But, if they are labelled correctly, they can ensure that they are stacked in the appropriate places besides ensuring that the number of boxes received match with the number of boxes loaded and packed for each room.

Fifth, if you have possession of your new house a week or even a few days in advance, you can use the time to move all precious items – these are not confined just to expensive jewellery and watches but also documents such as passports and permits.  When you safely deposit the items yourself, think of what would make you miss the most and feel sad, if lost. Take them with you. Life is full of asymmetries.

Well, it is always asymmetric. Loss aversion is more intense than anticipation of gains. The former is more painful than the pain experienced for a gain that failed to materialise. That is asymmetry. Further, we miss them when they are lost than we feel happy when they are with us. This is as true of things as it is for individuals and friendships!

Sixth, it is better to pack two or three suit cases for a few days or up to a week as though one is travelling outstation. That would enable us to pursue our commitments – workplace – easily even as we settle down and set up the new place. We won’t’ be frustrated searching for a small things such as a handkerchief or one sock in a pair!

In spite of all of the above, you may lose a few things. One hopes that it does not happen and if it does, you may not be disappointed too much. Anticipate that. It would make it easier to bear. If there is some insurance available, all the better.

Of course, no technology has been developed yet that enables one to wake up in a new home with all things neatly arranged. Be prepared for hard labour. Have small medications handy – for a sprain and for aches, in general.

A wedding is not usually an occasion for stock-taking. Moving homes is an occasion for stock-taking. It is the only time we take a hard look at the stuff that we accumulate, often mindlessly.

As you grow tired of unpacking and putting things in their proper places in the new home – all the more difficult if you are moving to a house of a smaller size – just take a moment to ask, ‘why?’. Just as work expands to fill the time available. Our possessions expand to gratify the ego, even as the latter keeps growing too! That is the problem.

We accumulate things and when we pause to think of how they would be looked after or who would look after them, after we are long gone, we won’t be acquiring much at all. Indeed, nothing is going to come with us – in Tamil, Pattinaththaar has a beautiful line for it: even an ear-less needle will not come with us on our last journey.

If moving houses forces us to ask deep questions of accumulating tendencies and of the meaning of our possessions, then moving homes will be worth it.

Sometimes, technologies help us make spiritual progress. Sometimes, they do not. Apple products are named iPhone, iMac and iTunes, etc. That is against spiritual progress. The emphasis on ‘i’ is an ego-statement.

But, services like ‘Airbnb’ and taxi services like ‘Uber’ and ‘Grab’ in Singapore remind us that what we need are services that some assets give us and that we do not need to own the assets. They make possession unnecessary and absence of possession or possessiveness is spiritual progress.

In that sense, ‘moving’ can be progress even though movement is mostly not progress. After nearly eight years of living in an independent house, I moved to an apartment this week and these were thoughts triggered by the experience of packing, moving, unpacking and settling in. The last is still work in progress and will be so, for a few more weeks!

Resilience

It is quite possible to misunderstand this otherwise useful long essay that appeared in ‘Wall Street Journal’ on Saturday (Nov. 11). It is about resilience. Celebrities and successful people – now and before – have invariably had difficult childhoods – broken homes, alcoholic and abusive parents, sexual abuse, bullying in school, etc.

Before we even begin to analyse the article, we have to state upfront that the study seems confined to the American cultural or family setting. Would the results be different in other societies? Possibly.

When one reads the article carefully, one realises that hardship is neither a sufficient nor a necessary condition for success or distinction later in life. Read this carefully:

Two-thirds of these high-risk children went on to have difficulties of their own, such as delinquency, unplanned pregnancies and underemployment. One-third, however, fared well. At school and at work, they did as well as, or better than, their low-risk peers from more affluent, stable homes. [Link]

Notice that two-thirds went on to have difficulties of their own. Therefore, some might be tempted to conclude that it is a necessary condition but not a sufficient condition. If it is a necessary condition, then those who have comfortable lives as children should not be succeeding big. The evidence for that is mixed:

The Goertzels found that less than 15% of their famous men and women had been raised in supportive, untroubled homes, with another 10% in a mixed setting.

