Saturday, 17 June 2017

The Aryan Invasion Theory Is Finally Proven Right: Science - 1, Hindu Right-Wing - 0

For years, a needless ideological battle has been fought in India. The root of the debate is a seemingly irrelevant question - Did the ancient Indian "Vedic" civilisation originate in India or did it come to India from outside?

To most rational people, this would seem to be a non-issue. Does it even matter? Indian culture today is what it is. A study of its origins and roots is interesting, but it shouldn't change the way Indians look at themselves or their cultural practices.

However, to one particular group of people, the origins of Indian culture, equated by them to "Vedic" culture, is of crucial ideological importance. The people and organisations loosely affiliated under the generic "Hindutva" umbrella are very keen to establish that Vedic culture originated in India and was not imported into the South Asian region by an external group of people. It seems to be a point of pseudo-nationalistic pride with them and nothing more. Even to devout Hindus who believe in Vedic scriptures, myths and rituals, it should not matter a whit whether Vedic culture was indigenous to India or not. As I said before, Indian culture is what it is. There is no need to make its exact origin a point of pride. And yet that's the way the Hindu right-wing has chosen to play it.

A seal from the Indus Valley Civilisation depicting a strange-looking animal. There is speculation that the civilisation did not know of the horse, which was introduced into the region by invaders from Central Asia.

When I was growing up, I learnt in my history books about the Indus Valley Civilisation that existed from about 3300 BCE to 1300 BCE, with its mature period between 2600 BCE and 1600 BCE. The culture of this civilisation was suggested to be Dravidian. I also learnt about the 'Aryan Invasion Theory', which held that a different race of people from Central Asia or the Middle East invaded India, destroyed the Indus Valley Civilisation, drove the Dravidians to the South of the country, and settled in the North. They brought with them a different culture, including a different set of gods and religious rituals (the Vedic culture). Over time, there was some cultural and genetic cross-pollination between the two groups, but the predominant genetic/racial and cultural divide of Aryan versus Dravidian remains in India today as North Indian versus South Indian.

That's what I learnt at school, and so did the rest of my generation. In addition to what was taught in textbooks, I learnt from observing politics that some South Indian politicians (notably belonging to the "Dravidian" parties of Tamil Nadu) accused "upper-caste" people even in South India of being Aryans. So the popular discourse seemed to uneasily entertain (if not fully accept) the idea that India consisted of two races of people - the Aryans and the Dravidians. The Aryans were typically North Indians and "upper-caste" people; the Dravidians were typically South Indians and "lower-caste" people.

Somewhere along the way, this set of hypotheses began to acquire ideological overtones. People belonging to the Hindu revivalist movement intensely disliked it. To them, this seemed at once to have two implications:

1. It divided Hindus into two (or four) groups - North vs South, and upper-caste vs lower-caste. Viewed from their ideological angle which saw Muslims and Christians as enemies of the Hindus, such internal schisms within Hinduism were an unacceptable weakness.

2. Their own perception, perhaps born of cultural insecurity, was that it called into question the very legitimacy of the Hindu Vedic tradition, by suggesting that it may have come to the country from outside and was therefore not worthy of respect as a genuinely original civilisation.

For these two reasons, Hindu revivalist groups such as the Hindu Mahasabha (now defunct) and later the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and its sister organisations, have worked very hard to disparage the Aryan Invasion Theory. One could understand a Hindu revivalist movement working to eliminate regional, linguistic and caste differences among Hindus through a positive appeal to unifying ideas, but the approach they took was entirely different. It was through the more expedient means of attempting to disparage the Aryan Invasion Theory by imputing anti-national motives to historians.

That has been the background to the debate so far, and the ideological lines have been drawn. Western Indologists like Max Mueller, colonial-era British historians such as Mortimer Wheeler and Indian ones like Romila Thapar are on one side of this debate. Intellectuals (to use a term that errs on the side of respect) such as Michel Danino, Koenraad Elst, David Frawley and Rajiv Malhotra are on the opposite side. The hypothesis favoured by the latter group is the 'Out of India Theory' which postulates that far from India being the recipient of an Aryan migration from Central Asia, it was India that was the original home of the Aryans, who then migrated outwards.

Under the onslaught of the right-wing reaction, the proponents of the Aryan Invasion Theory have back-pedalled a bit, and conceded that "invasion" was probably too strong a term. They have settled for a milder term - "migration". It's the Aryan Migration Theory that is a little more respectable nowadays. However, even that is disputed by the Hindu right.

While this debate has been rancorous, a lot of it has been based on conjecture and circumstantial evidence. But in recent times, genetic research has begun to provide clearer answers.

In 2013, a paper by Priya Moorjani et al made a number of important points based on genetic evidence, and I have blogged about that here. To recapitulate,

1. Virtually all groups in India, including those considered to be isolated, have experienced an admixture of two distinct racial groups in the past. There are no "pure" groups today.

2. This admixture took place over a period of time, between 4200 years ago and 1900 years ago.

3. The paper calls these two original racial groups ANI and ASI (Ancestral North Indian and Ancestral South Indian). The ANI group has links to Central Asia, the Middle East and Europe, although the paper takes care to explain that it has no immediate links to Eurasians and hence may have separated from the Eurasian group 12,500 years ago. The ASI group does not have links to any group outside of India, with the closest group being in the Andamans. Hence the ASI group is probably indigenous to India.

4. Present-day Indo-European groups in India (i.e., North Indians) have a higher proportion of ANI genes than ASI. Present-day Dravidian groups (i.e., South Indians) have a higher proportion of ASI genes than ANI.

So far, the data seems consistent with the Aryan Invasion/Migration Theory in that the ASI group indigenous to India seems to correspond to the Dravidians, and the ANI group with links to Central Asia seems to correspond to the Aryans. However, it isn't that straightforward.

5. The dates of admixture are more recent among Indo-European groups than among Dravidian groups. A plausible theory is that Indo-European groups received a second infusion of ANI, making the effective date of the admixture appear more recent. This is backed up by the fact that many North Indian genomes have long stretches of ANI interspersed with stretches that are a mosaic of ANI and ASI, pointing to a more recent admixture on top of an earlier one.

6. "Upper" and "middle" caste people's genomes show multiple waves of admixture compared to "lower" caste genomes. The paper does not offer an explanation for this, but my theory is that lower caste people were less mobile and had fewer opportunities to interact with outside groups, perhaps as a result of social restrictions.

On a matter that can be seen to have a major bearing on our understanding of caste, the paper makes a further surprising claim based on the genetic evidence.

7. An abrupt shift to endogamy (the opposite of cross-breeding) occurred around 1900 years ago. Some groups stopped receiving gene flows from neighbouring groups 3,000 years ago.

A more recent paper by 16 researchers led by Martin Richards is consistent with the Moorjani paper, and provides much more emphatic evidence.

