Sunday, 30 December 2012

Beyond "Ramrajya" And Phantom's Country

In Phantom country, it is said that a woman clad in jewels may walk without fear.
- Old Jungle Saying

I'm the eternal optimist. I see improvement in human society all the time. Even in this darkest period when a young woman has died of her horrific injuries inflicted on her by a group of ruthlessly lustful and jealous men, when the government and police of a supposedly democratic country have failed to respond sensitively to the concerns of citizens, I still see signs of a better society emerging.

After all, what would have been worse is if the assault had occurred and it hadn't made news, if it hadn't spurred people to protest, if it hadn't forced the government to trip and embarrass itself, if it hadn't forced a society to look into the mirror and confront its own prejudices.

There's hope in this, because it's a form of catharsis. We have been through trauma, and we have hopefully become a little more aware of what we have done wrong. Now's the time to start improving ourselves.

Although the immediate case has been one of rape (accompanied by brutal torture and mutilation that resulted in death), the larger and more prevalent issue is sexual harassment, and it has been part of Indian society for a very long time.

I don't agree with those who are arguing for stricter laws and more stringent punishment. Our laws in fact need to be modified in the opposite direction to become less barbaric, more humane. I think what we need is a radical change in attitude as a society, and I would go so far as to say that it's worth throwing thousands of years of Indian culture and tradition onto the trash heap if that's the price of becoming a more civilised society.

Traditionalist Indians speak wistfully of a Utopian "Ramrajya" (The rule of Lord Rama) under which peace and perfect justice are said to have reigned. I have nothing but contempt for this concept. That period was precisely when Lord Rama, merely because one of his subjects made a moralistic judgement about Queen Sita having spent time under the roof of another man (when she was abducted!), decided to banish his wife to the jungle! Talk about blaming the victim. If that was Ramrajya, I want no part of it.

Ramrajya - the aesthetic face of an oppressively patriarchal society

I'm in Singapore right now, and the answer to India's problems is staring me in the face.

Everywhere in Singapore, you find young, attractive women in shorts and skimpy tops (what the prudish Indian might call "provocatively dressed"), walking about alone at all hours of the day and night, catching public transport and in general going about their business without any self-consciousness or fear. This is not just because Singapore has harsh laws and strict policing. That's part of the story, but doesn't explain it all. What's equally remarkable is the attitude of males in Singaporean society. There is a seeming absence of awareness of women other than as fellow pedestrians or fellow commuters, which is what any woman anywhere would cherish. It's the right to be ignored, to be left alone.

Singapore - where everyone just minds their own business and there are no moral police

It's fair to point out that most of the women I described above are ethnic Chinese. Ethnic Indians are dressed more conservatively, and ethnic Malays even more so.

Perhaps it's these latter societies that have a problem!

In Australia too, women dress in ways that would be considered "too revealing" in more conservative cultures, yet women are far more comfortable and secure in Australia than even conservatively dressed women are in those other societies. This clearly demonstrates that it's not the woman's dress that matters. It's the attitude of society, specifically the attitude of males.

When I was younger, I remember reading comics by Lee Falk about the masked vigilante known as the Phantom, and the Old Jungle Saying, "In Phantom country, it is said that a woman clad in jewels may walk without fear."

The Phantom - an obviously fictitious children's character who walks into bars and orders milk

Now, I believe Lee Falk was either being disingenuous or just conscious of the under-age nature of his readership, which is why this Old Jungle Saying, heartwarming as it may be, is actually being dishonest. What does it mean to be "clad in jewels"? The woman's jewellery is a red herring. After all, a woman being robbed of her jewellery is in no worse state than a man who is robbed of his wallet. The Old Jungle Saying might just as well be about a man with money in his wallet walking without fear. It's disingenuous to pretend that crimes against women are about their jewellery. Crimes against women are against their own person. They themselves are the prize.

In my late teens, I read James Hadley Chase's novel "An Ear To The Ground", which revolves around a beautiful piece of diamond jewellery called the Esmaldi necklace. In one scene, the man to whose wife it belongs asks his mistress to strip naked and wear the necklace, and remarks that it was made for her. I remember thinking at the time that if I had a choice between a beautiful naked woman and the priceless necklace she was wearing, I would toss the necklace away without a thought. So much for the value of being "clad in jewels".

Even my teenage self knew that the Old Jungle Saying was too coy. It pretends that what would attract a criminal to a woman walking about are her jewels. 

Since I don't have the same constraints of a juvenile readership that Lee Falk had, let me boldly restate his Old Jungle Saying to form a vision statement for Utopia: "In any country, an unclad woman may walk without fear."

That addresses the issue of dress. Let's address behaviour with an equally extreme example: "Even a prostitute has a right to be free from sexual molestation." This may seem as obvious to the socially liberal as the proverbial nose on one's face, but unfortunately, not everyone in society is socially liberal, so it needs to be stated as bluntly as possible.

These two statements really confront the core issue, don't they? The patriarchal notion that women are to be cherished and protected from harm, as long as they dress modestly and behave in an "appropriate" manner, is the problem. The moment a woman strays from the ideal that has been prescribed, all bets are off and she becomes fair game. So let us take this bull by the horns and state these two principles loud and clear.

A woman can dress any way she chooses (including not wearing any clothes at all) and behave any way she chooses (including being a prostitute), and yet has a right not to be sexually molested.

This is going to be a very hard pill for many to swallow, and there will be many "yes, but" objections. I'm going to stand firm on this. I don't care what standards of morality you think a woman is violating. You may not disregard a human being's right to be left alone.

Having been a young male myself (a few decades ago!), I know the feeling of desire for an attractive young female whom one encounters in a public setting. When in a group, the rush of testosterone can be quite heady, and it's easy to lose sight of the fact that the young woman is a human being too. That's the precise juncture at which the right upbringing will make a difference. If a young man feels conflicted enough between his own desires and the knowledge that the object of his desire is an equal human being who may just want to be left alone, it will be a wonderful way to internalise the core moral lesson in that situation and to mature and grow into a responsible male member of society.

After all, there are only two realistic outcomes to a young man's behaviour when he sees an attractive young woman in a public setting:

1. Leave her alone => fail to get her
2. Be obnoxious => fail to get her

The movie alternative of being obnoxious and getting her doesn't really happen in real life, and it's time this was drilled into young men. It doesn't matter if you don't "get" a woman you're attracted to. What's more important is that you behave in a moral manner at all times, and by "moral", I mean being empathetic to the feelings of other living beings.

