Friday, December 30, 2011

Between Perception and Reality

Don't we remember seeing shapes in the clouds morphing into a human face or recognizable objects? something like this.
Or, do you recall the chill that ran up your spine when you saw a lingering human figure in the black silhouette of the swaying tree branches? You might pass this up as mere illusion, something that occurs when your mind plays tricks on you. Then consider more of such cases. Do you remember a game in our childhood where we use to spot abstract figures or objects in the messy ink splatters formed between two pages of our notebooks (the famous Rorschach Inkblot test)?.  
I am sure you won't forget this one. The famous 'Face on Mars' - a part of its Cydonia region. The picture was taken by the Viking 1 orbiter spacecraft and was released by NASA/JPL on July 25, 1976 upon seeing which people mistaken it for existence of Alien civilization on Mars. Lastly, not to forget the several instances of UFO sightings and numerous reportings on appearances of ghost images in videos and photos.

Wonder what are these? Simple illusions or cases of pathological disorders in the brain? No, don't worry you haven't lost your wits yet. I chanced upon this interesting article by Dr. John W. Hoopes, Ph.D., an Associate Professor in the Anthropology Department at the University of Kansas, and was astonished to learn that this is a quite common phenomenon and is attributed to our error of perception, called Apophenia. Based on the recent researches and experiments, specialists in the field of Psychology, psychoanalysis and neurobiology are trying to understand this condition and its related effects. Apophenia is a tendency to interpret or see patterns or connections in a random or meaningless data. In fact the examples we just described are a special case called Pareidolia. which is visual Apophenia. Dr. Hoopes tells that Apophenia is a result of process of Human Cognitive evolution. In words of Carl Segan, Human mind is hard-wired to recognize faces from birth and this ability allows us to use only minimal details such as outline of an object or a shape to recognize or interpret random images or patterns as faces from a distance, and even in poor visibility conditions.

Those of you who have read the famous book 'Fooled by Randomness' by Nassim Nicholas Taleb would recollect that Taleb talks about the cognitive biases, which is a general term used to describe may distortions in human mind that result in the errors in its judgmental capabilities. We are all victims of cognitive biases. We stake our life-savings in the Stock Market trusting on the hunches of an investment analyst who claims to "foresee" the upcoming market drift in its random movements. This is an example of hindsight bias. The analyst constructs financial models that claim to predict the market movements based on historical data which in a way "seem" to fit a pattern. Or a 'confirmation bias' which makes us see only that information which confirms our preconceptions or hypotheses regardless of whether the information is true. This shows that there is some common footing between Apophenia and cognitive biases. Dr. Hoopes apparently hold that "Apophenia is not usually pathological but can become so in schizophrenia, when pattern recognition and interpretation run wild".

Hollywood has exploited this idea in movies such as " A Beautiful Mind" about John Nash, the nobel laureate mathematician and founder of the field of Game theory, who is tricked by his mind into believing that he has been hired by US department of defense to detect and decode patterns in magazines and newspapers which supposedly is the clandestine mode of communication for Russians. In pursuit of doing so he becomes preoccupied with it and loses his sanity. Similarly, in psychological thriller "Pi", a debut movie by Darren Aronofsky, the protagonist, a number theorists, strongly believes in the premise that every thing in this nature can be understood by numbers. He becomes obsessed with finding predictable patterns within the stock market movements inevitably lingering on the verge of madness.

Pattern recognition and interpretation is fundamental to human existence. Conditions such as Apophenia or Pareidolia gives us a glimpse of the eerie propensities of Human mind which pushes us to the fringes of our understanding of perception and reality.

Image courtesy: NASA/JPL and Shutterstock

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Indian TV Soaps - Serial killers

Falling prey to an onslaught of Indian Television Soap-operas could proved to be the single life sucking experience for an average Indian male. Watching an Indian TV soaps could well be both mentally harrowing and emotionally draining experience. This is completely from my own humble experience after having left with no option but to watch them for fairly substantial no. of hours of their airing time everyday. Mentally harrowing because your gray cells would want to explode as you watch it and feels like you are eternally stuck  with a "WHY ME" syndrome. Emotionally draining as you are exposed to insistent barrage of appalling, out of the world histrionics packed with melodrama and conversational non-sequiturs that leave people scratching their heads or make them numb with emotional distress. If you are one of such victims, you would empathize with it more as your own agony plays out before your eyes while reading this.

Indian Soaps are examples of intelligent TV programming addictive for those who want to watch it,with never ending story plots, each one deceiving to offer a fresh storyline with an embedded social message in their promos but only to fallback on the same old cliches after few episodes. As my version of the slogan of one channel says "Rishta Nahin, Soch Wohi" literally "no relation, same cerebration". This is nothing but an old trick to let the viewers especially housewives fall prey and remain glued to the TV sets in anticipation of something new and interesting.

Every soap supposedly portrays a middle class family that would have mansions with bright ornate walls, marble flooring, and giant decorative pillars, inter-spread with silken curtains impelling Indian economists to revisit their poverty line threshold estimates. TV channels have started a irritating new trend to rope in Salman Khan in every other promotional venture for new reality shows, or Soaps. I freak out whenever see this guy with his perpetually swollen puffy eyes, terribly bad Hindi skills and utterly disgusting hip-gyrating movements.

These soaps would have carefully chosen unusually long titles preferably lines from a popular Hindi song, with first line played up and rest displayed in cleverly indistinguishable case affixed in the end during the promos and the song is repeatedly played in the background. The female characters in these soaps are incredulously made up and decked up everytime and everywhere (including unusual places as kitchen, bedrooms, while sleeping!!). While this buffoonary being enacted on screen, one could spot some peculiarly distinctive background sounds which adds to this dramatic effect -
  1. For all the wicked wives, bahus and sister-in-laws, a signature tune plays out in the background whenever they enter the scene or when their evil, conniving thoughts set into motion (a lot of thinking aloud goes with it!!). Here there is a unusually heavy emphasis on use of indian percussions with characteristically repetitive thumping which builds up in a huge crescendo and then collapses
  2. then goes a peculiar crashing cymbal sound for occasional accents or shocking revelations accompanied by camera swooshing and swishing movements from all directions with every possible angles converging into the contorted and over-expressive faces of casts. Sudden camera zooms,  awkwardly abrupt fast and slow motions (usually within a second from each other) will follow.
  3. finally the virtuous bahu signature background tune that would have probably a piece of violine or sitar with lot of chorus effect (something like lalla la lala)
No doubt that all these 'subtle refinements' would requires equally monumental efforts and commitment from actors.