Its conclusions are explosive. To cut a long story short, the genetic evidence suggests that the Aryan Invasion Theory is probably on the money. The Out of India Theory stands discredited. What's more, it really was an invasion and not a peaceful migration. Read this commentary in The Hindu which explains the conclusions of the paper in layman's terms.

The research for the first time analyses patrilineal DNA or Y-DNA, whereas previous studies had focused on matrilineal DNA or mtDNA. Previous studies had not detected any genetic infusion into India around the time of the Indus Valley Civilisation, but the newest one does. What's more, the dating of this infusion (around 2000 BCE) matches the collapse of the Indus Valley Civilisation to an astonishing degree.

Let's think about this for a moment. No infusion of matrilineal DNA occurred during the 2000 BCE period, but there was an infusion of patrilineal DNA at that time. In other words, a large group consisting almost exclusively of men entered India at that time. What's the probability that this was an army as opposed to a nomadic community of men, women and children? I'd have to say the evidence very strongly suggests an armed invasion.

Let's think further about the remarkable coincidence that the Indus Valley Civilisation should have collapsed at about the same time that a large group of men (that we have to admit was probably an army) entered the region. What's the probability that these were unrelated events? I'd have to say the evidence strongly suggests a cause-and-effect relationship. An invading army caused the downfall of the Indus Valley Civilisation.

The commentary article in The Hindu is however not bold enough to join these dots as I have above. It echoes the researchers' own circumspection by continuing to talk about a "migration" rather than an "invasion".

To my mind, it's all over but the shouting. The genetic evidence very clearly and strongly suggests an invasion of India by men from Central Asia. The Aryan Invasion Theory was therefore on the money. The ideology of the Hindu right-wing, that Aryan (or "Vedic") culture originated in India, and that all Indians share a single and indigenous genetic heritage, lies in tatters.

None of this should matter to regular Indians, who will probably shrug and carry on with their lives, absolutely untouched by what the evidence says about their past. But to the Hindu right wing, which has made this debate such a point of pride, the latest evidence is devastatingly bad news.

It couldn't happen to a nicer bunch of people.

Sunday, 11 June 2017

Movie Review: I Don't Know How She Does It

(Warning: Plot spoilers ahead.)
The 2011 movie that provides a snapshot of society today

Last night I watched I Don't Know How She Does It, starring Sarah Jessica Parker in the lead role of Kate Reddy, a working woman, a wife and a mother of two (in no particular order). The plotline is pretty simple and straightforward, with no unexpected twists. Yet, it's extremely watchable for the simple reason that so many families across the world can identify with the situation it portrays.

A family with young children and both parents working has a number of challenges before it in terms of juggling the demands of the two offices and the home. In spite of the great strides made by society in recognising and accommodating these challenges, women still end up taking on a greater share of the burden (i.e., what's known as "emotional labour", not just the actual execution of tasks but the remembering, planning, coordinating, worrying aspect of them). The husband Richard played by Greg Kinnear is probably quite typical. He's generally supportive and tries to pull his weight, but there's more that he can in fact do. Towards the end of the movie, he does realise this and makes an effort to take more ownership of some tasks.

I was happy to see many things in this movie.

One was the realistic portrayal of positive behaviour, as opposed to the cliched portrayal of the negative. This extended to both male and female characters.

Among the males, there was of course the office jerk Chris Bunce, played by Seth Meyers. But while such characters doubtless exist in real life, he was balanced by much more supportive men, such as Kate's husband, her immediate boss Clark Cooper (played by Kelsey Grammer), and another senior executive Jack Abelhammer, played by Pierce Brosnan. Personally, I've seen more nice guys than jerks in offices. Most bosses I've come across have been reasonable and fair in their expectations from their direct reports (whether male or female), and human in their empathy and ability to understand the problems of employees with families. (Or maybe that's because I've never worked on the trading floor of a Wall Street firm.)

Among the females, the negative side was similarly cliched. Kate's mother-in-law Marla (played by Jane Curtin) could be counted on to subtly disparage Kate's choice to pursue a career at every turn, and to guilt-trip her about any perceived failing on the home front, such as her two year old son who hadn't yet begun to speak. And there were a couple of "perfect" mums who didn't work but stayed at home to look after their families, one of whom (played by Busy Philipps) could be relied on for catty soundbites. Yet they were more than balanced by supportive women, such as Kate's almost robotic and workaholic assistant Momo Hahn (played by Olivia Munn), and best friend and single mum Allison Henderson (played by Christina Hendricks). The latter could be trusted to frame Kate's many difficult situations from a sympathetic angle.

In both cases, the movie didn't deliberately stack the deck against the main character just to make a point.

It was also good to see that the movie had a positive mood overall. You know that the lead character will manage to score all those goals eventually. The narrative wasn't despairing, whining or excessively preachy, although its use of negative characters to make various points was often unsubtle.

I found myself unreservedly sympathetic to the character played by Sarah Jessica Parker. I have previously only seen Parker in Sex and the City, and didn't like her character much in that movie. I thought she was a spoiled and entitled woman with only imaginary problems. The current movie featured a character with much more substance.

On the negative side, I thought the movie went a little too far in the opposite direction when it tried to be sympathetic towards working women. It ended up caricaturing stay-at-home mums, and I thought that was unfair, because the choice of whether women should pursue professional careers or be homemakers should be theirs, to be worked out with their families. It's not for others to judge. If anything, the great lesson of the modern world is to respect individual choices, so the movie did some judging of its own, even as it made the case against judging.

The portrayal of Momo Hahn made me slightly uncomfortable. I think the positive points earned by the movie on the gender angle might be negated by some insensitivity on the race angle. There was a discernible stereotype there about hard-working but emotionally deficient Asians. Movie-makers should watch that.

There were a couple of areas in which the movie could have been even better.

They should have left out the bit where Jack Abelhammer expresses a romantic interest in Kate. The movie was just fine as it was, and such an angle, although quickly shut down, was nevertheless a distraction.

Also, I believe it would not have been out of place for either Kate or her husband Richard to provide some bracing advice to their school-going daughter that she had better get used to making small sacrifices instead of acting entitled and precious about not having her mother available to her at all times. Having grown up with a working mother myself, I understand that the advantages to the family in being able to afford jam in addition to bread and butter (thanks to a double income) far outweigh the occasional inconvenience. Besides, even setting aside the financial benefit, careers are fulfilling to intelligent and capable women, so why aren't they entitled to them? Children should be made aware of these ideas.

In sum, I thought this was a landmark film that captured a crucial snapshot of life in the early 21st century for millions of families around the world. It's socially relevant and authentic, and I'm sure this will be referenced from time to time in future years.

Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5

Epilogue: I thought this frame from one of the comics in my collection (which I re-read after seeing the Wonder Woman movie) was quite relevant to the topic of working mothers.