Empathy is all-important. I remember a conversation when I was a young, unmarried man. We were a group of young, unmarried men working in a software company in Mumbai. It was a rambling discussion, and we finally came to the topic of marriage and how women (and men too) lost their virginity on their wedding night. Given that most people at the time had arranged marriages, women often wouldn't know their husbands well enough on their wedding night, and yet the couple was expected to consummate their marriage that very night. One of my friends thought about women in that situation (of the pain they would experience as well as the foreboding of that pain and the general feeling of being trapped into having sex with a virtual stranger) and said, "Poor things, it must be a very traumatic experience for them." It was a sentiment of empathy that humanised him and earned him my respect for life. A couple of other guys also indicated that they wouldn't force their wives into sex on their wedding night but would wait until they were more comfortable.

I quote this incident to demonstrate that Indian men need not all be the callous, misogynistic brutes that the Delhi rape case may make them out to be. It's just that some of them simply haven't learnt enough empathy.

[Of course, empathy need not bear any correlation to formal education. A senior of mine, a graduate of the prestigious IIT and IIM, once told me with a knowing smirk, "There are times when one must not be gentle." I pitied his future wife.]

Another reason why young men persist in behaving badly even when they know that bad behaviour doesn't get them what they may ultimately want (a loving and intimate relationship with someone of the opposite sex) is explained by psychology. Positive feedback, or "positive strokes" are among the most desirable social inputs for a human being. Negative feedback, or "negative strokes", are obviously undesirable, but surprisingly, they are seen to be vastly preferable to no strokes at all! That's why neglected children often behave badly. Punishment is preferable to being ignored.

The disgusted and irritated reaction of women to sexual harassment is the "negative stroke" that sustains these men. This is going to be a hard problem to solve, because giving these men positive strokes (i.e., encouragement) is obviously not the answer, nor is it feasible to simply ignore them. As a society, we will need to find a way around this problem.

The immediate lesson is to teach empathy, I believe. As a society, we need to drive home the lesson that all living beings have rights and are deserving of respect. Women don't need to be put on a pedestal or worshipped as goddesses. We've been doing this for aeons and it clearly hasn't worked. If the younger generation can be brought up to treat all human beings as equal, the evil of sexual harassment, along with the larger problem of sexism itself, and related evils like casteism and communalism, can gradually start to be erased.

Another well-known Old Jungle Saying assures us that Phantom is rough with roughnecks, but unfortunately, the Phantom is a fictitious character. In the real world, it's vastly more important to stop our children from growing up to be roughnecks in the first place.

Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Where Are You In The Moral Grid?

I have been thinking about this model of humanity for a while now. My attempts so far, to place adherents of organised religions, non-denominationally "spiritual" people and rationalists (agnostics and atheists) on some kind of spectrum or scale, have not been very satisfactory.

However, recent events have convinced me that the cornerstone of morality is empathy. It is precisely at points when people fail to show empathy that breaches of morality occur. No one who feels another's pain as their own would harm another in any way - whether through dishonesty, physical harm, cruel words or even a lack of positive action. This is "Do unto others..." in action. However, the principle does not owe its origin to the Bible or any religious text. Empathetic behaviour has been observed in primates and is most probably an evolutionarily favourable trait. Empathy, and therefore morality, pre-date any organised religion.

[It's important to emphasise that empathy does not imply abnegation, or the constant sacrificing of one's own interests for others. It merely means that one treats others as one treats oneself. In other words, we must be kind to ourselves as well as to other people. Overall, empathy is a fairer concept than either selfishness or martyrdom.]

Also, as I have commented before, I believe sexual behaviour by itself is morally neutral. It is only when one combines sexual desire with a callous disregard for the feelings of another person does one commit acts of sexual immorality. Infidelity, sexual harassment, molestation and rape fall into this category. However, homosexuality, non-marital sex between two consenting adults who have no prior commitments to third persons, masturbation and other sexual acts traditionally deemed by organised religions as "immoral" are not characterised by a lack of empathy (indeed, they may involve profoundly empathetic feelings), and hence they are not immoral. [While this is bound to be controversial, I don't believe that consensual polygamy is immoral either, for the same reason.]

I have also studied the phenomenon of psychopaths with some interest and alarm. Psychopaths are dangerous precisely because they have no delusions and lack the emotional weakness of attachment to other living beings. They are incapable of empathy, which is, I believe, the foundation of true morality. They are also supreme realists and therefore have no fear of God, hell, the afterlife or any other figment of religious imagination. Being cynical, they can fake emotion when appropriate and masterfully manipulate other people using a knowledge of their weaknesses. These traits are virtually super-powers in human society, and it is believed that a disproportionately large number of psychopaths are found at higher levels of organisations because they are the only ones cynical enough to lie, cheat, bully, manipulate and backstab their way there. A chilling thought.

When I added psychopaths to my previous line-up of people and viewed them through the two lenses of mystical beliefs and empathy, the picture became much clearer. This is how I think society should be classified in order to understand its relationship with morality. Click on the picture to enlarge.



This is the model that finally feels right to me. It makes concrete the reasons for my contempt of organised religions, i.e., because they are characterised by superstition and selfishness.

I place myself in the "Moral Atheist" cell. (I'm increasingly comfortable calling myself an Atheist and not just an Agnostic.)

I now also understand my strangely mixed feelings about "spiritual" people. I have no practical quarrel with them (indeed, they are the best of the other three kinds), and I have many friends in this category whom I like and respect very much.

However, I find the beliefs of "spiritual" people irrational because I cannot believe in mystical notions without proof. Fundamentally, I cannot believe in an immortal soul that outlives the physical body any more than a person can believe that Windows continues to run after they have shut down their computer. Functional MRI has demonstrated the specific areas of the brain that are responsible for various thoughts and feelings, and these aspects of consciousness consume measurable amounts of energy. Once brain cells die, it doesn't seem feasible to sustain the "consciousness" (i.e., thoughts and feelings) that a soul is supposed to be capable of. The hardware and the energy required for such computation are no longer in existence. Therefore, the notion of the immortal soul just doesn't make sense to me, and once this notion is demolished, the entire edifice of "spiritual" belief comes crashing down (although the empathy-based moral system should remain intact). That's why I use the word "spiritual" within quotes. There is probably no "spirit" to speak of.

But as I said, what I consider to be the delusions of "spiritual" people do not interfere in a practical way with our ability to coexist. If the world consisted of only "spiritual" people and moral atheists, there would be no need to look for a Heaven beyond this earth. Life would be extremely kind, gracious, loving and harmonious (with the occasional friendly philosophical debate about the existence of mystical things).

It's the presence of the two other groups that causes suffering and strife, and keeps earth from being heaven. We need different strategies to deal with Psychopaths and with Religious Adherents.