I found that sometimes male characters in these serials even would have effeminate tendencies. In one such soap, the only Son of an orthodox Marwadi family has been brought up in a overly protective environment and we are made to realize this during the episodes when his mother cries out and calls him an abominably annoying "MUNNA" several times. Sometime it becomes difficult to tell if it is "MUNNA" or "MUNNI" she is addressing to...

Well, this is eternally unending saga of buffoonery which has potential to bring forth an entire blog in itself. I hope some of you would have gotten some clue about my condition and would commiserate with my feelings.

For those of you who are not deterred but rather felt sufficiently motivated after reading this post and please have a look at guide on "UNDERSTAND INDIAN SOAP OPERAS"

Monday, December 26, 2011

A Hollow Eulogy

Government is celebrating 125th anniversary of Indian Mathematician Srinivasa ramanujan and observing his birthday as the National Mathematics Day. PM has also declared year 2012 as the National Mathematics Year. Reportedly, Robert Kanigel who is the author of The Man Who Knew Infinity (1991), first ever complete biography by an American author, was in India on an invitation from the Indian Academy of Sciences to give lectures as part of Ramanujan's birth  anniversary celebrations. The Hindu has published his interview here. I happened to read this book when I was pursuing post graduation. With due respect to Kanigel & all those foreign authors who painstakingly research and publish about India and Indians, I somehow not comfortable with this fact of a foreigner writing  so authoritatively about an Indian talent while we Indians remain alarmingly ignorant of our own scientific legacy.

Notwithstanding the amount and quality of research in such works, they still lack the cultural and social perspectives and remain confined to being nothing more than a skewed portrayal through a western lens.This arouses deeper questions. Why we Indian's are so poor in recognizing our own cultural legacy, our own historical achievements? Why do we need west to make us realize the true value of our accomplishments? What prevents us to be the first to write about our geniuses and our history and let the world know about it? Understand that We Indians have always been miserable in keeping the record of our own history. This is why Prof ramachandra Guha aptly raises this concern when he explored the central question of why historians of Asia do not write biographies and why they should duing a seminar in JNU.His main argument was that Asia has produced an interesting range of personalities and has a very rich literary tradition, but it is paradoxical why historians of Asia have not indulged in writing biographies. Among the probable reasons cited by Guha was the burden of  religious inheritance in Hinduism and Buddhism and the belief in the cycle of rebirth. He further adds that an indifference to record keeping also precluded the writing of biography.

I wonder why do we always need a western cultural, literary or scientific yardstick to benchmark our accomplishments? Why couldn't a Ramanujan recognized by local authorities when he endured such hardships at home. Why did it take a GH Hardy sitting in England to recognize the talent in him? Understand that real talent needs right conditions at home to flourish. Only in stable economic and social conditions would they be able to seek recognition for their work.If such conditions are hard to come by in a politically, socially and economically unstable milieu, they migrate. We witnessed this during second WW when  an overwhelming number of scientists and artists migrated from European countries of German occupations.This is not a new phenomenon for India too. Could this be exactly the reason why a Sun micro systems or a Hotmail got set up outside India? Or is this the reason why we have so many reasons to vehemently eulogize Non-resident Indian talents and their achievements while back home our scientific or artistic talent remains largely  unacknowledged?

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

A Racy Debate

Whenever India set out to achieve something out of the ordinary such as hosting a Formula I sporting events, you are bound to hear voices and opinions that swing from eulogistic or laudatory to downright caustic and debasing. Every voice, every opinion mirrors a different India.This is bound to happen in a democratic country like india where everyone has a right to voice an opinion. But it is also true that the its equally difficult to see those opinions converging into  a singular unanimous voice. As it is said, if something is true about India, then the opposite is also true. And these contradictions glare out at you and become more apparent whenever an attempt such as Formula I is made to project an image of India that is too far from reality.

The perception of the reality is this. Indian society is made up of haves and have nots.  The "haves" will always be the ones who are the major stakeholders in such events and would eventually be benefitted by it. They would be the ones who would ride on the "India coming of age" wave. The "have nots" wouldn't have time beyond their daily act of survival and would probably pass this as another quirky affair of the "haves". No wait, then there is a third category, who are a confused lot. They do not know what is meant by priority for a developing nation, they have not yet developed mental faculty to understand the pro and cons of such events and their cultural fitment.They just want to seize the moment and perpetually be in a state of delirium.

There is a lot of generalization in there and a deluge of mis-information. Events such as formula I, supported by private players, should be welcomed in India. No two ways about it. It is a biggest brand building exercises we can undertake. But the harm is not as much in hosting such events, but in what surrounds it. By utterly disregarding public sentiments and convinience, when such events are organized, and we see a breakdown of already lacking basic infrastructure and sanitation, whom should we run to?. When they out forward demand  that the sport should be granted tax exemption because of the high costs and the consequent lack of viability of the investment, then shouldn't it  need a closer inspection?... If in return of the lands acquired by the private from the farmers, they do not get their fair share, whose problem is this?...and more subtle and farreaching...a sudden and unnatural shift in the lifestyle of the farmers due to acquisition of wealth as part of land compensation leaving them unprepared for this change and thus begetting social problems....

We cannot create Brand India by creating a hype about an event. This is too simplistic and stupid an assumption. Equally true is we should not try to build brand India simply by window dressing an event as happened during CWG when the whole world knows what the reality is. Cause when we do that, it does more harm to our image and we end up doing the opposite. Also, while such initiatives on one hand do have the potential to change the perception about india in the world, they are also vulnerable to leave gaping holes out in the open for world to see, the all pervasive disparity in India.