More interestingly, the one-third (see the earlier quoted text) who went on to be successful provided caring homes for their children:

In adulthood, they found supportive partners and built loving families that, often, differed greatly from the ones they grew up with.

The real issue is not whether one provides a rough or tough environment for their children to shine later in their lives. No one is going to wantonly deny their children comfort and affection, if they have a choice of providing them.

The question is whether and how one prepares them to face tough situations as and when they arise. Do we pamper, spoil them or readily provide support and not let them grow up on their own even as we stand ready to lend a helping hand when it becomes absolutely essential?

For example, when they have difficulties with their studies, do we abuse the school and teachers and bully them or encourage the children to work harder, to ask questions, to look inward and find out where they are going wrong and show them how to emerge out of it?

Some of the passages in the article reminds one of Viktor Frankl’s ‘Man’s inner search for meaning’:

Dr. Ehlers found that the extent to which prisoners had fought back in their own minds made a bigger difference than the severity of the abuse they had suffered. Those who felt mentally defeated—who felt like they were “nothing” or who quit caring what became of them—were more likely to report symptoms of PTSD later. By contrast, prisoners who had resisted from within—even if they appeared to have given up on the outside, by complying with guards or signing false confessions—fared better down the line.

So, how to enhance or cultivate resilience in children who grow up in comfortable setting? I found it hard to believe that the article does not mention the importance and usefulness of emotional security and affection that parents provide. Aren’t they supposed to be helpful for children to cope?

In fact, very successful people are usually rare. That is true by definition. So, children growing up in difficult environment can turn out to be somewhat extreme – either too successful or too badly.

Most of us will settle for our children to turn out to be moderately accomplished, emotionally stable adults who are also useful members and pillars of their community, if possible.

What do we need to do for them to tick these relatively modest goals? The article is a bit thin on that, in my view. Nonetheless, it is not empty. It offers some suggestions:

Take on long-form projects that feel like challenges rather than threats.

When life inevitably becomes difficult, own the fighter within. Resist defeat in your own mind.

Reach out to family, friends or professionals who care. … Seeking support is what resilient people do.

Engage in active coping…. Make a realistic plan to improve your situation, and work toward it day by day. Progress shores us up and calms us down.

Finally, remember the ways you have been courageous and strong.  (In other words, remember your stories of successful coping and resilience).

In sum, a useful article but if not carefully read, it can be misleading and lead to incorrect inferences too. Apologies if the article is behind a paywall. I read it because I saw a link to it in the Twitter handle of Jason Zweig.

Sidin Vadukut interviews Prof. Audrey Truschke

I stumbled upon the interview of Sidin Vadukut of Prof. Audrey Truschke in MINT this morning.

I have not read the book of the Professor on Aurangazeb. So, this blog post is not a comment on the book nor a critique of the book. But, it only contains questions that I wish the interviewer had asked the interviewee.

(1) She says, when asked about whether the Emperor could be ‘blamed’ for the end of the Mughal era in India, she gives a fairly reasonable reply, overall. But, this caught my attention:

When you combine that with modern anti-Muslim prejudices, which are widespread in India and around the world today, one gets a narrative of India’s most abhorrent king.

If I were the interviewer, I would, just to draw out the interviewee, ask more about the other side of Aurangazeb, citing from other sources, just to see how rigorously she established her case that he was not India’s most abhorrent King. For example, someone reminded me that Aurangazeb reintroduced Jazia, a punitive and pernicious tax on non-Muslims. Etc., etc.

Second, ‘Modern anti-Muslim prejudices’. Are they only prejudices? Are there no empirical evidence, available from goings-on in the Islamic world itself, that these are not (just) prejudices?

(2) She remarks, towards the end of the interview:

History is an evidentiary-based discipline to a great degree, but it also rests on arguments made by individuals, and nobody stands completely free of their own  historical context.

Does it not apply to her? Being not free of one’s historical context – is that a strength or a weakness? If it can be a weakness, how and what did she do, to guard against the weakness of being ‘not free of one’s own historical context’? That would be a good follow-up question to ask but not asked.

(3) Lastly, when she blames the British for having painted Aurangazeb in a ‘bad light’ just to make themselves look better (an assertion that could have been challenged), a follow-up question was begging to be asked: could a similar judgement be extended to what the British wrote about Indian and Hindu systems too, just to make themselves appear as the civilisers?