We cannot appeal to the empathy of psychopaths - they have none. We cannot scare or tempt them into pro-social behaviour through the sticks and carrots of a purported afterlife - they know it to be hogwash. In short, we cannot change them for the better. They are "perfectly evolved" predators in the manner of crocodiles or great white sharks.

We will need to protect ourselves against psychopaths by smoking them out and branding them. (I think it's fair to say, with just a touch of irony, that I have no empathy for psychopaths! What are known as "non-criminal psychopaths" are those, I believe, who haven't yet committed a crime or who haven't yet been caught for a crime that they have committed. Their congenitally conscienceless, selfish rationalism practically ensures immoral behaviour.) Although their prodigious manipulative skills help psychopaths elude detection through psychological testing, science seems nevertheless to have found a way to identify them - they lack a sense of smell. What a fortuitous coincidence! If there is a yellow sun that gives these villains their super-powers, there is also a green kyptonite to which they are vulnerable. The same mental impairment that prevents psychopaths from feeling empathy also prevents them from recognising smells, and that is how society must smoke them out, figuratively brand them on the forehead, and steer clear of them thereafter. If future neuroscientific advances can help psychopaths acquire the capacity for empathy afresh, then they could be re-admitted into society.

And that leaves the adherents of organised religions, collectively the most numerous group by far. Given their numerical dominance, the only thing that prevents the world from descending into utter anarchy is the fact that their behaviour largely mimics moral behaviour, thanks to the superstitions they believe in, which play on their greed and fear.

When these people do good, they generally do so in order to secure a better afterlife for themselves (whether the eternal heaven of the Abrahamic religions, or karmic credits for an inevitable rebirth as per the Dharmic religions). When they refrain from evil, they do so out of fear (of eternal hell or bad karma as the case may be). It is scary to think of how these people would behave if they should ever lose their faith in the mystical afterlife, since these imaginary carrots and sticks will then fail to ensure their good behaviour. The morality of religious people is a case of doing the right thing for the wrong reasons, and the harmony of a social system based on this foundation is a rather fragile one.

On the flip side, we have seen too many cases when religious dogma has caused people to commit immoral deeds, such as killing perceived blasphemers, or punishing those who violate religiously sanctioned codes around sexual behaviour (i.e., the harassment of homosexuals, stoning of "adulterers", etc.) These are cases where dogma trumps empathy, and many otherwise empathetic people go against their better natures because of their superstitious beliefs and peer pressure, and end up causing harm to other living beings.

I think there are three possible strategies to deal with Religious Adherents:

  1. Contain - continue to use greed and fear to ensure good behaviour, i.e., exploit the notions of heaven and hell, or of karma, to make them behave in a fashion that roughly resembles true morality.
  2. Sublimate - a better strategy would be to raise their thinking to a level beyond narrow dogma so that while they may retain their foundational superstitions (such as their belief in a soul, a God and a few others), they also begin to see the oneness of all humanity (indeed, all living creatures). In other words, turn them into "spiritual" people. Once empathy trumps dogma, they should begin to practise, rather than mimic, true morality.
  3. Educate - best of all, make them realise the irrationality of their beliefs by convincing them that there is nothing beyond the physical world, and simultaneously, of the need for empathy. In other words, turn them into Moral Atheists. This is best done with children. Train schoolchildren relentlessly in the scientific method, emphasising the importance of evidence over blind belief. And since empathy is often a trained response, train them by example to be empathetic to others, not just towards their own kind but all living beings (except maybe the psychopaths who are by now locked safely away! - You can tell I don't like psychopaths :-).

If we can get the bulk of humanity into the top right-hand quadrant of the above diagram (traditionally the best place to be), we will have attained something close to what the spiritualists would call nirvana.

And that's my philosophical learning for the day.

Monday, 24 December 2012

Tagore Trumps Gandhi - The Revolt Of Urban, Educated, Middle-Class India

The true India is to be found not in its few cities, but in its seven hundred thousand villages. If the villages perish, India will perish too.
- Mahatma Gandhi

That was a rather curious assertion by the Father of the Nation, and I'm increasingly certain he was way off the mark.

Let me explain.

There is a revolution going on in India right now, and it is easy to be distracted by the sound and thunder of the public protests into thinking that the protests are the revolution.

However, the real one is subtler. It is a quiet demographic revolution that has been brewing for at least a decade and a half. It is the story of how the urban, educated middle class found its voice and began to flex its muscles to assertively protect its own.

Three straws in the wind:

  • The anti-corruption protests of August 2011, in the wake of the 2G spectrum auction scam and the Commonwealth Games scam, which mobilised tens of thousands of people;
  • The freedom-of-speech protests of November 2012, in the wake of the arrest of two urban, educated, middle-class girls (for the crime of posting their criticism of a politician on Facebook), forcing the police into a humiliating backdown;
  • The anti-rape protests of December 2012, in the wake of the gang rape of an urban, educated, middle-class girl by uneducated lower-class men, which is still playing itself out.
[The anti-corruption protest of 2011 had more of an all-middle-class flavour to it, with a sizeable representation from the lower middle class and the middle middle class. But the two protests of 2012 have both been predominantly upper middle class.]

Make no mistake about it. This is a class war with a new combatant - the middle class, specifically the well-educated, upper middle class. It's no longer the old, comfortably familiar socialistic battleground of rich-versus-poor, capitalist-pigs-versus-oppressed-proletariat. It's now us-versus-them, where "us" increasingly means everyone who can read this blog post, and "them" means those who threaten the freedoms and the way of life we take for granted.


Protesters gathering in Delhi - India's famously "burgeoning" middle class is no longer a bludgeoned class

The faces of the protesters tell the whole story - they're young, educated and English-speaking. This is a powerful segment of the Indian demographic that has not been seen unsheathed until the last couple of years.



The middle class has come together across the country, with social media playing a key organising role.

Bangalore

Hyderabad


Mumbai

Kolkata

The anti-corruption protests of 2011 did have political leadership, although not from any mainstream political party, but the two protests of 2012 have been seemingly leaderless even as they have been well organised, doubtless much to the fear of the establishment. A political leader can be arrested, but who can arrest Twitter? The rich may control the means of production, but the middle class controls the means of information, and is now wielding it as a weapon. The infamous apathy of the middle class seems to have ended too, mainly because of the rise of a new and assertive younger generation that feels outrage at the threats to it and simultaneously senses its own strength to meet those threats.

In this new war, the lower class is in fact at a hopeless structural disadvantage in spite of its outward appearance of fearsome lumpen lawlessness.