We must not be too naive to simply hop into the bandwagon and join the jamboree, nor should we generate strong berating reactions about such events without recognizing the raison d'être for such event. Agree that these events are certainly an exciting indulgence for those who can afford to pay for it. However, they cannot simply be rejected based on an argument of social or cultural relevance to India. In India such disparities are bound to coexist. The solution is embark on initiatives which makes for a greater common good.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

A War To Remember

Exactly forty years ago, a new nation was born. Connected through a continuous landmass and closely entwined with its destiny, undoubtedly, without India there would be no Bangladesh. The dream of Mohammad Jinnah of  a united Pakistan proved to be short lived. Since its creation Pakistan had been an unquiet and uneasy cohabitation of two regions seperated by Indian landmass - East pakistan  which erstwhile called east bengal (before1947) and West Pakistan with Sindh, Balochistan, Pujab and NWFP. Both regions though shared a common religion were far apart in cultural ethos and identities.This proved to be enough of a reason to create a rift in them. What more evidence that religion can not a be the sole unifying factor. For an individual's meaningful existence, there are other identities which are far more important than just a religious one.

Bangladesh's birth was painful and bloody. A concise account here says that a political turmoil had sparked from the sweeping victory of Mujibur Rahman's Party  over Zulfikar Ali bhutto in the first general election which susequently prompted Yahya Khan to suspend the election results and send army to occupy east pakistan. India was closely watching all the developments in the region and was prepared for this. What she was not prepared for was the utter brutalilty with which it was carried out.

In a single most daring Blitzkrieg operation, Indian forces launched a multi-pronged offensive involving all three services (land, water, air) first time in the history. Not only this, Indian army also trained thousands of refugees from east pakistan in the military combat techniques and formed "Mukti Bahini" which also faught the war along with them. Severely battered on both the fronts, Pakistan forces lost their ground and finally on December 16, 1971, they surrendered unconditionally.

During Bangladesh crisis Indira Gandhi showed her qualities of decisiveness. Notwithstanding her controversial years in power, this was one such decision which gave her a permamnent place in the heart of Indians. In a penetrating article here on Indira Gandhi, Sudipta Kaviraj presents a picture of global balance of power around that time. She says that global powers such as USSR, america and UK had polarised the world in two factions due to Coldwar. Here I quote from the article - Soviet attitude towards India had changed considerably after Nehru's death, and their overtures with the Ayub regime sometimes created discernible strains with India.On the American side, the Nixon administration tilted US policy heavily against India, in an accentuation of the eternal paradox of American foreign policy—its steadfast preference for an avowed dictatorship to a democracy. China too could be expected to favour Pakistan. Risks of isolation were considerable and quite real. A possible war with Pakistan and the creation of a friendly state in the east could, however, alter the strategic balance considerably, and reduce the requirement for military preparedness and related costs, at least so it was believed at the time. Here Indira in one shrewd unexpected decicion, signed a treaty with the Soviet Union which proved remarkably effective in counter-balancing American support for Pakistan.

Such remarkable assertiveness and convincing victory that established India as the dominant power in the continent, was seen for the first time (and last?? alas) in history. India learnt its biggest lesson from this glorious victory that whatever had been the power equations, countries reacted to any critical developments strictly within the boundary of their perceived self-interests and not on any moral or objective ground.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Lunar Eclipse of 2011

We recently witnessed a total Lunar Eclipse, the splendid celestial phenomenon, on 10th of dec 2011 which was second and last such event in the year 2011. The first eclipse happened on June 15, 2011. This time around the Moon had been bigger and redder. A wonder ful video from NASA explains this effect

Couple of interesting facts that I am going to share about Lunar eclispe. We all know that an eclipse has two shadowy regions, Umbra and Penumbra. It is difficult to predict the exact brightness distribution in the umbra so observers use a scale called The Danjon value for estimating brightness at different times during totality of the eclipse.The Danjon scale of Lunar Eclipse brightness was proposed by the French astronomer André-Louis Danjon and is measured on a 5 point scale from L0 to L4, where L is the luminosity.

     L = 0     Very dark eclipse.Moon almost invisible, especially at mid-totality.

     L = 1     Dark Eclipse, gray or brownish in coloration.Details distinguishable only with 

     L = 2     Deep red or rust-colored eclipse.Very dark central shadow, while outer edge of
     umbra is relatively bright.

     L = 3     Brick-red eclipse.Umbral shadow usually has a bright or yellow rim.

     L = 4     Very bright copper-red or orange eclipse. Umbral shadow has a bluish, very bright
At, the time of eclipse, Moon was at an altitude of 30 degrees in the constellation of Taurus and 
was placed in the midst of other recongnizable constellations such as Auriga, Orion and Pleiades.
Eclipses follow a certain periodicity in their occurances. Every year there are at least two lunar 
eclipses. If one knows the date and time of an eclipse, it is possible to predict the occurrence of 
other eclipses using cycle measurements such as the saros. The saros is a period of 223
synodic months (approximately 6585.3213 days, or nearly 18 years 11 days), that can be used 
to predict eclipses of the Sun and Moon. After completing a saros in an eclipse, the Sun, 
Earth, and Moon return to approximately the same relative geometric positions, and a nearly 
identical eclipse will occur in an eclipse cycle. A one half of a saros is called a sar.According to 
NASA, december 10th total lunar eclipse was the 23rd member of Saros 135, a 
series of 71 eclipses occurring in the following order: 9 penumbral, 10 partial, 23 total, 7 partial,
and 22 penumbral lunar eclipses 

Another beautiful and rare celestial effect which was seen during Lunar eclipse is called 
selenelion. This occurs when eclipsed Moon andSun are observed in the sky at the same 
An active member of Bangalore Astronomy club took brilliant pictures of this eclipse
from Bangalore, India
 Courtesy - KV Shankarnarayanan
Next year in 2012, a total solar eclipse has been predicted to occur on  Nov 13th. 
More information on that later.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Meaning Of Hitler - Book Review

This book by Sebastian Haffner is not a biographical account to begin with. This book completely diverges from other well know detailed, well-referenced, chronological biographies of Hitler by the likes of Ian Kershaw, Joachim Fest or Ludolf Herbst in terms of its narrative style and structure. What caught my attention towards this book is that It is remarkably thin in its size but refreshingly thick in the original analysis in some respect. Sebastian Haffner was a noted German journalist and author renowned for his polemical writings on Nazi Germany. In fact Haffner was his nom de plume and his real name was Raimund Pretzel. He had adopted that pseudonym after he went into exile and emigrated to London with his Jewish wife in 1938 from Nazi Germany. 