WW could equally stand for 'Working Woman'

Saturday, 10 June 2017

Captain Picard's Finest Moments

If I were asked to pick my best Picard moments, these would be some of them. (I'm definitely going to have to add to this list as I remember more episodes.)

Captain Picard -- Role model for this generation and the next

s01e01 (Encounter at Farpoint):

Standing up for humanity

Q: Soldiers, you will press those triggers if this criminal answers with any word other than guilty. Criminal, how plead you?
Picard: Guilty...Provisionally.
Q: The court will hear the provision.


As Riker is about to learn, Picard always values honest feedback over acquiescence

Riker: Permission to speak candidly, sir?
Picard: Always.

Honesty and authenticity

Riker: What do we do, if they're monitoring our every move and word?
Picard: We do exactly what we would if this Q never existed. If we're going to be damned, let's be damned for what we really are.

s01e19 (Coming of Age):

Wesley: I failed, Captain. I didn't get into the Academy. I failed you and I failed the Enterprise. 
Picard: Ridiculous. Did you do your best? 
Wesley: Yes. 
Picard: When you test next year, and you will test next year, do you think your performance will improve? 
Wesley: Yes. 
Picard: Good. The only person you're truly competing against, Wesley, is yourself. 
Wesley: Then you're not disappointed? 
Picard: Wesley, you have to measure your successes and your failures within, not by anything I or anyone else might think. But, if it helps you to know this, I failed the first time. And you may not tell anyone!

"I failed the first time. And you may not tell anyone!"

s02e09 (The Measure of a Man):

Picard: A single Data - and forgive me, Commander - is a curiosity. A wonder, even. But thousands of Datas...Isn't that becoming.....a race? And won't we be judged by how we treat that race? Now tell me, Commander, what is Data?
Maddox: I don't understand.
Picard: What is he?
Maddox: A machine.
Picard: Are you sure?
Maddox: Yes.
Picard: He met two criteria for sentience. What if he met the third? Consciousness. What is he then? I don't know. Do you? That's the question you have to answer. A courtroom is a crucible where we burn away irrelevancies until we are left with a pure product, truth, for all time. Sooner or later, this man or others like him will succeed in replicating Cmdr Data. The decision you reach today will determine how we will regard this..creation of our genius. It will reveal what people are, what he is destined to be. It will reach beyond this courtroom and this one android. It could redefine the boundaries of personal liberty and freedom, expanding them for some, savagely curtailing them for others. Are you prepared to condemn him and all who come after to slavery? (To Judge Luvois) Your Honour, Starfleet was founded to seek out new life. Well, there it sits! Waiting. You wanted a chance to make law. Here it is. Make it a good one.

"Starfleet was founded to seek out new life. Well, there it sits!"

s03e16 (The Offspring):

Admiral Haftel: Then I regret that I must order you to transport Lal aboard my ship.
Picard: Belay that order, Mr. Data.
Haftel: I beg your pardon?
Picard: I will take this to Starfleet myself.
Haftel: I am Starfleet, Captain! Proceed, Commander.
Picard: Hold your ground, Mr. Data.
Haftel: You are jeopardizing your command and your career.
Picard: There are times, sir, when men of good conscience cannot blindly follow orders. You acknowledge their sentience, but you ignore their personal liberties and freedom. Order a man to hand his child over to the State? Not while I'm his captain.

"Order a man to hand his child over to the State? Not while I'm his captain."

s04e21 (The Drumhead):

Where he makes his civil rights speech, one of his most famous

Admiral Norah Satie: I question your actions, Captain. I question your choices. I question your loyalty.
Picard: You know, there are some words I've known since I was a schoolboy.
"With the first link, the chain is forged. The first speech censored, the first thought forbidden, the first freedom denied, chains us all irrevocably."
Those words were uttered by Judge Aaron Satie as wisdom and warning. The first time any man's freedom is trodden on, we're all damaged.

[...]

Worf: Admiral Satie has left the Enterprise. 
Picard: We think we've come so far. The torture of heretics, the burning of witches, it's all ancient history. Then, before you can blink an eye, it suddenly threatens to start all over again. 
Worf: I believed her. I helped her. I did not see what she was. 
Picard: Mister Worf, villains who twirl their moustaches are easy to spot. Those who clothe themselves in good deeds are well camouflaged. 
Worf: I think after yesterday, people will not be as ready to trust her. 
Picard: Maybe. But she, or someone like her, will always be with us, waiting for the right climate in which to flourish, spreading fear in the name of righteousness. Vigilance, Mister Worf, that is the price we have to continually pay.

s05e03 (Ensign Ro):


Picard's indulgence of the maverick Ro Laren shows his supportive and nurturing side

Picard: You've got a great deal to learn from Starfleet.
Ro Laren: I always thought Starfleet had a lot to learn from me.
Picard: That's an attitude that I've found common among the best officers I've ever served with. You're not one of them yet, but you could be, if you work at it.
Ro: That's an interesting challenge. I rarely refuse an interesting challenge. There would have to be one condition.
Picard: Condition?
Ro gestures towards her earring, that she should be allowed to wear it in violation of Starfleet dress regulations.
Picard (with a smile): Two to beam up.

s05e21 (The Perfect Mate):

Stoic in the face of personal tragedy

Kamala: I will never truly love him. 
Picard: You've not even met him. 
Kamala: It no longer matters. I wish I could convey to you what it's like to be a metamorph. To feel the inner strength of someone. To realise that being with him is opening your mind and heart to endless new possibilities. To hear yourself say, I like myself when I'm with him. 
Picard: Kamala. 
Kamala: For a metamorph there's no greater pleasure and no greater wish than to bond with that kind of mate at the end of the Finiis'ral, as I've bonded with you. 
Picard: With me? 
Kamala: Who I am today, I will be forever. 
Data [voiceover]: Data to Captain Picard. 
Picard: Not now, Data. 
Data [voiceover]: But sir, Chancellor Alrik is waiting to receive you in holodeck seven. 
Picard: Acknowledged. (To Kamala) You can't go through with the ceremony. 
Kamala: Would you ask me to stay and ask two armies to keep fighting? Having bonded with you, I've learned the meaning of duty. He'll never know. I'm still empathic. I will be able to please him. I only hope he likes Shakespeare.

[...]