The November arrests of the two girls who posted on Facebook began much like any such event in the past, although subsequent events turned out to be a nasty surprise to the political establishment. A political party known more for its street goons than for its governance pressurised a pliant police force to arrest the girls, on the pretext of their having "hurt religious sentiments" (although the political leader they had criticised was not the head of any religious order). As the middle class responded with vocal outrage, the police were forced into humiliating retreat. The magistrate who issued the arrest warrant was transferred, as were the junior police officers who made the arrest. The police dropped the case, and the girls, initially shaken and scared into deactivating their Facebook accounts, are now back online (well, at least one of them). That was the first public defeat for the lumpen classes at the hands of the middle class. [An earlier defeat was not so public. The same political party quietly decided to drop its annual reign of terror against couples on Valentine's Day in 2012 as it realised how electorally unpopular it had become among "Westernised" youth.]

Until recently, growing up middle class in India meant learning to mind one's own business and avoid tangling with goons, politicians or the police. The significance of the revolution lies in the growing realisation that others must now be wary of tangling with the middle class.

We've arrived.

The latest incident, the savage gang rape in Delhi can be seen as a expression of uneducated lower-class male rage. Ironically for a rape, I believe it symbolises impotence. The reasons are not far to seek. The pecking order has been altered to the disadvantage of uneducated lower-class males. Large numbers of women, traditionally their inferiors on account of gender, are now their visible superiors on account of education and upward class mobility. The disadvantaged underclass male is lashing out in frustration and wounded chauvinistic pride.

But as we are witnessing, such blind fury is ultimately short-sighted, because when the victim is one of the middle class, she has vastly superior means at her disposal to return such an attack with the ferocity of the state apparatus, hitherto only the weapon of the rich and powerful. The assaulted girl was a physiotherapy student, not an illiterate villager. She is "one of us", and the scale of the turnout at the protest rallies testifies to this. [It is instructive to note that even in the days after the Delhi rape, there have been assaults on poor, uneducated women living in less urban parts of the country. Those reports, although remarked upon, have not provoked a similar reaction in terms of protests, because those women are not of "us".]

It could reasonably be concluded from this that the current protests are just the middle class looking out for its own. While this may well be true, there is a fundamental difference between the "vested interests" of the middle class compared to those of the traditionally powerful or the historically oppressed. The middle class is not flexing its muscle in a bid to either oppress another group or to seek compensatory entitlements. What the middle class has always wanted is a free and meritocratic society. And therefore, in spite of protests like these being about the concerns of one group, their benefits will ultimately flow to all, including the most disadvantaged in the most remote parts of the country.

A fair and egalitarian India that safeguards every citizen's rights will come about only gradually, and through the intermediate tier of smaller towns, where much of tomorrow's educated youth will come from. Urbanisation brings with it the awareness of civil rights, and even if the immediately visible effect of urbanisation is increased strife, such turbulence is inevitably associated with the move to a fairer social order. India's much-romanticised villages are in fact the hotbed of casteism, sexism and every kind of pre-modern prejudice. [Google "khap pachayat ruling" for evidence.] Contrary to what Gandhi believed, India's salvation lies in the speed with which the country urbanises and leaves its village mentality behind.

Returning to the perpetrators of the heinous gang rape, it will not be entirely surprising if the 6 arrested men receive a much harsher punishment than usual. The pressure from the middle class for the death penalty could conceivably harden the law, which currently only specifies 12 years of rigorous imprisonment for rape. This will be an interesting legal development to watch.

The pressure to stiffen the law is enormous - students in Kashmir

Hell hath no fury...

When the middle class shouts loudly enough, it may just get what it wants

Gandhi was wrong, after all. India is urbanising, and it is not perishing as a result. On the contrary, it is becoming more conscious of its rights and hence more civilised. In the words of one of Gandhi's contemporaries,


Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
Where knowledge is free;
Where the world has not been broken up
into fragments by narrow domestic walls;
Where words come out from the depth of truth;
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason
has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;
Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action---
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.
- Rabindranath Tagore

Tagore's dream is coming true as India awakens to a more assertively egalitarian society. And this is not through any purported virtue of Gandhi's villages but through the battles won by India's urban, educated middle class.

Saturday, 22 December 2012

An Act Of Unimaginable Horror

[Warning: This post contains graphic details of violence and cruelty. If you are a minor and/or tend to be greatly disturbed by such accounts, please do not read further.]

Calling some crimes "rape" doesn't do justice to their horror.

We have been hearing for a few days now about the rape case in Delhi when a young woman and a male companion were assaulted by six men when they boarded a private bus one night. She was not only raped but the two of them were also "beaten with iron rods". She is now fighting for her life in hospital, and she wrote a courageous and heartbreaking note to her mother saying she wants to live. But the reports also added something I found strange: her intestines had to be removed as they had become gangrenous.

Why would a woman's intestines have to be removed after a rape?

I found out later that it was because this was more than a rape. It was an attack shocking in its utter ruthlessness and brutality.

I have read only one news item that sheds light on this.

A doctor in the hospital said that it appeared that the girl had been violated with a metal rod.

“It appears to be that a rod was inserted into her and it was pulled out with so much force that the act brought out her intestines along. That is probably the only thing that explains such severe damage to her intestines,” he said.

According to sources, one of the accused persons who were brought to the hospital for a medical examination on Tuesday confessed to having seen a rope-like object — likely her intestines — being pulled out of the girl by the other assailants on the bus. The sources said that the girl had bite marks on her body.

I must confess I was shaking with shock when I read this, and it has taken me a while to recover sufficiently to be able to write this. This is not "rape". This is an act of unimaginable cruelty and horror. What kind of depravity leads some men to such acts?

I remember reading that many US soldiers in Vietnam earned an informal "honour" of being known as "double veterans" once they had raped and then mutilated a woman with a bayonet.

At a certain level, I can still understand rape (although I hardly condone it). In a society where women are routinely objectified, sexual desire overcomes a man and he ceases to take a woman's refusal seriously and he forces her to have sex with him. If only that is all there is to it! It seems there is something sick in the minds of some men that they have to inflict horrific cruelty upon the women they have sex with.

Sex is supposed to be an act of love. It staggers me that sex can be combined with cruelty, and such unspeakable cruelty at that. How twisted these men must be!

Understandably, there are big protests going on in Delhi and other parts of India at the time of writing, but all of them refer to this shocking crime as just "rape". Even though it would be highly disturbing, I believe people must be made to confront the full horror of what happened to this unfortunate young woman (who will most likely have to be fed intravenously throughout her life unless, as I hope, she is able to receive an intestinal transplant sometime in future).