Haffner is surprisingly even-handed in his analysis of Hitler in this book. His analysis is not marred by prejudices that you see in most of the biographies and Nazi literature that was published during the so called “Hitler wave” of the 70s. He successfully assays to give a perspective on this man, born out of the socio-political milieu, and his impact solely in terms of his ideology, misconceptions, his successes and errors. However, it is difficult to envisage a subject as complex as Hitler to be reduced to a mere personalization of human traits, character, idiosyncrasies etc. which the Haffner attempts daringly in this book and had been quite successful and convincing. There are some brilliant insights in this book and some lesser known facts which one is only able to find in a thoroughly researched or first hand account. 

Haffner begins with some of the most commonly known facets of Hitler’s early years in Vienna where his early concentration on politics became later his substitute for life and where a granite foundation for is political Ideology of National Socialism (or Nationalism or Anti- Semitism??) was laid which later developed into an obsession, an unnatural fixation to achieve an objective of setting up a greater German Reich which he had set out for himself from start and which he wanted to accomplish at any cost within his lifetime(!!). The author argues that after entering into politics and starting his own party NSDPA around the time of “November Crime” revolution to overthrow Weimar republic, Hitler’s domestic policy program was already complete (1918-1919), but his foreign policy slowly began taking shape during following 6-7 years after his decision to become der Führer, the position of absolute power. 

During the first 6 years of his 12 year reign is when Hitler discovered his mass mobilizing skill as an orator, a propagandist and enjoyed the reputation as a Damegogue. Haffner does not discount Hitler on his achievements. He argues that among his positive achievements, one which outshines all others was his economic miracle. After his becoming Reich chancellor in 1933, Germany was going through a great depression due to stock market crash of Oct. 1929 and around 6 mn. were unemployed. In mere 3 years, he achieved full employment. Hard to imagine, but that’s what became one of the factors which silenced many of his critiques who still rejected him. Likewise, his another achievement, argues Heffner, was re-militarization and rearmament of germany in first 6 years of his rule. Both proved to be vary effective economy boosting activities and important foreign policy initiatives, especially rearmament which had effectively invalidated Varsailles treaty. Moreover, he carried out a major social transformation in germany and called it “socialization of people”. Clearly socialism was a misnomer, and it was nothing but a forced socialization. Here author clearly differentiates that Hitler by no means socialized Production, as Marxists would see it, but he achieved it by pressing people into a collective “socialist” way of life, whether they liked it or not. 

Author distinguishes Hitler’s achievements from his unbroken successes, which he achieved from 1930 to1941 in his domestic and foreign policies. What changed between 1918- 23 and of 1933, author reasons, are Hitler’s opponents with whom he had to deal, which were never strong or tough. In 1920s, Weimar republic proved too strong for him to crack and that’s why he was a failure (Beer Hall putsch of 1923). Later in 1930-40 he dealt with weak opponents in terms of personalities and who lacked a political concept or were divided among themselves such as conservatives. He achieved his successes not by means of an efficiently working constitutional machinery and structured governmental hierarchy but by a chaotic bundle of uncoordinated mass organizations merely held together at the top by his own persons. Among Hitler’s foreign policy successes was ripping off the fetters of Versailles, as he called it, by remilitarization of Rhineland and incorporation of Austria and Sudeten area and was made possible due to Britain’s controversial “Appeasement” policy which France followed despite weak chances of its success. 

Haffner discusses some of the misconceptions in Hitler’s personality and political ideology in subsequent chapter. He contends that it is not easy to place Hitler in a political right or even left wing. He was a different kind of politician, and here Haffner introduces term called “programmatician”, a setter of goals. Author also points out the inherent contradictions in Hitler’s notion of “State”, “nation” and “Race” which he frequently used to juggle in his thinking thus creating more confusion. Comparing with the accepted definitions of these terms, its still difficult to understand the real meaning behind Hitler’s idea of “Aryan Race” “supreme race” or “greater Germanic State” (Nation??). What really was his ideas and understanding about Jewry, a race, a nation or a religion? Heffner argues, Hitler never considered Jewry a religion which was an absolutely a contrarian view from the world and which he repeatedly justified. But whether it was a race or a nation, it seems he himself was not quite sure of. One thing which he was quite sure of was that Jews by their vary nature international are incapable of establishing a state and hence never limited territorially. He also introduces Hitlerism, the ideological edifice of Hitler the programmatician which mistakenly believes that all manifestation in world history are merely manifestation of the self preservation drive of races and in this drive nations wage war to gain a “living space” by permanently subjecting or annihilation the vanquished and achieving world domination. 

Inarguably most interesting chapter was “The Mistakes.” Today’s world, author argues whether we like it or not, is Hitler’s world. Without Hitler there would be no participation of Germany and Europe. Without him there would be no Israel; without him there would be no Americans and Russians in Berlin; subsequently there would be no de-colonization in such rapid pace; and no Asian, Arab or black African emancipation; without him there would be not “cold war” and subsequent emergence or Russian and American world powers. In those 12 years the world history revolved around only man and was dominated by him. Heffner recounts that in last few years , Hitler made many mistakes that eventually proved disastrous for him. First serious mistakes was his anti-semitism against german jews caused widespread humiliation amongst the population turning friends into enemies. His second biggest was when he attacked Russia and declared war on America. This was indeed a foolishly absurd decision. He simply waged the war on Britain and France in 1939 when both were not ready for such an active war either materially or psychologically. Russia was always on Hitler’s mental map as german “living space” and the time had come after victory over France to ring up the curtain for this main conquest. Haffner convincingly dissects the incomprehensible mistake of Hitler when he provoked war on America in 1941 and reason for Japan’s indifferent attitude towards Germany in her Russian conquest. 

In the last but one chapter on Hitler’s Crimes, Haffner recounts briefly about Hitler’s crimes against poles, Russians, Gypies and Invalids. He articulates that around 1942 there was widespread realization that Hitler’s mass murders were not ‘war crimes’ but crimes pure and simple. Unfortunately that awareness was later blurred by Nuremberg “war criminal” trials, an unfortunate performance which no one likes to remember. He remarks that in December 1941, Hitler had made his final choice between two incompatible aims which he had pursued from outset- German domination on world and extermination of Jews. Hitler abandoned the former due to his realization that it was now impossible given a strong and powerful opposition from the axis powers, he entirely concentrated on later. 

