Anand Mahindra and Charles Dickens

The brief but nice convocation address by Anand Mahindra to the graduating class at IIM-A in 2014 is available here. Worth a read.

Must highlight this part of his speech:

I believe that this psychological legacy of colonialism was at least as pernicious as the memories of physical humiliation. Why on earth did we allow this residue to remain for so long? We were in a state of mind best summed up by this Urdu Sher:

Ajab ye zindagi ki
Kaid hai har insaan
Rihayi maangta hai aur
Riha hone se darta hai

Which essentially means that even though we long for our freedom, we are mortally afraid of being released.

He has questioned the need for us to allow the residue to remain for long. But, worse, we continue to read and extol those who wished to exterminate us from the face of this earth.

Until I read this piece (published in 2007) in ‘Guardian’, I did not know that the famous author Charles Dickens had such a mighty contempt for ‘races’:

According to an article by Dr. Gideon Polya, this is what Charles Dickens wrote to businessman Emile de la Rue in October 1857:

Thus Charles Dickens in a letter to Emile de la Rue on 23 October 1857 about the so-called Indian Mutiny of 1857 :  “I wish I were Commander in Chief over there [ India ]! I would address that Oriental character which must be powerfully spoken to, in something like the following placard, which should be vigorously translated into all native dialects, “I, The Inimitable, holding this office of mine, and firmly believing that I hold it by the permission of Heaven and not by the appointment of Satan, have the honor to inform you Hindoo gentry that it is my intention, with all possible avoidance of unnecessary cruelty and with all merciful swiftness of execution, to exterminate the Race from the face of the earth, which disfigured the earth with the late abominable atrocities [2,000 British killed in the 1857 Indian War of Independence aka the 1857 Indian Mutiny]

Gideon Polya cites this from the book by Grace Moore titled, ‘Dickens and the Empire. Discourses of class, race, and colonialism in the works of Charles Dickens”, published in 2004.

The Wiki page on Charles Dickens and racism is interesting but it mentions that the above intent of extermination was expressed in a letter that Dickens wrote to Baroness Burdett-Coutts. I do not know who is correct. But, it is important to note that he expressed that sentiment. The discrepancy is in the name of the addressee. This discrepancy apart, the Wiki page is worth reading.

Lest I forget to mention, the article in ‘Guardian’ mentions the work of historian Amaresh Misra who claims that Britain’s deacde-long ‘holocaust’ in India claimed about 10 million lives:

A controversial new history of the Indian Mutiny, which broke out 150 years ago and is acknowledged to have been the greatest challenge to any European power in the 19th century, claims that the British pursued a murderous decade-long campaign to wipe out millions of people who dared rise up against them.

In War of Civilisations: India AD 1857, Amaresh Misra, a writer and historian based in Mumbai, argues that there was an “untold holocaust” which caused the deaths of almost 10 million people over 10 years beginning in 1857.

How many such speeches do the Mahindras of India have to make before Indians shed their colonial hangover?

(Cross-posted here)

Fox-like thinking

About a little over two weeks ago, I came across this lovely quote by Robert Solow in the website of Arnold Kling:

I remember reading once tha t it is still not understood how the giraffe manages to pump an adequate blood supply all the way up to its head; but it is hard to imagine that anyone would therefore conclude that giraffes do not have long necks. At least not anyone who had ever been to a zoo. – Robert Solow [Link]

Then, I read a paper by Arnold Kling titled, ‘Macroeconomics: the science of hubris’ (Link). The paper is an easy read. It is easy to follow his arguments on the impossibility of macro-economic modeling. Here is a sample:

An almost limitless number of factors could affect key macroeconomic variables from quarter to quarter. For each factor, moreover, there are several potential specifications for the variable representing that factor. The variable might be entered into the equations as linear or nonlinear, de-trended or not, current or lagged, and so forth. Perhaps the effect of the level of average house prices is different from the effect of the rate of change of house prices. Ceteris paribus, a higher level might reduce demand, but a higher rate of increase might increase demand. The number of factors to be controlled for is further enlarged by ‘‘special factors,’’ such as the steel strikes or wage/price controls alluded to earlier. All things considered, there are thousands of plausible specifications of equations.

In conclusion, he compares macro-econometric models to the wrong map used by Swiss mountaineers lost in the Swiss Alps. They had the map of Pyrenees, a mountain range that borders France and Spain (I think).  But, there is a big, big difference. They made it down safely from the mountain using the wrong map. The same cannot be said of macro-econometric modelers. They give wrong prescriptions, policymakers follow them and the consequences remain with   societies for a very long time with no one being able to account for the costs of  the wrong ideas. It is humanely impossible and for the most important reason that no counterfactual is possible to construct, in hindsight.