The protests will go on, and there may be a few measures that are instituted in response, to make women safer in public places, but we really have to confront the cruelty that has permeated our society. When ordinary-looking people walking about around us are capable of such barbarity, what faith can we have in society anymore?

That's why, in spite of my horror, I refuse to join in the chorus for the death penalty even for men such as these! In my opinion, the death penalty is institutionalised barbarity, which is as bad as the crimes it is meant to punish and deter. We imbibe cruelty into our way of thinking when we call for the death penalty. That is definitely not the way to a more humane society.

What is the most humane way to deal with such crimes, then?

Not unusually, Australia seems to have answers that the rest of the world could look to. This report ("Chemical castration, or it's back to jail") discusses a possible solution.

Quite apart from dealing with crimes as they happen, we (as individuals and as communities) need to seriously introspect about cruelty and about how to become less cruel. I have been thinking for a while now that the core moral principle to be taught from childhood is empathy, which is when we feel another's pain as our own. Every other aspect of morality follows from that principle - injunctions against dishonesty, theft, murder and yes, rape. And no, religion is not the answer. The judgemental approach of most of the world's religions towards sexual behaviour, particularly the tendency to regulate normal female sexuality, is what has brought us to this pass.

Let's work towards a humanistic moral code based on empathy. If this poor woman's ordeal is not to remain a meaningless misfortune, it must spur us to evolve. All of us.

Monday, 17 December 2012

Rejoicing That The System Works

On 8 September 2012, there were council elections in the state of New South Wales in Australia. Nothing remarkable about them, except that this time, I forgot about them and did not vote.

In most other countries, the only upshot of an omission like this would possibly have been a sense of regret that one missed a chance to influence the outcome. In a country like Australia, though, where voting is not just a right but also a duty, the consequences had financial bite. 

I received the following penalty notice in the mail a few weeks later, informing me that I owed the exchequer $55 for my sins.

 Note that they do give you a chance to explain why you failed to vote. They also helpfully give you a website to register for an automated email or SMS reminder so you don't get caught out the next time.

They cover other possibilities as well, such as if you did vote (and they seem willing to take your word for it if you merely declare that you did so!), and also let you take the matter to court if you so wish.

I had no option but to pay up, of course, since "I forgot" is hardly a legitimate defence. But all said and done, I was impressed. The sheer efficiency and fairness of the system left me marvelling. Even with my embarrassment at being a violator of rules and the pain of losing $55 (more than a week's worth of lunch), I found myself admiring the beauty of the system and feeling pride in my adopted country.

I was powerfully reminded of the saying that a true patriot is one who receives a parking ticket and rejoices that the system works.

I guess I'm a patriot, then!


Saturday, 15 December 2012

Deep Forebodings About The US

A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed - Second amendment to the US Constitution

An eye for an eye will make the whole world blind - Mahatma Gandhi

Consider two democracies, newly freed from the same colonial master, but founded with two entirely different world-views.

The US fought for its freedom with guns, and its constitution reflects the philosophy that freedom can only be defended with guns.

The Stars and Stripes forever?

When Gandhi led India's freedom struggle, he famously remained friends with the British. The struggle was principled, the relationship cordial to the end, with a British Governor-General staying on as India's Head of State for a couple of years after independence. The only bullets fired were by extremists on both sides. The mainstream freedom struggle was non-violent. And today, even as India sees unprecedented levels of violence in different spheres of its polity, there are indications that every such strife is an indicator of a more equitable society struggling to be born. It is not a system spiralling out of control. This is the turbulence associated with the emergence of a new social order where historical inequities may finally be laid to rest.

It is in fact the more stable-looking United States that should concern us more. Even as the latest shooting tragedy ignites fresh debate about gun control, its opponents can be seen to be digging in more ferociously. Scenes of tragedy are being blamed on too much gun control, where law-abiding citizens are left unarmed and unable to stop rogue shooters. If only everyone was armed, the argument goes, tragedies like these could be nipped in the bud. It's clear that no consensus is likely to emerge shortly.

If the same pro-gun argument were to be extended to the world, the answer to world peace would be to make every country a nuclear weapons state. Then the rogue states could be stopped after they blew up just one or two cities. Would that be acceptable? Why is nuclear disarmament being pursued at all if the second amendment is such a great idea? It's the same principle, isn't it?

I have a very bad feeling about how this is going to end. Guns are not perishable goods. Guns produced a half-century ago are still capable of operating perfectly today. Every gun ever purchased in the US is stockpiled somewhere or the other, waiting for the day it will be used. There is an entire paranoid class that buys and stockpiles guns. [These people cut across the political spectrum, although a significant number of them belong to the Republican party.] At some point, the aggregate stockpile will reach critical mass, and there will come a tipping point.

This is the nightmare scenario I envisage.

Sometime in the next 5 to 10 years, white Republicans are going to realise they will never again win another Presidential election. The changing demographics will have "taken their country from them", which is how they will see it. The targets of their ire will be ethnic minorities, mainly blacks and hispanics. All it will need is a spark to make the tinderbox blow. If there are a few perceptibly targetted shooting attacks by white supremacists on blacks and hispanics, it could trigger a bloodbath as armed members of these communities strike blindly back along racial lines. Any widespread racial conflict will drag in federal forces. Once there is a perceived threat that the government is moving to take away citizens' guns, an armed revolt will ensue. The scale of operations will quickly overwhelm agencies like the FBI, and the armed forces will have to be deployed. From what I have read about the size and firepower of some of the armament caches owned by groups of paranoics (many of them ex-military men), this could very quickly blow up into a second US Civil War, with the government forced to use tanks and artillery against its own people. The post-apocalyptic dystopia that is the staple of Hollywood movies may become a reality within a decade.

Sounds too nightmarish to be true, right? I don't believe this is beyond the realm of the possible. There doesn't seem to be a way to wind this thing down peacefully. Most regrettably, all signs point to a coming conflagration.

The situation is the exact dual of communism collapsing under its own weight. I wonder how Brezhnev's ghost will react when the arms of the US put its own eyes out.

Apart from travel advisories to their citizens, the rest of the world can only watch helplessly. 

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Cheap Thrills, Or A Date With Destiny

Partway through a meeting today, I noticed that the desk phone in the meeting room read 11:14 12/12/12. The significance suddenly dawned on me. The moment the meeting got over, I rushed back to my desk and positioned myself in front of my desk phone with my mobile phone at the ready (Thank goodness for the cameras in mobile phones - we're always ready when an opportunity presents itself).

When the minute ticked over to 12:12, I was duly able to record it for posterity - Kilroy was here!