In the final chapter “Betrayal”, Haffner powerfully argues that Hitler inflicted far greater damage, in any objective view, on Germany. Thanks to Hitler, Germany not only suffered the diminution of status as all the other great powers of western Europe, but also lost almost one quarter of its nations territory and what was left was also divided. The book beautifully ends with these lines –

“For German history does not end with Hitler. Anyone believing that it does, and possibly even rejoicing at it, does not realize just how much he is thereby fulfilling Hitler’s last Will and Testament.” 

The book undoubtedly a jewel among the literature that is available on Nazi era. And highly recommended for anyone who is seeking the most concise and powerful objective analysis on Hitler.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Surmayee Akhiyon se....

My attempt...tribute to the genius called Ilayaraja...

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

ये कौन चित्रकार है

To read poetry requires thought. Developing the mental faculty for discovering, expressing, or appreciating the poetic insights could occupy a better part of one’s creative lifetime. As they say, in order to enjoy poetry, a person does not need to be a poet.  One only needs to learn to appreciate the beauty in such creative works.  With my somewhat rudimentary sense of appreciation for the poetic beauty of the verses.....sharing with you few beautiful verses, simple yet deep, exploring one single recurring thought – Praising eternal beauty of the nature and the UNKNOWN force behind its creation.
First poetry is by lesser known Marathi poet Suryakant Khandekar. Pan. Hridayanath Mangeshakar also brilliantly composed and rendered this work. The composition literally follows verses' meaning. The thought in the poetry enfolds in itself an element of Unknown, and delineates the beauty of nature and things therein, yet completely hidden from the view an element unknown which manifests itself in this beauty.
त्या  फुलांच्या गंध कोशी
सांग तू आहेस का
त्या प्रकाशी तारकांच्या
होतीसी तू
  तेज का
  नभाच्या नील रंगी
होऊनिया गीत का
गात वायूच्या स्वराने
  तू  आहेस  का  ||
मानवाच्या  अंतरीचा प्राण तू  आहेस  का
का वादळाच्या सागराचे घोर ते तू
  रूप का
जीवनी या वर्षणारा तू
  कृपेचा मेघ का
आसमंती नाचणारी तू
  विजेची रेघ का
  फुलांच्या  गंध  कोशी … .. || 1 ||
जीवनी  संजीवनी तू  माउलीचे दूध का ?
कष्टणार्या बांधवांच्या रंगसी नेत्रात का
मूर्त तू
  मानव्य का  रे बालकांचे हास्य का  ?
या इथे अन त्या तिथे रे
  सांग तू आहेस का  ?
त्या  फुलांच्या  गंध  कोशी … .. || 2 ||
This recurring thought appears in one of Sri Aurobindo’s poems known as “WHO”. This piece of poetry raises similarly questions, embedding within itself an answer to them  
In the blue of the sky, in the green of the forest,
Whose is the hand that has painted the glow?
When the winds were asleep in the womb of the ether,
Who was it roused them and bade them to blow?

He is lost in the heart, in the cavern of Nature,
He is found in the brain where He builds up the thought:
In the pattern and bloom of the flowers He is woven,
In the luminous net of the stars He is caught.

In the strength of a man, in the beauty of woman,
In the laugh of a boy, in the blush of a girl;
The hand that sent Jupiter spinning through heaven,
Spends all its cunning to fashion a curl.
These are His works and His veils and His shadows;
But where is He then? by what name is He known?

Remember the lyrics of the track that was played at the beginning of each episode of Bharat Ek Khoj. This is Nasadiya Sukta from RigVeda, first the original Sanskrit version followed by its Hindi translation. Notice again axiomatic eternal question of the creation in nature. 
नासदासीन नो सदासीत तदानीं नासीद रजो नो वयोमापरो यत |
किमावरीवः कुह कस्य शर्मन्नम्भः किमासीद गहनं गभीरम ||
सृष्टि से पहले सत नहीं था
असत भी नहीं
अंतरिक्ष भी नहीं

आकाश भी नहीं था
छिपा था क्या, कहाँ
किसने ढका था
उस पल तो
अगम अतल जल भी कहां था

सृष्टि का कौन है कर्ता?
कर्ता है वह अकर्ता
ऊँचे आकाश में रहता
सदा अध्यक्ष बना रहता
वही सचमुच में जानता
या नहीं भी जानता
है किसी को नही पता
नही पता
नही है पता
नही है पता

Yet another simple but profound poesy portraying this thought is from this Hindi Movie “Boond Jo Ban Gayee Moti” sung by Mukesh

हरी हरी वसुंधरा पे नीला नीला  ये गगन 
के  जिस   पे  बादलों  की  पालकी  उड़ा  रहा  पवन
दिशाएँ  देखो  रंगभरी ,  चमक  रही  उमंग  भरी
ये  किस   ने  फूल  फूल  पे  किया  सिंगार  है
ये  कौन  चित्रकार  है , ये  कौन  चित्रकार 
ये  कौन  चित्रकार  है .. ..

तपस्वीयों  सी  हैं  अटल  ये  परवातों  की  चोटियाँ
ये  सर्प  सी  घूमेरादार , घेरदार  घाटियाँ 
ध्वजा   से  ये  खड़े  हुए  हैं   वृक्ष   देवदार  के
गलीचे  ये  गुलाब  के , बगीचे  ये  बहार  के
ये  किस  कवी  की  कल्पना  का  चमत्कार  है
ये  कौन  चित्रकार  है ..

 P.S. updating this post as I forgot to mention that this Song from movie "Boong Jo Ban Gayee Moti" was written by noted lyricist Bharat Vyas who has also penned the immortal prayer song "Ae Malik Tere Bande Hum" from movie "Do Aakhein Barah Haath".