Briam: Your service to both our peoples is greatly appreciated, Captain. 
Picard: Your preparations made the negotiations simple, Ambassador, and Kamala was able to guide me through the rituals. 
Briam: I have to admit, I'm curious. 
Picard: Curious? 
Briam: I was chosen for this mission for a very simple reason. I'm two hundred years old. The temptations of a beautiful metamorph do not easily reach me. And yet I would be lying if I were to claim, that even at my age, they do not reach me at all. But you, you worked with her, side by side for days. How could you resist her? 
Picard: Ambassador, have a safe trip home.

s06e15 (Tapestry):

And he laughs as he is fatally stabbed

Picard: There's still part of me that cannot accept that Q would give me a second chance, or that he'd demonstrate so much compassion. And if it was Q, ..I owe him a debt of gratitude.
Riker: In what sense? He put you through hell.
Picard: There are many parts of my youth that I'm not proud of. There were loose threads. Untidy parts of me that I would like to remove. But when I pulled on one of those threads, ..it unravelled the tapestry of my life.

s06e19 (Lessons):

Unlucky in love, every time

Nella: When communications went out, I knew we had to fend for ourselves. We modified our phasers to create resonant disruptions in the deflector field. The disruptions formed small pockets inside the plane of the field and we each stood inside one to wait out the storm. Richardson didn't make it. All Deng and I could do was stand there and watch. 
Picard: I'm so sorry. 
Nella: Don't. Don't say you're sorry. 
Picard: It must have been terrible. 
Nella: At first, when you told us to hold our positions, I didn't question it. Of course we would. That was our job. But when I saw that storm coming toward us. 
Picard: Part of you must have blamed me. 
Nella: A small part, maybe. But in the end, I was more afraid that you would blame yourself if I died. Would you have? 
Picard: I've lost people under my command. People who were very dear to me. But never someone I've been in love with. And when I believed that you were dead, I just began to shut down. I didn't want to think or feel. I was here in my quarters, and the only thing I could focus on was my music, and how it would never again give me any joy. Then I saw you standing on the transporter pad and I knew that I could never again put your life in jeopardy. 
Nella: If I stayed here, you might have to. 
Picard: You could always resign your commission. Stay here with me. 
Nella: And you could resign yours and come to a starbase with me. I'll apply for a transfer. 
Picard: But we could still see each other. People do. We could arrange shore leave together. And, for the future, who knows? 
Nella: Of course. (kisses Picard) Promise me something? Don't give up your music.

Sunday, 4 June 2017

Review of Wonder Woman: Betrayed By Love, Yet Again

[Warning: Some plot spoilers below]

Makers of superhero movies probably dread the likes of me. As a 50+ year old superhero fan, I'm rather hard to please, because my comics collection dates back to the 70s (the Silver Age, if not the Golden Age), and I grew up imbibing the spirit and the values of that era of superhero comics. Most moviegoers today are under the age of 40 and have probably never even read the original comics, so the movies are likely to be their very first introduction to so many iconic superheroes. I therefore believe that moviemakers have a fiduciary responsibility to faithfully translate the original ethos of the comics onto the screen, so that the new generation of fans receives the same experience of values that mine did.

I critiqued the Superman movies earlier, with the help of an allegorical framework that I discerned, and now it's time to look at Wonder Woman directed by Patty Jenkins. This is not a conventional movie review, because I'm not going to be talking so much about the movie itself, but about whether it is true to the spirit of the comics. I see that most conversations about the movie are from the angle of feminism, which I have no problem with. My concerns are more basic and relate to how faithful the narrative is to the genre. I have an emotional relationship with four DC superheroes -- Superman, Wonder Woman, the Flash and Green Lantern. It affects me personally if any of these characters is misunderstood, misrepresented or unfairly criticised. And of them all, it would not be unfair to say that the softest spot I have is for Wonder Woman. You'll see why.

My Favourite Four, who occupy pride of place in front of my TV

Patty Jenkins's Wonder Woman is a faithful portrayal of one of my favourite characters in most, but alas, not all respects

Let me first touch lightly upon Zack Snyder's treatment of Wonder Woman in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. This was a terrible movie, and the reason is the same cardinal sin Snyder committed in Man of Steel. The main DC superheroes (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, Green Lantern, Hawkman, Aquaman, etc.) do not kill anyone, not even the most terrible super-villains. To base an entire movie on the premise that Batman would even think to kill Superman is inexcusable.

Leaving that aside, Snyder's introduction of Wonder Woman hit exactly the right note. There was an initial air of mystery about a woman acting suspiciously, then a wonderful sense of recognition and joy as the viewer realised it was not another villainess but a much-loved superhero. Wonder Woman's role in Batman v Superman was also pitched just right - neither an empty adornment nor a damsel in distress but a strong and independent character in her own right. (Superman: "Is she with you?" Batman: "I thought she was with you."). One more character-revealing act of hers was that she subdued the monster Doomsday with her magic lasso. Subduing, not killing, is her signature style.

Coming to Patty Jenkins's latest movie 'Wonder Woman', I must first tick off all the positives.

The first and foremost item is that the movie got the character's appearance just right. Wonder Woman is an Amazon, and her backstory is based on Greek mythology. It's only fitting that the character is played by Israeli Gal Gadot, because a Mediterranean appearance is what is called for. I'm so glad Wonder Woman's character was not "whitewashed" by the casting of an Anglo-Saxon actor (like The Ancient One was in Dr Strange with the casting of the otherwise excellent Tilda Swinton).

Second, Wonder Woman's primary motive is strongly on display -- love and caring. (It's good that director Jenkins took Kurt Vonnegut's first rule of creative writing to heart, "Every character must want something, even if it's just a glass of water"). There is no doubt at all about what Wonder Woman wants -- an end to war and strife. All her actions are transparently guided by that motive.

As in the comics, Diana's soft-heartedness comes across in the movie too. That's a major part of her appeal.
('Paradise Island' refers to the Amazons' secret island of Themyscira.)

Third, she is strong and independent. The only man who manages to influence her is Steve Trevor, who is as much her foil as Lois Lane is to Superman.

That ends the positives.

I will discuss the negatives using references from two comics in my collection.

Two of my Wonder Woman comics, from 1966 and 1975/76 -- It's important to understand a superhero's character (portrayed consistently over a decade or more) before beginning to critique a movie portrayal. (Click to expand)

My first objection is to the excessive violence in the movie. Wonder Woman comics feature a lot of action, but it's not always violent.

Lesson #1 from Wonder Woman -- An action hero need not necessarily engage in violence.
(Note my adolescent signature at the top of this issue. I've been in this game a long time :-).) (Click to expand)

My second and much more serious objection is the same one that I had towards Zack Snyder's portrayal of Superman in 'Man of Steel and of Batman in 'Batman v Superman' -- an easy attitude towards killing. Moviemakers, as I said before, have a fiduciary responsibility to their viewers to preserve the values of the characters whose stories they narrate. There is something almost spiritually noble about these superheroes in that there is no blood on their hands. They never kill even the villains who they know would kill them and others without hesitation.

Patty Jenkins committed the same crime that Jack Snyder did. She made Wonder Woman kill General Ludendorff without a pang of guilt. At least Superman was tormented when he felt forced to kill General Zod. Turning Wonder Woman into a cold-hearted murderer was nothing less than a crime. Jenkins has failed in her fiduciary responsibility.