Proof positive - I was the man of the moment

So what is the significance of this? It means that I am a kid at heart, nothing more :-)

Saturday, 17 November 2012

Our Lingua Franca Has A Certain Je Ne Sais Quoi

I saw this wonderful picture on the net, and it rang so true.

The original image said "loose grammar", but one of the comments on the site where I found it suggested "loose lexemes", so I made the necessary modification. Now it's accurate, but incomprehensible :-(.

So what IS a lexeme? According to SIL (formerly the Summer Institute of Linguistics), a lexeme is "the minimal unit of language that has a semantic interpretation and embodies a distinct cultural concept".

And armed with that knowledge, when we look again at that picture, we realise that it describes exactly what English has taken from other languages, and why this has served to enrich rather than destroy its own character. A language that acquires the power to describe virtually anything, pragmatically lifting lexemes to accurately describe cultural concepts it has no native words for, becomes universally useful, like a Swiss army knife (there, that's another lexeme). The British empire might have imposed English on the four corners of the globe, but if the language itself had no staying power of its own, it would have swiftly retreated with the disappearance of that empire. The fact that English is still around in the world, stronger than ever, says something about the character of a language that is not above mugging others for their loose lexemes.

Many years ago, when I was a student, I was having dinner with a friend and his father who was visiting. The senior man went off on a bit of a rant about English in India. "Indian languages have been corrupted by English", he fumed.

I felt I had to disagree, and did so politely, "Or enriched, depending on which way you look at it..."

"No", he said firmly, "it's not enrichment, it's corruption."

I didn't know the word "lexeme" back then, or I might have been able to impress him a bit. Or perhaps not.

My own father had quite the opposite opinion. He was a linguist who entered his profession by choice, because of his love of languages. He could read and understand 6 Indian languages and 6 foreign ones, apart from English. And though I can hardly call myself a linguist, I guess I've inherited some of that curiosity and love for language that he had.

Just last week, I found myself explaining to my son that the English word "ambrosia" (a food or drink of the (Greek) gods that confers immortality) is related to the Sanskrit word "amṛt", commonly spelt either "amrit" or "amrut" (a nectar that gave the (Hindu) gods their immortality).

The gods and the demons (the bad guys always have wicked moustaches to help us identify them) wait to be served amṛt. (Of course, the demons get cheated out of having any, and only the gods end up having it. History is written by victors, so now you know why the gods always win. Just sayin'.)

It's easy, once it's pointed out, to see the connection between "ambrosia" and "amṛt". But here's where it gets interesting.

The word "amṛt" is actually a compound word "a-mṛt", because "mṛt" or "mṛtyu" means "death" (which corresponds to mort in Latin), and "a-mṛt" is literally the opposite of death, or im-mort-ality. No one reading the original definition of ambrosia ("a food or drink of the gods that confers immortality") would immediately make the connection from "ambrosia" to the word "immortality" and realise that they're essentially the same word. The lexeme that English pilfered from Sanskrit just cloned itself in the same sentence, and nobody saw that happening! It's sitting right there under our very noses, just like the hidden white arrow in the FedEx logo.

Oh, those sneaky ad-men and their subliminal suggestions to go right!

It's amazing just how many words from other languages have found their way into English and are now strutting around in suits and top hats. Actually, that should just be jeans and T-shirts, because English is no longer the language of the British empire. It belongs to all of us as our working language, which is what the term "lingua franca" means anyway.

And we start using words from our own languages as English words, often even pronouncing them as English words, and no one seems to mind a bit. It's cultural Stockholm syndrome (an English lexeme that others can use).

Stockholm syndrome - "Everyone say 'Anglophilia', or it's au revoir, mademoiselle."
"You're so cool."

I personally find it amazing that the tech industry casually uses the Sanskrit words "guru", "nirvana" and "mantra", while "karma" and "avatar" need no translation at all. Guy Kawasaki, in a talk to Indian IT professionals in Silicon Valley, advised them to adopt a mantra for themselves with the quip, "You guys are Indians, you know what a mantra is".

Don't look now, but someone is stealing your loose lexemes

So the moral of the story is, go get those loose lexemes, from any language careless enough to leave them lying around. One of them could be the mot juste that you're looking for.

Even the linguistically pure French have taken the lesson to heart, it would seem.

...or they might ruin le weekend for you

Sunday, 11 November 2012

"If I Were Not A Man Of Honour, I Could Almost Be A Rat"

A chain of thoughts runs through my head whenever I read of another eminent man's downfall through avoidable indiscretion. Let me put it down in writing this time.

The most infamous such episode in the last decade was the fall of much-revered management guru Jack Welch, former Chairman and CEO of General Electric. A seasoned executive and a married man, he nevertheless betrayed poor judgement (if nothing else) when he began an affair with his biographer Suzy Wetlaufer, a journalist with the Harvard Business Review. That affair covered no one with glory. Wetlaufer's professional reputation lay in tatters by her failing to disclose her conflict of interest in time, and HBR's editors showed equally easy principles by turning a blind eye to what they knew was happening, since continued access to a titan of industry mattered more to them. And of course, Jack Welch's reputation as a wise leader never recovered.

Clearly, there was a 30th secret that Jack had yet to learn

His mistake cost him $180 million when his wife divorced him. That's the kind of loss Welch would have fired his execs for at GE, so readers of his book could justifiably ask for a refund.

Of course, the trick in these circles is to brazen it out as if nothing happened. Jack Welch continues to pretend to be a management and leadership guru.

Old motto: If life hands you a lemon, make lemonade.
New motto: If you end up with egg on your face, make an omelette.

Last week, CIA chief David Petraeus resigned under very similar circumstances. Petraeus had been married 37 years, but he too admitted to having an affair with his biographer, journalist Paula Broadwell.

David Petraeus with Paula Broadwell - war isn't the only thing too serious to be left to the generals

What is it with powerful men and their women biographers, or women in general?

Anyone remember the scene from "Love, Actually" where Karen (Emma Thompson) confronts her husband Harry (Alan Rickman) over the necklace she knew he had bought but which she finally didn't get for Christmas? She then knew it had gone to his secretary, and the ambiguity around that gift is nicely captured:

Would you wait around to find out if it's just a necklace, or if it's sex and a necklace, or if, worst of all, it's a necklace and love? Would you stay, knowing life would always be a little bit worse? Or would you cut and run?

And indeed, there is nothing Harry can say except

Oh, God. I am so in the wrong. The classic fool!

I'm reminded of Gail Sheehy's 1974 book "Passages" and her description of a phase in life she calls "Catch-30" (but just as easily applied to powerful men at any age). The thirties are the age when a married couple tends to switch roles and the power equation shifts in favour of the woman. Lots of men can't handle that very well.