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Vision of the Sublime

Gazing up into the heavens dotted with innumerable stars, who wouldn’t be moved by its manifestation or mystified by its expanse? Standing before the open vastness of the ocean or magnificent sight of snow capped Himalayas, how wouldn’t one feel that sudden surge of emotions aroused from deep within? Who wouldn’t be exalted, discovering the irresistible simplicity and beauty of a mathematical idea? Who wouldn’t get smitten by the utter brilliance of an artistic or musical work?
Sense of Sublime, as the above situations bespeak of, and its very nature is a fascinating subject in philosophy and psychology. We would discuss some of its dimensions.
The sense of sublime, primitive in its existence and central to human experience, would manifests itself in all such contexts described. As Grant Allen in his work The Origin of the Sublime puts it– “There is perhaps no feeling in nature more strangely compounded and more indefinably singular than that we call sense of Sublime”. It is inexplicable feeling blended with awe and unspeakable joy, fear of something mysterious, or veneration for something profound.  This experience of sublime may be evoked in all pursuit of religion, philosophy, science, arts etc. Nobody is left untouched by this experience. This is how precisely Erwin Chargaff, famous biologist whose contribution in understanding of the structure of DNA was not acknowledged by Nobel Committee, reflects this emotion in his article in Journal Nature
“It is the sense of mystery that, in my opinion, drives the true scientist; the same blind force, blindly seeing, deafly hearing, unconsciously remembering, that drives the larva into the butterfly.  If [the scientist] has not experienced, at least a few times in his life, this cold shudder down his spine, this confrontation with an immense invisible face whose breath moves him to tears, he is not a scientist.”
What Chagraff delineates as “confrontation with an immense invisible face whose breath moves him to tears” is what we define the moments of sublime.
Philosophers and psychologists have tried to conceptualize this state of mind as “Aesthetic Appreciation”. Edmund Burke’s famous treatise, A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of The Sublime and Beautiful, was a breakthrough in the uniting idea of sublime in philosophy with psychology. In his work, he posits that the effect caused by the great and sublime is ‘Astonishment’ and can be reckoned as ‘of the highest degree’; while others are its inferior effects such as reverence, admiration and respect. According to evolutionary biologists Keltner & Haidt, ‘Awe’ as an experience can include –
 “Both a perceived vastness (whether of power or magnitude) and a need for accommodation, which is an inability to assimilate an experience into current mental structure.”
We can clearly identify this definition of ‘Awe’ with our subjective experience. When we are confronted with objects of physical grandeur, supreme works of arts and science, or religious or philosophical ideas, a sudden awareness dawns which transcends our current understanding of the nature of things, followed by an emergent overwhelmingness, so overpowering that our mental faculty is at loss to accommodate its sheer depth, mystery or might.
There has always been a clear debate amongst early philosophers either to associate or discern the Sublime from Beautiful. M a r k o U r š i č * in his essay, Sublimity of the Sky from Kant to Sayantana and beyond, examines this difference as given by Emmanuel Kant in his treatise Critique of Judgment (1790)
“The Beautiful in nature is the question of the form of the object, and this consists in limitation, whereas the Sublime is to be found in an object devoid of the form, so far as it immediately involves, or by its presence provokes a representation of limitlessness, yet with a superadded thought of its totality”
What it means is that our perception of beautiful exists as an aesthetic idea in our mind and is not a characteristic of the object being perceived. It is a concept in the mind of the subject and is intuitive in nature. It cannot be given an adequate perception that would realize the cognitive whole symbolized in the concept.  This wholeness of cognition in the concept transcends all possible experiences and hence by virtue of this limitation of mind to perceive that experience it cannot become recognition.  However, the argument takes a deviation when Kant says that the whole could exist as the “general without concept” in the “aesthetic idea” given to the subject of the perception. Hence this is an experience subjective which pleases “in general and without a concept”.
Sublime, according to Kant, exists as an “aesthetic idea” in the mind, and these aesthetic idea coveys the idea of infinity or limitlessness in a more cognitive form i.e. the wholeness in the cognition could be recognized in the aesthetic idea.  Sublime is more inner than the beautiful.
Kant also discerns between “mathematical” and “Dynamical” sublimes in nature. Mathematical sublime happens by the immeasurableness of the sublime such as the night sky or the cosmos which overwhelms our imaginations capacity to comprehend it or hold it. This inadequacy in our “faculty of senses” evidences its “smallness”. “Dynamical sublime purely refers to immeasurableness of the might of nature. We might experience fear by stormy ocean, thunderous clouds or volcanoes while knowing ourselves that we are safe and hence without being afraid. While the above analysis is more inclined towards sublime in nature, it is equally applicable to the sublime in arts or sciences. 
One depiction which comes very close to the idea of sublime is the scene from the movie “Contact” based on novel by Carl Sagan where Ellie, the protagonist, is transported with her alien aircraft via a series of wormholes to far reaches of the cosmos. The sequence is breathtaking in its depiction as it shows her journey through space-time continuum which culminates into a sublime moment when she encounters with spectacular view of the cosmos. 
When she returns she has no evidence to prove what she had been through. And when she is asked to prove the experience, in its response she says something which would only reinforce what has been discussed earlier
- I had an experience. I can't prove it. I can't even explain it. All I can tell you is that everything I know as a human being, everything I am, tells me that it was real. I was given something wonderful. Something that changed me. A vision of the universe that made it overwhelmingly clear just how tiny and insignificant and at the same time how rare and precious we all are. A vision that tells us we belong to something greater than ourselves that we're not - that none of us is alone.
Truely, Sublime is a visceral feeling indescribable in words.