As evidence, consider these scenes from the comics and see how Wonder Woman deals with her adversaries.

The quality of mercy, exhibit 1: Wonder Woman spares Giganta the Gorilla

The quality of mercy, exhibit 2: Wonder Woman rehabilitates Giganta (now transformed into a human)


The quality of mercy, exhibit 3: Paula von Gunta's henchmen drop a steel girder on Diana from atop a building, followed by red-hot rivets, but when they themselves fall, she doesn't let them die. (Click to expand)


The quality of mercy, exhibit 4: When the villainous Paula von Gunta is herself in danger, Wonder Woman saves her too. (Click to expand)


The quality of mercy, exhibit 5: Dr Cyber turns Wonder Woman into a raging, snarling beast by doping her food with a psycho-chemical, but the Amazon's basic nature overcomes the drug. (Click to expand)


The quality of mercy, exhibit 6: Even when villains die, it's because they did not trust her enough. (Click to expand)

The comics make explicit mention of Wonder Woman's code of non-violence.

Wonder Woman is only violent when she has to be. (Click to expand)


As Dr Cyber points out, Wonder Woman's code of non-violence is part of her Amazon heritage. (Click to expand)

With that background, look at Patty Jenkins's movie. The screen Wonder Woman is unrecognisable as she kills soldiers left and right in fight scene after fight scene. She takes sides too easily (with the Allies and against the Germans), whereas the real Wonder Woman would see them all as human beings. As if that were not enough, she finally floors the evil General Ludendorff after a climactic fight and sits astride him. Then she kills the defenceless man with a mighty sword thrust into his chest.

I ask you, having seen the excerpts from the comics above, is this scene in character at all? I'd say the movie has committed the terrible crime of character assassination, because Wonder Woman does not kill!

I will say this with the strongest of emotion -- If a person does not understand the spirit of a genre, they must not be allowed to ruin it by making a travesty of a movie. Millions of young people who have never read about the real Wonder Woman will go away thinking she can take lives without a second thought. How terrible!

This is my strongest complaint against the Wonder Woman movie, but there is at least one other omission. The ballroom scene in the movie shows Diana without her bracelets. I don't think the moviemakers realised the significance of the bracelets of submission. Without them, Wonder Woman becomes a raging, uncontrolled beast.

Wonder Woman needs to have her bracelets on all the time to be able to control her enormous strength. They're not just there to deflect bullets. (Click to expand)

Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying the movie character is flawed and unlovable. Quite the opposite. It would be impossible not to love the endearing person Gal Gadot portrays, and it's not just because I'm hopelessly biased.

Who can resist that smile?

I do have to conclude on a sad note, though. Many villains manage to get the better of Wonder Woman (at least temporarily) by taking advantage of her loving side and then betraying her.

Note the classical allusion to Hippolyta's seduction and betrayal by Hercules. We never fear for Diana in a fair fight, but we always fear that her trusting heart will be betrayed -- as it is again and again. (Click to expand)


It seems to me as though Wonder Woman trusted director Patty Jenkins to tell her story truthfully and honestly to a new generation of fans -- the story of a kindhearted and courageous superhero sworn to non-violence. Alas, in spite of an otherwise sympathetic portrayal, with regard to the one core element of her character, she has been betrayed yet again.

Thursday, 25 May 2017

My Favourite Episodes Of Star Trek - The Next Generation

Ever since I finished watching the entire Star Trek TNG series (all 7 seasons), I have been meaning to compile a list of my favourite episodes. But it was only today, after I was challenged by a friend to recommend a set of episodes that would not send her to sleep, that I finally stirred myself to do it.

This is my list. ("s01e01" means "Season 1, Episode 1")

s01e01 &
s01e02 Encounter at Farpoint (Introduction, drama, moral)
s01e11 Haven (Somewhat humorous)
s01e12 The Big Goodbye (First holodeck episode, thrill factor)
s02e03 Elementary, Dear Data (Moriarty-Holodeck episode)
s02e09 The Measure of a Man (Philosophy, moral)
s02e16 Q Who (First encounter with the Borg)
s02e20 The Emissary (Klingons, K'Ehleyr)
s03e03 The Survivors (Mystery)
s03e04 Who Watches the Watchers (Prime Directive, good)
s03e09 The Vengeance Factor (Mystery)
s03e10 The Defector (Drama, sad)
s03e13 Deja Q (Some humour)
s03e14 A Matter of Perspective (A Rashomon-like story)
s03e15 Yesterday's Enterprise (Drama, and good for Tasha fans)
s03e16 The Offspring (Another Data & humanity story, sad)
s03e21 Hollow Pursuits (Lt Barclay episode, some humour)
s03e26 &
s04e01 The Best of Both Worlds (Classic Borg episodes)
s04e02 Family (Picard family drama)
s04e04 Suddenly Human (Drama, moral)
s04e05 Remember Me (Mystery, personal favourite)
s04e06 Legacy (Mystery, Ishara Yar)
s04e08 Future Imperfect (Mystery, good)
s04e11 Data's Day (Humorous)
s04e13 Devil's Due (Anti-superstition)
s04e14 Clues (Mystery)
s04e18 Identity Crisis (Mystery)
s04e21 The Drumhead (Philosophy, drama, moral)
s04e23 The Host (Philosophy, drama)
s05e03 Ensign Ro (Drama, redemption, political commentary)
s05e05 Disaster (Drama, some humour)
s05e11 Hero Worship (Data, philosophy, mystery)
s05e14 Conundrum (Mystery, very good)
s05e17 The Outcast (Philosophy, drama, parallels to homophobia)
s05e18 Cause and Effect (Drama, very good)
s05e19 The First Duty (Philosophy, drama)
s05e21 The Perfect Mate (Drama, sad Picard love story, very good)
s05e23 I, Borg (Borg story, good)
s05e24 The Next Phase (Ro Laren story, mystery, action)
s05e25 The Inner Light (Philosophy, acclaimed, but also a bit weird)
s05e26 &
s06e01 Time's Arrow (Time travel, interesting)
s06e04 Relics (Scotty episode, interesting Picard lesson on usefulness)
s06e09 The Quality of Life (Philosophy)
s06e12 Ship in a Bottle (Moriarty-Holodeck episode, drama, very good)
s06e14 Face of the Enemy (Drama, Deanna Troi as a Romulan!)
s06e15 Tapestry (Philosophy, drama, moral, very good)
s06e18 Starship Mine (Action like Under Siege)
s06e19 Lessons (Yet another sad Picard love story)
s06e20 The Chase (Mystery, philosophy, theory of everything, very good)
s06e22 Suspicions (Mystery)
s06e24 Second Chances (Philosophy, drama)
s06e25 Timescape (Drama, action, mystery)
s07e02 Liaisons (Philosophy, drama, mystery)
s07e03 Interface (Drama, mystery)
s07e07 Dark Page (Troi family drama)
s07e08 Attached (Picard-Crusher drama, some humour)
s07e10 Inheritance (Philosophy, Data family drama)
s07e11 Parallels (Time travel, drama, very good)
s07e12 The Pegasus (Mystery, drama, acclaimed)
s07e14 Sub Rosa (Mystery, "ghost story", sad Crusher love story)
s07e15 Lower Decks (Drama, sad)
s07e16 Thine Own Self (subplot of Deanna Troi is interesting)
s07e18 Eye of the Beholder (Mystery, very good)
s07e21 Firstborn (Philosophy, time travel)
s07e23 Emergence (Drama, good)
s07e24 Preemptive Strike (Drama, philosophy, Ensign Ro episode)
s07e25 &
s07e26 All Good Things (Mystery)