Enter a third figure, who can offer the man a convenient lift out of his knot: The Testimonial Woman. Since the transition from the Twenties to the Thirties is often characterised by first infidelities, she is not hard to find.  She is behind the secretary's desk, in the junior copywriter pool, in the casting call line-up, in the next lab coat. The root of the word "testimonial" is "testis" (plural "testes"). In olden times, cupping the sexual parts of a man by another man in greeting was a "testimonial to manhood" and the basis for the original handshake. The Testimonial Woman offers the same service - she fortifies his masculinity.

The wife bears witness to the embryo he was. Even if she doesn't confront him, he looks into those memory-bank eyes and recalls his faults, failures, fears. The new woman - student, secretary or one connected to his enterprise - offers a testimonial to what he has become. She sees him as having always been this person (emphasis mine). She is generally younger, subordinate but promising. He may be able to take the part of teacher. Then she can become more and more like him, further affirming him as admirable and worth emulating.

We can see shades of this in the Petraeus-Broadwell relationship:

"A few months into my research, General Petraeus, who was then leading Central Command, invited me to go for a run with him and his team along the Potomac River during one of his visits to Washington," [Broadwell] wrote.

"I figured I could interview him while we ran."

The keen runner said she wanted to test him to see if he could keep up with her as she interviewed him.

"Instead it became a test for me,' she said.

"As we talked during the run from the Pentagon to the Washington Monument and back, Petraeus progressively increased the pace until the talk turned to heavy breathing and we reached a six-minute-per-mile pace. It was a signature Petraeus move."

Ultimately, Petraeus's move, signature or not, turned out to be a bad one. Can one say 'dishonourable discharge'?

Gen. Petraeus with his wife and children in happier times [Fans of Nominative Determinism will note that his surname sounds like "betray us", and that Jack Welch's surname means "to go back on an obligation"]

I can't help contrasting this general with one of my boyhood heroes, the German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. Rommel was one of the earliest exponents of Blitzkrieg - pioneered by Heinz Guderian ("Schnell Heinz") - and he became a larger-than-life hero in Germany after the fall of France. He suddenly began to receive the gushing adulation of thousands of women. According to David Wallechinsky (and this is entirely from memory since I can't trace the original quote, but it is burned into my memory), Rommel is reported to have confessed to one of his close friends, "You know, some of these women are so beautiful, if I were not a man of honour, I could almost be a rat." Wallechinsky goes on to say, "But it was all talk. Rommel remained faithful to his wife until he died."

[Gregory Benford and Martin Greenberg take that quote and have Rommel say it in quite a different context in their alternate history series "What Might Have Been"]

Field Marshal Erwin Rommel - The Desert Fox was no rat

Why are some of our heroes true warrior-saints and others just small men in big positions?

I don't believe we should approach this question in a moralising way. It's not about stricter morality, for two reasons.

One is that enforcement of any kind doesn't work. We've seen what forced celibacy has done to the reputation of the Catholic church in terms of sexual behaviour of priests. And quite a lot of us would object to the Islamists' solution of covering up women and segregating the sexes from each other as a way of ensuring a "moral" society.

The second and more basic reason is that I object to the conflation of the term "morality" with any kind of sexual behaviour. I believe morality is about truthfulness, honesty, courage and refraining from harming others. Sexual behaviour is sexual behaviour. By itself, it's morally neutral. Where the two intersect is when sexual behaviour makes one dishonest. After all, there is no infidelity, by definition, in "open marriages", because there are no curbs on either partner's sexual freedom and hence no expectations to belie.

But for the vast majority of us who are not celibate, do not live in a segregated society yet are not comfortable with open marriages, what is the solution? Temptation lies at every step, both for men and for women, and if we think affairs like those of Jack Welch and David Petraeus are undesirable, perhaps the only solution is the one recommended by credit risk managers - restrict all exposures to under 10%.

To explain, credit risk is the risk that a debtor will fail to pay back a loan, and sometimes this failure can deprive an organisation of funds to a degree that its own survival is threatened. One way of managing credit risk is to ensure that no single debtor owes more than 10% of the total debt owed to the organisation. Then the failure of any single debtor to repay their loan will not affect the organisation very much.

In similar fashion, if we find that we are spending more than 10% of our time with a member of our preferred sex (other than our partner), then we're overexposed in risk terms and should cut that back and spend more time with others.

We can't all be warrior-saints or philosopher-kings, so some such practical measures are required.

Saturday, 10 November 2012

Water, Water, Everywhere

I found this really good "infographic" on the net. Click on it to expand.


The diagram refers to a coming crisis of drinking water for a large part of the world's population, but paradoxically, this picture gives me a lot of hope - because it shows that we're nowhere near the end of our potential supply of water! We're currently able to access 1% of the world's supply of freshwater, which in turn is just 2.5% of all the water in the world. There's plenty more where what we have today came from.

Technology is all that stands in the way of our being able to tap into the remainder, and there are a zillion technological ways to skin this cat. One simple idea that has been around for decades is desalination. Economics is the only practical barrier to desalination, and a large part of this is the cost of energy per unit of water processed. Again and again, it comes back to energy. Now, I believe the world is on the cusp of an energy revolution, so with cheap and plentiful energy, many more things will become possible. Safe drinking water for all will be just one of them.

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Why I'm Gratified By The Result Of The US Elections

So Obama has won re-election with 332 electoral college votes, beating even my prediction of 320.

As the meme goes, not bad.


I'm very happy about the result, but it may surprise many to know that it has nothing to do with Obama himself. In fact, Obama as President has been deeply disappointing to me.

He was supposed to have rolled back the Bush-era assaults on civil rights. He did nothing of the kind, and even gleefully extended them. He didn't close down Guantanamo Bay. The US government continues to be Big Brother under an Obama administration. It's the Obama administration that is going after Julian Assange so stealthily and vengefully. As Gerry Caplan says, "[...] the list of areas where the president already betrayed so many hopes is long and disheartening -- justice, drones, torture, police brutality, inequality, prisons, African Americans, poverty, education, Africa, gun control, war on drugs, whistleblowing, climate change, the Middle East." So what was all the idealism of 2008 about? ("You can't intrude into our private lives like this!" "Yes, we can!")

What I'm really happy about is the defeat of the party I like to call the Retaliban Party. A more mediaeval bunch of crazies I've never seen. Just like their counterparts in Pakistan and Afghanistan, the American Taliban are anti-liberal, anti-women, homophobic, anti-science, creationist gun-loving bigots who take their holy book literally and hate anyone unlike themselves. And since the US isn't made up exclusively of rich, old, white, straight men, they got the sharp rebuke they deserved.