What the map of Pyrenees meant to the mountaineers is a different thing. That should be discussed separately. That indicates the power (or the susceptibility) of the mind to accept ‘placebos’.

Staying with maps, I must mention here the delightful review of Greenspan’s ‘The Map and the Territory’ by John Kay:

No economic model can describe “the world as it really is”; there are only provisional approximations that can be pragmatically applied in particular situations.

Many economists struggle to accept this. They suffer physics envy, believing (I think wrongly) that physicists employ models that do describe “the world as it really is”. If economics is to be a science, these economists think, those who practice the subject must identify truths that are similarly independent of time, place or context.

I would be even more circumspect of economic models. I would not venture to say that they are provisional approximations that can be pragmatically applied to certain situations. I would say that they are first approximations that are points of departure in our quest to understand economic reality.

His final blow on Greenspan is brilliant: underlying superficiality of thought concealed by the complexity of expression. WoW!

Staying with modelling, Dani Rodrik (ht: Kevin Gallagher tweet) has written a piece saying that academics requires more fox-like thinking than hedgehog-like thinking:

The fox, by contrast, lacks a grand vision and holds many different views about the world – some of them even contradictory…..  Foxes carry competing, possibly incompatible theories in their heads. They are not attached to a particular ideology and find it easier to think contextually. [Link]

This approach to problems comes naturally to many Indians who have not crossed over to the Western mode of linear thinking. To appreciate many tenets and philosophies of Hinduism, one needs this fox-like thinking hat.

At this stage, it makes sense to link here  – to put them all in one place – Emanuel Derman’s manifesto and Hippocratic Oath for economic modellers.

[Cross posted at ‘The Gold Standard’ blog here]

Of Placebos and minds

Arnold Kling, an economist by training and many things in practice, has this story of how Swiss mountaineers, having lost their way, high up in Swiss alps, navigated their way back to safer terrain using a map which, on inspection, turned out to be the wrong map. This story is attributed to Professor Daniel Kahneman who wrote the famous, ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’.

This story reminds me of the strong effect of Placebo. The wrong map played the role that placebos play in curing illnesses. The map was practically useless but it tricked the minds of the mountaineers into believing that it was the real thing. Dr. Vidyasagar, at the University of Texas at Dallas wrote to me that the effect of placebos in cancer  cure is real. He highly recommended the reading of ‘Emperor of all maladies’.

The power of placebos to cure by tricking the mind leads me to wonder whether the mind is a powerful thing or a vulnerable thing to trickery. OF course, it is both. The answer will be that ‘it is up to us’ to make it powerful than it really is, etc., etc.

If it is so ‘gullible’, we are missing a big opportunity here to tame it by letting ourselves be willing victims of many of its tricks. Underscores the importance, in a way, of non-cognitive skills. That is what Aparajitha Foundation’s ‘Life Skills Programme‘ aims to address in its own way (Disclosure: I am one of the Trustees of the Foundation).

What is it to ‘be spiritual’?

When people ask me what do I do every day ever since I quit a full-time job in July 2011, I feel reluctant to say that I am engaged a bit more than I used to in spiritual pursuits. By the end of the post, the reason for my reluctance will be clearer. The common understanding of spiritual pursuits could be somewhat different from what I intend to convey. Usually, it is taken to mean that one is engaged in religious studies, participates in group chanting and/or attends religious classes (e.g., Veda chanting or Bhagawad Gita lessons), visits temples, etc. My guess is that spirituality could include these but is certainly not limited to them.

At a personal level, I am doing some of the above activities more than I used to, in the past. I find them useful, comforting and I think they help me in ‘spiritual pursuits’ as I am going to describe them below. I believe that they help to prepare the mind just as one prepares the soil before seeding. Harvest comes much later and a lot more remains to be done after seeding. Hence, the analogy seems apt, to me.

But, it is possible that one may just stop with these activities and not pursue a spiritual path. Worse, in some cases, pursuit of the above activities is construed to be a license to engage more freely in unethical and immoral activities in the worldly plane.

What exactly is being ‘spiritual’ or being engaged in spiritual pursuit? What follows is a personal definition. I see two dimensions to being spiritual.

As one becomes more and more spiritual, in every action/non-action, one will go through three stages consciously: awareness, action (or non-action) and acceptance of outcome of the previous two stages of awareness and action. This is one dimension of spirituality.