Friday, 19 May 2017

Reema Lagoo, The Kind Bollywood Mother, Passes Away

It was with a shock that I learnt of veteran Bollywood actress Reema Lagoo's passing away of a cardiac arrest. She was only 59!

Reema Lagoo (1958-2017). She will be missed.

I've always liked the characters she played in Bollywood movies - especially the role of a kind mother to a young man with serious problems.

My image of her is best captured by these two song clips, in each of which she makes a brief appearance towards the very end to comfort her son.

Ironically, in Kal Ho Na Ho, it's her son, played by Shah Rukh Khan, who has a serious heart condition


In Aashiqui, her son, played by Rahul Roy, has a heart problem of a different kind

Goodbye, Reema Lagoo. You will be missed.


Sunday, 23 April 2017

"No World Will Have You!"

A few months ago, I awoke in the middle of the night from a terrible nightmare.

In it, I was a boy, not more than ten years old. I was living in a place that was a mid-sized, rectangular room with a low roof and rounded corners. The light within was a dim green. I seemed to be living there with my mother. There was another woman who came to visit, and she seemed to be some kind of witch. The details are fuzzy, but she seemed to betray me with a trick, and then she said to me, "No world will have you!" I took that to mean that I was trapped within this room for the rest of my life. Although my mother would be able to come and go, and perhaps bring me food, I myself could never leave. It was a terrible, asphyxiating feeling, especially since the room had a low roof. I woke up after this, and found that I was having difficulty breathing.

"The Nightmare" by John Henry Fuseli. Asphyxiation nightmares are fairly common, I believe, especially among asthmatics.

It turned out that I was suffering from some kind of bronchitis. It was the unconscious experience of my laboured breathing in real life that generated the nightmare. I also seemed to be borrowing the experience I had as a ten year old holding his breath while underwater at the swimming pool, which would explain the constrained dimensions of the room, the rounded corners, and the dim, greenish lighting.

I can see how my boyhood memories of underwater adventures could conspire with my breathing problem at a later age to create a nightmare of an asphyxiating prison

Happily, the bronchitis went away after a course of antibiotics, but I still remember the nightmare. I cannot recall having had a nightmare in recent times, and this has therefore remained in my memory. I still think about that situation with a shudder as I remember the sense of betrayal and hopelessness that it created in me.

I was thinking today about a couple of things that made me feel like a misfit, and I recognised a certain interesting pattern.

In 1992, I went back to do an M.Tech. degree in Computer Science after 5 years of working in the IT industry, I had a definite problem area that I wanted to do my thesis in. I had felt the need for a better design tool for database designers than the classical Entity-Relationship Modelling approach. The traditional ERM approach resulted in the simplest data model that reflected the application domain's data structure, but often needed tweaking for performance under real-life usage because it was a relatively simplistic design. My enhanced technique aimed to utilise information relating to the way that data would be accessed (such as the number of records impacted by queries, the frequency of access, the degree of overlap in the records affected by two queries, etc.), so that the designer could receive automatic recommendations for the most appropriate performance-enhancing strategies.

The tool would effectively enable a novice designer to come up with designs that would perform as well in the real-world as those produced by more experienced ones, because it would encompass the kinds of considerations that they made. 

A sample of what my notation looked like. Those interested can access my full M.Tech. thesis report here.

I believe I largely succeeded in my endeavour to develop a more sophisticated design tool for database designers. I passed my thesis defence and got my degree. I even used the technique myself on a few projects, with a fair degree of success.

However, there was a troubling aspect to this exercise. I noticed two simultaneous problems with the technique I had developed. One of the professors on my thesis evaluation committee gave me a hard time because my work did not meet his exacting standards. I had merely illustrated my method's efficacy using a few examples, but had not offered a theoretically rigorous proof of its correctness. Back at work in my old company, I found that while my colleagues expressed mild interest in what I had done, none showed much enthusiasm about applying my method on their own projects. A couple of people told me that they found it "too theoretical".

I had fallen between two stools - My work was not rigorous enough for academia, and not practical enough for industry.

This pattern has often repeated itself with a lot of the work I have done in IT - work that seems too theoretical to some, and not academically rigorous enough to others.

It's almost as if no world will have me.

Thinking about other aspects of my life, I see the same pattern. After over two decades abroad, I'm too Westernised to fit into Indian society anymore, yet I'm still not Westernised enough to meld seamlessly into Australian society either. I'm very interested in languages, but am fluent mainly in English. There are many more examples.

Perhaps that nightmare was not just about a temporary problem with breathing. Perhaps it was a deeper angst about not feeling like I belong anywhere.

Saturday, 8 April 2017

The Freudian Slip That Shows North Is North And South Is South

It's interesting that it's usually North Indians who have so far always angrily denied the existence of a separate Dravidian (South Indian) identity. One of the ideological mavens of the Neo-Hindu movement, Rajiv Malhotra, even characterises the Dravidian identity as one of the forces that seek to break India.


In Rajiv Malhotra's eyes, an assertive Dravidian identity is a fissiparous and dangerous one that threatens the unity and integrity of India

A large part of the Hindutva ideology's energies are devoted to denying the two-race theory in all its forms. [While the Aryan Invasion Theory may or may not be valid in its literal form, there is enough genetic evidence that North Indians and South Indians differ significantly in the proportions of the genes they inherit from two distinct genetic groups.]

It's therefore amusing to hear a North Indian admit, however inadvertently, that South Indians are a distinct racial group ("black people", in his words). BJP MP Tarun Vijay's interview to Al Jazeera, where he sought to deny the racism of Indians against Africans by using an unfortunate example of "black people" (South Indians) within India, has sent shock waves through the country.