Friday, September 9, 2011

A Land In Limbo

PM Manmohan Singh is on a visit to Bangladesh on 6 and 7th of September. This visit was touted as historic and of import by the media and there is reason to do so. This was first in last 12 years when an Indian PM was on a visit to our eastern neighbor. The visit was of crucial significance within the context of India’s bilateral agreements involving the disputed border and sharing of teesta river water between both the countries. This was aptly referred to by the economist as 'a watershed agreement in the annals of a bizarre geography'. In this context, it would be interesting to know the current state of affairs in the relations between the two countries and more interesting, to study what makes this geography so unique.
The border that we share with Bangladesh unlike our other geographical neighbors such as Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Maldives or Myanmar, has one of the most bewildering feature called "enclaves complex" which exist along Bangladesh's northern border with India and is called Cooch Behar enclave complex. The story behind this enclave complex is too compelling to tell and has deep historical and political bearings.
An Enclave, as Wiki puts it, is a territory whose geographical boundaries lie entirely within the boundaries of another territory i.e. fragments of one country which are entirely surrounded by other. The word "enclave" entered into the dictionary of British diplomacy in 1868 and owes its etymological origin to Latin word "clavus" which means 'embedded and surrounded'.
In his book "Stateless in South Asia: The making of the India Bangladesh Enclaves”, Wilhelm Schendel refers to about 250 such enclaves surviving in the world today and are found mainly in three geographies - western Europe, eastern fringes of former soviet empire and south Asia. Most of the enclaves in south Asia are found along the borderland of India-Bangladesh. Cooch Behar, as the territory falling into the Indian side of the border called, is a district in north Bengal which once had been the seat of the princely state of Koch Bihar, ruled by the Koch dynasty. Cooch Behar possesses almost 200 exclaves out of which 106 are in Bangladesh. Of those, 3 are counter-enclaves (enclaves within enclaves) and world’s only counter-counter enclave i.e. a patch of Bangladesh that is surrounded by Indian Territory itself surrounded by Bangladeshi territory.
The border between India and Bangladesh runs for 4096 km where its entire stretch  splits up into flat/plains (in West Bengal, Assam-Barak Valley, Tripura), riverine (southern extremity of West Bengal border and of Assam) and hilly/jungle (in Meghalaya). Along its length it touches border with Assam, Tripura, Mizoram, Meghalaya and in the longest stretch 2,217 km with West Bengal.
In his scholarly work titled Waiting For the Esquimo, Brenden Whyte chronicles the history of Bengal and of Cooch Behar dating from Mughal and British period (1500-1950) to Indo-Pakistan period (1947-1970) till formation of Bangladesh in 1971. It would be worthwhile to spend some time on the crucial periods of this history.
The Mughal Period
About 1200 AD much of the Bengal was conquered by Muslims enlarging the Mughal Sultanate except the northern part which was overrun by local tribes called Koch. During the same time, Assam was ruled by Asom dynasty. Muslim rulers from central and south Bengal, under the patronage of Mughals tried several times to attack and occupy kingdoms of north Bengal,  but could not succeed. 1500 - 1600 AD saw the rise to power of Koch dynasty, the rulers of Behar. Around that period, Muslim rulers such as Sher Shah Suri, Suleman Kararani who ruled Bengal, invaded this region several times. Finally, Emperor Akbar removed Kararani from Bengal and added it to Mughal Empire with Koch’s help.  However, the powerful landlords of Cooch Behar retained possession of their land surrounded by the area of Mughal state giving a tough fight to the Mughals. The period between 1600 -1700 AD was chaotic due to dynastic wars and fight for succession within Koch Dynasty. Taking advantage of this condition, Mughals under Eebadat Khan begun occupying the outlying regions called Chaklas, of the dynasty. These Chaklas were established by Mughals replacing the previous divisions called Sarkars for easy administration and Zamindars of these and nearby Chaklas paid allegiance to Mughal. The remaining region remained under control of Kochs.
Whyte lays importance on the crucial peace treaties happened in 1711 and 1713 between the kingdom of Cooch Behar and the Mughal Empire which ended a long series of wars in which the Mughals wrested several districts from Cooch Behar thus leading to the formation of enclaves. This is because the Mughals were not able to remove some of the powerful overlords of Cooch Behar from some of these Chaklas. So these lands were still held by these chieftains even though they were annexed from that state and were ‘enclaved’ in Mughal land. Similarly other side, disbanded Mughal soldiers who occupied lands inside reminder of Cooch Behar retained their allegiance to Mughal Empire although detached from it and ‘enclaved’ inside Cooch Behar. The Mughal Empire never considered these enclaves as problematic as they lacked the scientific methods to earmark boundaries.
The British Period
Over time Mughal Empire disintegrated and eventually the Nawab Nazir of Bengal became the de-facto ruler till the time East India Company established itself in India in mid-18th century. After Robert Clive defeated Siraj-ud-daula at Plassey in 1757, Mir Jafar, uncle of nawab, was enthroned who was later replaced with his son-in-law Mir Kasim. The control of Bengal was slowly passed onto East India Company with the granting of Diwani of Mughal Bengal and enclaves of Cooch Behar.
The company accidently in 1814 discovered existence of Cooch Behar enclaves, their jurisdictions being held independent of company control and had no authority of magistrate. Such regions were then natural sanctuaries for notorious offenders fleeing the police.
British indirectly ruled north Bengal, and so the Maharaja and his administration were retained under their rule and eventually Cooch Behar survived as princely state till the end of colonial rule. Being the principality, Cooch Behar saw little unrest for independence from British rule.
After the colonial rule ended, princely states had only two options either to join India or join Pakistan. Cooch Behar was end up being wedged between India and east Pakistan. As Wilhelm Schendel puts it succinctly “The Mughal outliers in Cooch Behar had become part of British India and then part of Pakistan, whereas the Cooch Behar outliers in Mughal territory had become part of princely state and then part of India”. Eventually in 1971, as a result of Bangladesh liberation war and Indo-Pak war, East Pakistan seceded to form Bangladesh. Remarkably, even after being a part of such an eventful history involving frequent changes in dominion, the enclaves survived.
Post 1971
Relations between India and newly formed Bangladesh were pleasant since solving the boundary problems were not on the priority of newly formed independent state.  In 1972 signing of trade agreements led to trade movements across border in specified commodities. The agreement expired after one year and then never reinstated. In 1974, a treaty was signed between two countries called Indira-Mujib Treaty. This treaty listed 15 sectors of boundary to be demarcated and agreed that enclaves of both the countries in others region shall be exchanged expeditiously with no compensation for loss of Bangladesh and with exception to few enclaves which shall be retained by Bangladesh. India also agreed to lease an access corridor between Dehagram and Bangladesh known as Teen Bigha. Teen Bigha was one such attempt to connect the Bangladeshi enclaves to their ‘mainland’.  India ratified this agreement in 1980 after passing a bill in parliament. However, the implementation did not happen due to 1) Dispute regarding the transfer and terms of lease of Teen Bigha to Bangladesh 2) an ongoing dispute regarding use of this land by anti-India elements and illegal immigrants to cross over into India, and the agreement remained a pipe dream. After lot of political and social hullabaloo, eventually in 1992 Teen Bigha was transferred to Bangladesh.
The condition of those stuck in those enclaves is beyond what we call livable. They are virtually cut from all amenities like water electricity roads, hospitals, schools etc. They are trapped into a no-man’s land with limited ingress to their ‘mainland’ and even need a visa to get that access. This resulted in rise in illegal border crossing.
Fencing the Border
Border between India and Bangladesh is highly porous which also makes it highly conducive to illegal immigration and smuggling of goods. To curtail this, in late 1984, Indian Government announced its plan to fence the border. The construction started in two phases. Phase I began in 1987 and completed fencing only 20% of border while Phase II started in 2000. BSF was deployed to guard the border. However, the illegal immigration continued and over time condition worsened due to rise of terrorism. This border became notorious for enforcing a shoot-to-kill order against Bangladeshi migrants by BSF.
Notwithstanding the daft of agreements between both the countries, little progress has been made from both the sides raising ire of the people trapped between disputed borders. The economist puts this plight of those living in this limbo pertinently-
“A few years ago, away from Cooch Behar, on the eastern border with India, I met a man who lived smack on the border between Tripura state and Bangladesh. His living room was in Bangladesh, his toilet in India. He had been a local politician in India, and was now working as a farmer in Bangladesh. As is typical in such places, he sent his daughters to school in Bangladesh, and his sons to India, where schools, he thought, were much better. To his mind, the fence dividing the two countries was of little value. But, he conceded, “at least my cows don’t run away anymore.”
Waiting for the Esquimo by Brendan Whyte
Stateless in South Asia: The making of the India Bangladesh Enclaves by Wilhelm Schendel