Being aware of a situation including one’s own motivations, prejudices, insecurities, fears, anxieties, jealousies, etc. makes it a lot easier to deal with them. The moment one becomes aware of them, one ceases to justify them to oneself and the journey to a world where we are rid of them has begun in a big way. ‘Being aware’ is also the very big step in developing and maintaining ‘Saakshibhava’.

In the practical plane, awareness leads to conscious action, weighing of costs, benefits and consequences of action and inaction with greater objectivity. In fact, awareness in some situations will lead to non-action which is very different from inaction.

Inaction usually is thamasic whereas non-action is deliberate. Action usually results from the need/urge to act, driven by ego – wanting to be seen as doing something (for one’s own self-image and one for the sake of worldly perception). Awareness leading to non-action is recognition of a problem but also the attendant recognition that one’s proposed solutions might not solve the problem but compound it. That is humility or, at the minimum, leashing the ego. We all have the urge to solve all the problems that befall us (personal) or come to our knowledge (private and social) – personal, private or social – and underlying that urge is the belief and the confidence that we have the answers. It may be true on occasions but, mostly, it is our ego that makes us believe that we have the answers.

Once we have decided to act (or, not act), then we accept whatever outcome that comes our way without any attachment to it. Of course, I am not saying anything new here. Most of you know who holds the intellectual property right to this one.

May be, I should propose one amendment: Instead of ‘action’, let us say, ‘decision’ without attachment to outcomes. ‘Decision’ is broader and includes both action and non-action.

The second dimension of spirituality is to make sure that one’s actions are aligned with one’s words and words are aligned with thoughts and of course, to ensure that the thoughts be healthy and dharmic.

It seems apt to end this post with the words of Sri Chandrashekhara Bharati Mahaswamigal (1892-1954), 34th Pontiff (1912-1954) of the Sri Sharada Peetam, Sringeri:

 What is the practical use of enunciating the abstract truth of the Absolute Brahman to people who are not prepared to put into practice the elementary principles of even Samanya Dharma, Ordinary Law? After securing steadiness in Samanya Dharma, and after purifying and qualifying himself by the earnest practice of Visesha Dharma, the Special Law, prescribed for him, a person attains the requisite standard of competence to enable him to enter on the study of Advaita. The tendency to neglect the wholesome doctrine that Vedantic study is intended only for the competent is responsible for the confused thinking of modern days. Even for simple crafts, such as masonry or carpentry, a preliminary course of training is required before a person is allowed to handle the instruments; but in the field of Brahma-Vidya, the science of the Self, the highest and the most difficult of all sciences, everybody thinks himself competent and entitled to study the system of Advaita and even to sit in judgement over it. This attitude must go and must be replaced by earnest endeavour first to secure the necessary competence. If we make an honest attempt to secure that competence by following implicitly the directions of the sastras and of the Guru, the Lord will guide us along the path of progress, solve all our problems and doubts, free us from all worry and trouble and lead us on to the state of realisation of the Advaita Reality, the truth and the bliss of the absolute oneness of all in the undifferentiated Brahman. [Link, p.14]

(So, why am I reluctant to say that I am engaged in spiritual pursuits? It is not correct to say that one is working towards a doctorate just after having joined the Kindergarten.)

Shanti Sadhan

It is about 17 years (give or take a few months) since my parents began living in ‘Shanti Sadhan’ in the suburb called Kochadai in Madurai. It is hard to say that peace reigns here these days. But, to an extent, it is also a state of mind. On that basis, I can say that when I come here, I find that peace reigns. When I take a walk around the apartment blocks, I find old people chanting either Vishnu Sahasranamam or some other slokam at the small Vinayaka temple inside the compound. Today, they were chanting slokams from the Bhagawad Gita. There was ‘Kandar Sashti Kavasam’ playing from an apartment. Nitin Pai, my friend from Bangalore, finds the absence of advertisements and hoarding for Pepsi and Pizza Hut in Madurai very reassuring. Not that he is a fan of Cocoa Cola. I guess you get what he means.

To some extent, when I come here, I find that the talk of bonuses, Bloomberg screens, BMWs and the chatter of competitive aspirations recede into the distant background. I do not say that they do not exist among households here. Perhaps, they do and perhaps, they are limited. I do not get to hear them. I find that very comforting. Visiting this place enables me to go back to a time when the world was somewhat more innocent or simpler or at least I used to think so then. That is good enough for me.