The moment of truth, when a mask slipped before millions


Now, Tarun Vijay is not a bad guy at all. I remember that he was once pelted with stones by traditionalists for his admirable attempt to open up temples to Dalits. His inadvertent comment about South Indians being "black people" is all the more significant for that reason. He's not a conscious bigot, probably quite the opposite, since he has put his life and limb on the line more than once in the interests of eradicating social injustice. However, his unthinking remark only shows how deep-rooted the idea is within many North Indians that South Indians are a different race of people from themselves, and there is an element of condescension there too ("We live with these people. How can you call us racist?" instead of "We're the same people").

To my mind, the root of Hindi language chauvinism comes from this inherent sense of superiority. If North Indians truly respected South Indians, there would be a more sincere attempt to implement the three-language formula, in place of the current lopsided emphasis (budgetary and otherwise) on the propagation of Hindi at the expense of every other Indian language.

Hopefully, this momentary slip of the mask will make South Indians more aware of where they stand in the eyes of the country's dominant group, and make them more assertive about their linguistic and cultural identity. The common examples of Japan, Germany and Korea will not wash. Those countries have only one language of their own. India has at least 25 major ones, and hundreds of dialects. It's of course a logistical nightmare, and the solution won't be simple, but India's communication problem will not be solved by imposing one North Indian language on everyone in the country, especially not when it is done out of a sense of cultural and racial superiority.

Clearly, North is North, and South is South, but if the twain are to live amicably together in one country, mutual respect is a non-negotiable condition.

Monday, 20 March 2017

योगी और पंच-परमेश्वर (Yogi Aur Panch-Parmeshwar)

If the title of this post is in Hindi, it's for a couple of reasons. One, the big news of the past week is the BJP's massive and surprising election win in the Hindi-speaking state of Uttar Pradesh, and the subsequent appointment as Chief Minister of a Hindu religious leader called Yogi Adityanath. Two, I was strongly reminded of a short story I had read in high school. This was titled 'Panch-Parmeshwar', written by the famous Hindi/Urdu author Premchand (the nom de plume of Dhanpat Rai Srivastava). 

Premchand - his stories are famous for their simple language and profound truths

The literal translation of the story's title, "Head of the village council", does not do justice to the image it is meant to evoke, that of a sacred authority. "Parmeshwar" means "Supreme God".

This is the story of two good friends (incidentally, a Hindu and a Muslim), and how their friendship is first strained, and then restored, by the demands of integrity which a position of authority forces on them. When one of them takes his turn as head of the village council, he has to find against his friend in a case that comes before him. This strains their friendship.

Years later, the friend has the opportunity for revenge when he finds himself head of the council and the other man appears before him in another case. Yet he is unable to yield to his desire for revenge, because the sense of responsibility that his post gives him makes him rule in favour of his erstwhile friend. When both men understand that the position they occupied made them take the impartial decisions that they did, they become friends again.

The moral of the story is that high office can imbue a person with a sense of responsibility and turn them into a conscientious official. It is as if a divine sense of righteousness suffuses such positions and transforms mortals who occupy them.

Yogi Adityanath is a controversial figure. He runs a private army of Hindu vigilantes, and his electioneering style has been strident and polarising. To the nearly 20% of Uttar Pradesh's population that is Muslim, his elevation to the highest office in the state could be seen as bad news. Yet his immediate statements after his appointment have been sane and reasonable. He appealed to his followers not to behave badly in the name of celebration. He promised not to discriminate against anyone, and he emphasised that law and order would be a very high priority issue for him.

As if to echo the fears of many about his rise, his father advised him publicly to respect all religions.

Yogi Adityanath - All eyes are on him to see what he will do with his newfound power

Premchand was born and died in Uttar Pradesh. Let's hope his short story predicts the behaviour of Uttar Pradesh's new chief minister.

Sunday, 19 February 2017

Ten Great Epiphanies Of My Life

I turned 54 today. I've been planning to write down all the things I've learnt in life so far. When musing on these, I realised that while some of them have been gradual learnings, others have burst upon my consciousness in a sudden flash. These latter epiphanies are the subject of this post, and that's why I have chosen to mark every one of them with an exclamation point. They represent the surprise with which I realised each truth when it made itself known to me.

An epiphany - a lightbulb that turns on suddenly inside your head

(In a later post, I hope to write about my more gradual learnings in life.)

Here are the most surprising things I learnt about myself and the world, in roughly the order in which I experienced them.

1. "They are the people!"


I was born in India, and my background is an upper-middle-class, upper-caste, academic one. My sister and I were brought up in relative comfort from our earliest days (although my mother says that when I was a baby, my parents had financial constraints because they had to contribute towards paying off some debts incurred by our extended family, and therefore had to make do with a curry with their rice only once in two days). I don't remember seeing any financial hardship during my childhood, though. My extended family and all my friends were from similarly privileged backgrounds. I was of course aware of the presence of people not of our class, because we always had domestic help, and all the people we encountered during our expeditions to the outside world, such as shopkeepers, bus conductors, autorickshaw drivers, watchmen and the like, were also of an obviously lower socio-economic stratum. However, it's one of the aspects of privilege that I never thought much of this class of people except as an adjunct to our own lives, which were of course the most important!

Many Indian middle-class families employ servants, but it's only in recent times that they have also begun to be viewed as fellow human beings

It was only in my teens, when I read about the Russian revolution and learnt new words like 'proletariat' and 'bourgeoisie', that I was able to make some connections between these abstract concepts and the reality of our own lives. One day, during a conversation with my father, I suddenly burst out with, "They are the people!"

In that moment, I had realised that we the privileged were not representative of the population of the country at all. We were the tiny elite crust of society, and the bulk of the country was made up of less educated, poorer, "lower caste" people. Socialism had leapt out of my textbooks and taken concrete form in my mind.

My outburst remained a family joke for many years, and whenever we had any trouble with a maid, gardener or other domestic help thereafter, my father would slyly remark, "What to do? They are the people."

This epiphany remained with me throughout my life. I know now that I have been greatly privileged, and that the majority of the people of the world are less fortunate than I am. They are the people.

2. I like strong women!


Growing up male in India can be somewhat toxic to one's attitudes, and I will not deny having imbibed attitudes of male chauvinism as I emerged into manhood. This was to some extent counteracted by a few examples of strong women that I grew up seeing. My mother herself was (and still is) a very strong woman. She had a formidable intellect and memory, two masters degrees, and was very well-informed. Her logic and wicked wit made her a formidable opponent in any debate, and I grew up with many scars from the verbal battles that I lost to her. My maternal aunt was even more formidable. She was a gynaecologist, and I was born in her nursing home. Her tongue was even sharper than my mother's, and both women were fearsome disciplinarians. While I chafed under their authority, I guess those experiences familiarised me with the idea of what a strong woman was like.