I have noticed a pattern in several interviews. Either the interviewer is an antagonist and actually asks rather hostile questions. If the interviewee is well prepared, it turns out to be a great interview because, that way, the interviewees are forced to explain, articulate, justify and defend their theses rather rigorously. If they do not, then the readers can form their own conclusions as to how much time to devote to or waste on their work, as the case may be.

When the interviewer is in awe of or is too respectful towards the interviewees or is sympathetic to the subject matter or is unsympathetic to the interviewee’s antagonists, then the interview becomes too lame. My suspicion is that this interview falls in the latter category.

The wisdom of Sébastian Bras for Mark Zuckerberg

The September 23rd International Edition of New York Times had two very beautiful stories. I caught up with them on my flight to Hong Kong.

The first story I want to mention here is that of Facebook. The article is aptly titled, ‘Facebook’s Frankenstein moment’. The article has some very interesting and profound sentences that should make us think of its relevance for human lives too.

The journalist writes:

If I were a Facebook executive, I might feel a Frankensteinian sense of unease these days. The company has been hit with a series of scandals that have bruised its image, enraged its critics and opened up the possibility that in its quest for global dominance, Facebook may have created something it can’t fully control.

One more:

But the troubles do make it clear that Facebook was simply not built to handle problems of this magnitude. It’s a technology company, not an intelligence agency or an international diplomatic corps. Its engineers are in the business of building apps and selling advertising, not determining what constitutes hate speech in Myanmar. And with two billion users, including 1.3 billion who use it every day, moving ever greater amounts of their social and political activity onto Facebook, it’s possible that the company is simply too big to understand all of the harmful ways people might use its products.

The last one:

When Mark Zuckerberg built Facebook in his Harvard dorm room in 2004, nobody could have imagined its becoming a censorship tool for repressive regimes, an arbiter of global speech standards or a vehicle for foreign propagandists.

These three excerpts made me think. Multiple thoughts came to my head. There are lessons in this for corporate mission and goals; for humans.

Is growth the ‘be all and end all’ for corporations? Are we in control of what we do? When we begin to do something, do we even know in what directions it would grow and how big? Do we control the process all the way through? Do we realise that? Do we even know that we don’t drive the process but the process has a mind and life of its own? In fact, it is the real intelligence and we are the artificial one! Do we grasp the play of the law of unintended consequences in life and in business?

Only if we do, we can put our hand up and say STOP and not pursue growth for its own sake. When we conscioiusly question the ‘growth’ choices (becoming big or rich or both), we will even think of why we pursue those goals – megalomania or delusions of grandeur?

Plainly put, is it ego that drives and not any other so-called rational imperative? Per se, nothing wrong with ego having a role. It always does. But, recognising that will evaluate the trade-offs and the costs better and pursue corporate goals (or, personal goals) with a sense of awarenesss.

Every time we are offered choices to grow big and fast, the alternatives are ‘grow big but at a measured pace’ and ‘stability over growth’. How do we evaluate the choices? That would make a big difference. Going back to our origins, our goals at inception would help steer us better and keep us grounded even as we fancy taking flight to higher altitudes. Again, applies as much to businesses as it does to individuals and institutions.

And, to politicians! As they become bigger and bigger players, they move furhter and further from their core values and principles. IF they look into the mirror one day, they will not recognise the face they see. How much has it been transformed and HOW and WHY?

Staying close to one’s knitting and to one’s initial goals, staying small, compact and manageable vs. growing big, these are as much philosophical decisions as they are business decisions. When we choose the latter – growing big – we do have to recognise the possibility that we won’t be in the driver’s seat.

Letting the process drive us and growing big consciously are actually two different choices. The articles give us the opportunity to think about how many of us are victims or prisoners of the former? The second one is about freedom. Are we free?

[Of course, at a macro level or economic plane, there is a problem with this philosophy. A country of India’s size needs scale. Also, conversely, while the desire and passion to grow big brings with it, its own share of problems, issues and loss of control, the motivation to stay small should also be subjected to rigorous questioning? – laziness (sloth) or lack of confidence.]