I'm alarmed about the increasing reports of misogyny from around the world, and I do hope the increase is only in the reporting. It's even worse when one of the supposedly most advanced countries in the world exhibits such behaviour. We've seen a fair amount of it during the just-concluded campaign season in the US.

In all the excitement over the presidential election, it's easy to overlook the results of the congressional elections. Here too, my cup runneth over. My two favourite crazies, former senators Todd Akin of Missouri and Richard Mourdock of Indiana, both Republicans (what else?), got the boot as well.

Todd Akin believes women's bodies have the ability to "shut down" unwanted pregnancies in cases of what he called "legitimate rape"

Richard Mourdock believes that pregnancies, even as a result of rape, were "intended by God"

Well, the American political system clearly has the ability to shut out legitimate idiots, and they would have to agree that this result too must have been intended by God.

[Update 08/11/2012: I also realised that an Obama victory is likely to have more durable effects on American society. And this is through the appointment of Supreme Court justices. In Obama's first term, he replaced liberal-leaning David Souter with another liberal, Sonia Sotomayor, in effect merely retaining the status quo and preventing a lurch to the right. In his second term, he has the opportunity to actively move the court to the left by replacing one or more retiring conservative judges with liberal ones. The effect could last decades.]

A couple of months ago I predicted the Republicans would lose this Presidential election and never win one again until they changed themselves drastically. I guess that view is now partially vindicated. 2016 will tell if the rest of it plays out as I think it will.

It isn't a day of just gloating for me, though. I must say I deeply appreciate one aspect of both Presidential candidates. It's that both Obama and Romney are good family men, deeply devoted to their wives and children. Throughout the campaign, however ugly it got, there was nary a suggestion of improper sexual behaviour about either of the men. After the unsavoury exposés of Bill Clinton, John Edwards, Newt Gingrich and many other presidents and presidential candidates, it was a relief to be considering two wholesome men for a change.

I really like this photo of the Obamas, taken after the result was known.

"No ma'am, he's not an Ay-rab. He's a decent family man" - John McCain, 2008

Well, he's that all right. At the very least, Americans (and the world) have a good role model in the First Family.

Monday, 29 October 2012

Should Australians Learn Hindi?


The Gillard government's recently released white paper on "Australia in the Asian Century" is making lots of news. Weighing in at 320 pages, it can be quite a cure for insomnia (like all good white papers). But some of its policy implications have jolted people awake.

Let's look at just the impact on education policy. Some experts have estimated the cost of these policy changes to run into billions of dollars. Let me focus on one particular aspect of the education policy, under which "every schoolchild will be able to learn one of four "priority" languages: Chinese (Mandarin), Hindi, Japanese and Indonesian".

Knowing a second language is always useful in a myriad of ways, especially learning a language that is very different in nature to English. The benefits include staving off Alzheimer's, and so no one can argue with the proposal in concept. Engaging with emerging Asian countries where the locals speak no other language but their own obviously requires proficiency in those languages. China, Japan, Korea, Thailand - one cannot survive in these countries without knowing the local language. But India?

It's symptomatic of superficial thinking that Hindi has been clubbed together with Mandarin, Japanese and Indonesian. I call it superficial because of India's unique linguistic make-up. The penetration and role of Hindi in India are very different from those of these three other languages in their respective countries.

First, who is the target population in India with whom the next generation of Australians is meant to engage? If, as is most likely, these are going to be educated Indians from urban areas, for purposes of commerce or scientific collaboration, then English is already more than adequate. The lingua franca of the professionally-educated middle and upper classes in India is English. These people usually speak in English even to each other, and an Australian is unlikely to gain any special advantage through a knowledge of Hindi when dealing with these people.

Second, if the objective is to build rapport with common people rather than to communicate with just the elite, then wouldn't it be much more effective to communicate with people in their mothertongue? Only 40% of Indians have Hindi as their mothertongue, although about 70% can speak it. Quite apart from major cities like Chennai and Bangalore where Hindi is not widely spoken, one would be better served speaking Bengali in Kolkata, Marathi in Pune and Gujarati in Ahmedabad, even though Hindi is well-understood in all of these cities. But it would be asking too much to teach Indian regional languages in Australian schools. The benefits would be even more narrow and unjustified.

The most economically vibrant and growing regions of India are the West and the South, not the Hindi heartland, so the relative importance of Hindi may not even be as high as the demographics suggest

Third, from a purely practical standpoint, the kind of Hindi that is most likely to be useful in India is the mongrel variant popularly spoken in Mumbai and Hyderabad, and not the chaste, literary form that the Delhi elite tend to favour. For non-native speakers, it's far more important to be able to get the meaning across, grammar be damned. But it seems depressingly certain which version will be taught in Australian schools, especially since any Australian Hindi language curriculum will be determined in collaboration with New Delhi's officialdom. [It would indeed be ironic if Australians turned out to be incomprehensible to Indians because their Hindi sounded like the news on the government-owned TV channel!]

Rangebank Primary School in Melbourne is the only school in Australia that teaches Hindi to all its students. But will Hindi be useful or just nice to know?

For all these reasons, I believe Australia's Hindi policy is probably utopian and will not serve its intended purpose. Indeed, I don't believe Australian policymakers have thought deeply about the intended purpose of teaching Australian schoolchildren Hindi in the first place. Australia's approach to India should be arrived at by a body of people who have a sufficiently high number of flying hours under their belt (i.e., people who have travelled and lived extensively in India), not by armchair strategists who just see colour-coded countries on a world map.

It's important to engage and to understand another nationality, but language is not always part of this (It's even less true of India than of monolingual countries that have very little English). It's cultural understanding that is required, and I'm not sure if that is being addressed by the policy. For a start, Australians could learn to pronounce Asian names, including Indian ones (Rajeev is not pronounced Razheev, any more than John is pronounced Zhohn.)

On a personal note, I remember my stint at IIT Kanpur in India's Hindi heartland, where a fellow South Indian and I overheard a conversation on the hostel lawns. A card-carrying member of the RSS (the Hindu right-wing organisation that also believes Hindi is the unifying language for the country) was trying to convince a couple of South Indians of the benefits of learning Hindi.

"If you know Hindi, you can speak to 70% of all Indians", he argued, "you can speak to Punjabi[s], you can speak to Gujarati[s], you can speak to Bengali[s]..."

As we left the place, my fellow-South Indian friend said in contemptuous disgust, "If you know English, you can speak to 100% of the Indians who matter".

A snobbish opinion to be sure, but painfully true.

As the white paper makes clear, Australia definitely needs to understand Asia better.