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

On the idea of 'Time'

Time is a very fascinating and elusive subject for study. The idea of time in ancient Hindu philosophy is equally baffling and complex. It is as intriguing to know that while most other civilizations and cultures were still basing their cosmological arguments on the scales of few hundreds and thousands, early Vedic period had developed highly sophisticated concept of time embracing millions and even billions of years. The numbers, they were dealing with were mind boggling. Phenomenon of Time has been central to religious and philosophical thought of all ancient great civilizations of Maya, Egyptian, Aztecs, Greeko- Roman, Chinese and Indian etc.

The Two Worlds
Examining the concept of time involves, based on the available resources, analysis at two levels as Lawrence W. Fagg discussed in his book, Two Faces Of time. On one hand we have the modern scientific interpretation of time where physics plays an important role in our understanding of the world of small (Microcosmic) and world of Large (Macrocosmic). Every scientific theory, from the foundations of classical physics (Newtonian) and its concept of absolute time to idea of relativistic time in modern physics (Einsteinian), had a profound impact in altering our preexisting notion of time and causality.  The other hand we see myriads of different interpretations of Time which are deeply embedded into the religious and philosophical thoughts of different cultures. While one idea of time is based on physical theory and objective measurement, the other is purely derived from human consciousness and subjective experience.

Measurement of Time in Hindu Philosophy
There are innumerable literary sources available on interpretations about the Hindu notion of time and its measurement.According to early Vedic thoughts, Time is described as an endless cyclical procession of creation, preservation and dissolution. This notion is closely entwined with the idea of Bramhan in Hindu Philosophy. This is evident from the following method of measurement as provided here and here :
The time is cyclical and each cycle is called a Yuga. There are four yugas and depending upon the yuga the duration varies. The four yugas along with their duration in earthly years are Satya Yuga (1,728,000 years), Treta Yuga (1,296,000), Dvapara Yuga (864,000) and Kali Yuga (432,000) which totals to 4,320,000 years of one yuga cycle, also called Mahayuga. If you observe, the four yugas maintain a ratio 4:3:2:1 of their durations.  Hence a Kaliyug if represented as K(432,000) human years, then the other three yugas can be represented as 2K, 3K and 4K years A thousand Mahayugas is called a kalpa and therefore a kalpa is 4,320,000,000 years. 71 such Mahayugas make one Manvantara. Each Manvantara  is preceded by a Manvantara Twilight. In this way time moves on in these great cycles, yuga after yuga, kalpa after kalpa, eternally.

Brahma's life span is calculated according to yuga time. One kalpa is said to be the 12 hours of Brahma’s day, so his 24 hour day is two kalpas in length. That means 24 hours of Brahma’s time is 8,640,000,000 earthly years! His year is 365 days long and he lives for a 100 years. Each Manvantara is created and ruled by a specific Manu, who in turn is created by Brahma, the Creator himself.

Based on interpretation of Puranas(particularly Bhagwat Puran),
One day of Brahma (or one Kalpa) consists of 14 manvantaras + 15 manvantara twilights (because there is an extra manvantara - twilight at the end of all the 14 manvantaras)
= 14 x 71 mahayugas + 15 x 4K
= 994 mahayugas + 60 K
= 994 mahayugas + 6 mahayugas (10K = 1 Mahayuga)
= 1000 mahayugas = 1000 x10K = 4,320,000,000 human years.

In many cultural and religious expressions we find existence of deification of time with anthropomorphic characteristics such as: the father of greek god Zeus was Kronos who manyy thought, as deified personification of Chronos, Time. In Hindu religion, we find many interpretations of deified Kāla (time) in Skanda Purāa and Devī Māhātmy. Kali is considered the goddess of time and change.  In Persia, Zurvan was the god of temporal Time and fate so on and so forth.

Discovering parallels between both worlds
The concept of time not only differs in the way modern scientific theories see it (i.e. assuming a linear, irreversible flow of time) but also differs in religious thoughts across eastern and western religions (such as western philosophy sees a linear time while Hindu philosophy describes a cyclical and at much more greater scale).

Notwithstanding the seeming disparity between both the points of view (scientific and religious) on subject of time, attempts are being made to seek a relationship between them in the modern world which is apparent from recent popular works on the same. One such example is Fritjof Capra’s interpretation of Dance of Shiva, ṇḍava, that is the source of the cycle of creation, preservation and dissolution and a central theme in the idea of Bramhan and cyclical notion of time in his book Tao of Physics. He saw it as a pictorial allegory of chaos at the sub-atomic world.
Mankind’s intellectual curiosity and the quest for finding the ultimate truth (the Holy Grail in modern terms) may eventually lead to convergence of all beliefs, scientific thoughts and theories. As prevised by the great indian scholar, Swami Vivekananda, during his lecture at Parliament of Religions, Chicago –

Science is nothing but the finding of unity. As soon as science would reach perfect unity, it would stop from further progress, because it would reach the goal. Thus chemistry could not progress farther when it would discover one element out of which all others could be made. Physics would stop when it would be able to fulfill its services in discovering one energy of which all the others are but manifestations, and the science of religion become perfect when it would discover Him who is the one life in a universe of death, Him who is the constant basis of an ever-changing world, One who is the only Soul of which all souls are but delusive manifestations. Thus is it, through multiplicity and duality, that the ultimate unity is reached. Religion can go no farther. This is the goal of all sciences.