But, in the American context and in the light of what Facebook has wrought to itself, to people’s lives (most users are on big ego trips on their Facebook page unmindful of their own privacy and security), the above questions and issues are more relevant than the parenthetical sentiment.

The story of the Michelin *** Chef putting his hand up and say STOP was a beautiful contrast to the Facebook story. He is a spiritual chef.

Mark Zuckerberg – and all of us – must have a conversation with Sébastian Bras. He is only 45 years old (google search). He wants Michelin to take his three stars away. Pointedly, he said this:

I want to be liberated from the pressure.

That is it. We have found our spiritual wisdom. That one sentence can unlock many things, many of our minds including that of Zuckerberg.

‘Liberation’ is a heavily loaded spiritual term. We are all held in bondage by our desires, by our goals and by social conventions, pressures and because ‘this is how and this is what everyone does’. Liberation is about letting go. He is ready to do that, at least in this aspect. If ‘letting go’ is not spiritual, what else is?

He said he wanted to give a new meaning to his life.  Bingo!

Towards the end of the article, there are quite a few profound truths, uttered by chefs. There is something very beautiful about hearing these words from chefs because food is the biggest craving for many of us. It is a very big bondage. Here, chefs are teaching us about ‘letting go’. There is a beautiful irony in it.

Sample this:

In 2005, Alain Senderens, a founder of the nouvelle cuisine movement, decided to close Lucas Carton, his Art Nouveau restaurant on the Place de la Madeleine in Paris and abandon his three stars. He said he was fed up with the agony of perfection and wanted to do “beautiful cuisine without all the tra-la-la and chichi, and put the money into what’s on the plate.”

Fed up with the ‘agony of perfection’ – think about it.  It is not an invitation for sloppiness. Indeed, the paradox is that he would most likely make food that delight scores of customers with this mindset.

Or, sample this:

Earlier this year, René Redzepi, 39, the chef and a co-owner of Noma in Denmark, a leading light of the New Nordic movement, said he was closing his two-starred restaurant and moving it to another neighborhood in Copenhagen, forsaking his hard-earned stars. He said in an interview that it was “necessary to break down a castle in order to build a new one.”

Of course, in my book, the gold goes to Sébastian Bras:

Mr. Bras, for his part, said his decision to shun the would-be supreme court of global cuisine had been motivated by a search for serenity. He noted that while the pressure to retain three stars could be an engine for creativity, it could also prove debilitating.

“Food should be about love — not about competition,” he said. “All I want is to welcome people to my restaurant during the day, or during the night under a sky filled with stars.”

All emphasis mine.

Sébastian Bras is not just a chef. He is a Guru.

[Postscript: A friend, on reading the post promptly, pointed out that the use of the word, ‘process’ can be confusing. A process-driven path to growth (or any other business or personal goals) may actually be considered the right way to go about it rather than the one that is ego-driven or driven by convention, social pressures or peer group pressure, etc. I have used the word, ‘process’, to denote these latter, unthinking and unconscious approaches]

Scarcity of nuance

A good friend forwarded an article by Ta Nihisi Coates – extracts from his forthcoming book, apparently – published in ‘The Atlantic’.

I read it and I was profoundly disappointed. It was an article written for the faithfuls. He was singing to the choir.

The author makes fundamental errors of distinguishing between ‘average’ and ‘at the margin’. Uses exclusionary arguments. Broadbrushes everybody else and quotes out of context. Contradicts himself liberally (pun intended).

It should be possible to accept and argue

that racism remains an issue in America,
that America has indeed made considerable progress,
that many conscientious Whites have done their bit to remove the racism barrier,
that the election in 2016 was between two unworthy candidates,
that the more populist won (because of race, among other things)
and that President Obama did not do much for blacks (except tokenism as he ‘did’ for world peace)

Exclusionary and exclusive arguments and assuming what one needs to establish are the stuff of polemics and not scholarship.

Articles or books such as these, in the environment that the world finds itself, won’t shake up the establishment and narrative. They would worsen the divide. What is in short supply is ‘nuance’ and that is what intellectuals need to supply. What is in short supply has value. Polemics and polarisation are on offer plentily. No value. Sheer Economics.

But, nuance is hard work.