Male insecurity was not unknown to me, and I have had several experiences of feeling threatened by opinionated girls who argued with me, but one of the most exciting experiences of my life in this area came when I was in my late teens, walking along a road in Bangalore. A jeep came roaring up a side road, and paused briefly at the main road. The driver gave a quick glance in both directions, then the jeep turned swiftly into the main road and roared off.

I stood transfixed. The jeep had a solitary occupant, a young woman with shoulder-length hair, in a blue full-sleeved shirt and jeans. The confident, even contemptuous, look she had as she glanced up and down the road before accelerating off, made a powerful impression on me. I didn't know driving then, and I suppose I should have felt threatened by the sight of this confident young woman. Instead, a strange feeling came over me. I clearly remember thinking that it would be just wonderful if all the women in the world were like this. All I felt at that moment were strong feelings of attraction and admiration.

That experience put me in touch with a side to myself that I didn't know existed. Looking backwards from that point to my childhood then showed me how to join the dots to where I had got to. I had grown up with a lot of science fiction comics, and many of them featured female scientists, female astronauts, female pilots. In retrospect, strong women had featured throughout my impressionable years, and I had been duly impressed.

While a lot of science fiction objectifies women, there are enough role models here too

Of course, the more regressive aspects of cultural conditioning are not that easy to shake off. It has been a long journey since then to accept my own vulnerabilities as a human being and to unlearn the idea that being male has anything at all to do with "superiority". The journey continues...

3. I like people!


My parents were socially very reserved. We hardly ever had guests over to our house for tea or dinner, and we rarely visited anyone else at home. The rare occasions when something like that happened were very exciting for us children. Even when my friends came home to call me out to play, my parents never encouraged them to come in. I have only ever played with my friends outdoors or in their homes, never in mine. We did have a room that was outside our living area, and I could take my friends there, but more relaxed socialisation indoors was out of the question.

I didn't think to question this level of interaction when I was living with my parents. It was just the way things were, and it seemed the most natural thing in the world. Social interaction was not encouraged very much, and that was that.

When I went to IIT after school to do my B.Tech. degree, it was in Madras (now Chennai). I stayed in a hostel along with about 150 other boys. I had a room of my own, and I could decide what to do with my time. I wasted most of it, but I don't regret it at all. I spent a lot of time socialising. I would spend hours in the rooms of other guys, usually in groups, and we had lots of fun in aimless discussions.

A typical scene from hostel life

It was when I was returning to my own room one night after a delightfully long conversation in a friend's room that it suddenly struck me that I was not like my parents at all. I liked people!

Realising this about myself has been a very pleasant epiphany. I'm naturally gregarious, and even though I'm introverted in other ways, these two sides of my nature balance each other out quite nicely. I'm very comfortable being by myself, and I also like company.

4. Religion is evil!


When I was a child, I was brought up to be quite "pious". My parents were believing Hindus, although not very ritualistic in their practice. I had attended a Catholic school for five years, and then a Hindu school for another seven. Religion was part of my education, and in my mind, religion and morality were one and the same. I didn't see much difference between one organised religion and another, and I believed that all of them led to the same destination, whatever that was. Most of all, I believed that religion was an absolutely essential good. In one of my previous posts, I have spoken about the fanatical lengths I was prepared to go to in order to defend faith from unbelief.

I distinctly remember when this comfortable belief changed. For a few years, I had been reading about communal riots in various Indian cities where people of two different religions (usually Hindu and Muslim) clashed with and killed one another, but it had been in the background of my mind. One day, when I was a student at IIT Madras, and I was reading the newspaper in my hostel, I came across a news item about yet another such inter-religious riot, and I remember thinking with a shock, "Religion is evil!"

Inter-religious riots have been a depressingly familiar part of Indian life for as long as I can remember

This epiphany shook me profoundly. I remember being thrilled by the shocking nature of this heretical idea. I, who had always looked upon religion as a necessity for goodness, had now seen something I could not unsee.

Although I did not realise it then, this epiphany set me on the path to my eventual atheism. At this point, all it did was cause me to denounce organised religion. I still believed in a God, but I no longer considered organised religion to have any claim on morality.

5. Porn is not sexist!


This is probably a risky area to write about, since watching pornography is still technically a crime in India, but this is important.

When I was living in the hostel at IIT Madras, the local TV station used to broadcast a Tamil movie every Sunday afternoon. On one such afternoon, I found myself sitting in the hostel's common room when the day's movie started playing on TV. It was a popular one called "Poovaa Talaiyaa" (loosely translated as "Heads or Tails?").

In the story, two brothers share a house along with a distant aunt or similar relative. The aunt is the villain of the piece, and she plots to set the brothers against each other. After she frames the younger brother in some situation, the elder brother decides he has to mete out justice. He takes a whip and delivers a few lashes to his younger sibling. The domestic violence represented by this scene didn't seem to bother anyone. Towards the end of the movie, the brothers realise the mischief wrought by their aunt. At that point, the elder brother grabs the whip again and begins to lash his aunt! Setting aside any misgivings we may have about the violence against women represented by that scene, just pay attention to what the aunt says. She not only confesses to her mischief, but also says that it's wrong for women to have positions of power, and that it's only men who should rule!


The melodramatic finale to the 1969 movie Poova Thalaiya
(The subtitles on this clip are atrocious too)

I was shocked by what I was seeing. It was such a blatantly regressive social message, and yet it was allowed to play on prime-time television with no warnings about its appropriateness or otherwise. On the contrary, it had a 'U' (for Universal) certificate from the board of film classification, which meant that it was appropriate for all audiences, including children!

Park that thought for a moment.

In the early 80s, VCR technology had just started coming into the country, and some of the students decided to smuggle in a few porn movies and watch them in the dead of night when everyone else was asleep. It was my batch that hatched the plot, and we stealthily carried the TV from the common room to the roof of the hostel, ran the electrical wires down to someone's room on the floor below, and began excitedly watching the first of three hardcore porn movies.

It was sometime during the second movie that I had a shocking epiphany. Porn was not sexist! Scene after explicit scene depicted men and women enjoying sex - as equals. In no scene was there even a suggestion that the women were inferior, or that they existed only for the pleasure of the men. All the characters were shown to be enjoying themselves and giving one another pleasure. It was one of the most egalitarian examples of interaction between men and women that I had seen up to that point. Besides, both the men and the women were well-built and had figures that were pleasurable to look at. I could see how a woman might be turned on watching the same scenes I was watching. There was nothing to demean the experience of being a woman. It was designed to be universally exciting. Anyone could be a sex object to anyone else, and therefore the status of being a sex object lost its sexist sting.

Porn's revolutionary idea - Women can demand pleasure on an equal basis

This experience, especially coming so close upon the heels of the mainstream Tamil movie that was so regressively sexist, made a powerful impression on me. It provided such a contrast, and raised basic questions of morality. On the one hand, we had a movie that had no sexual content in it, but propagated an unhealthy message about the fundamental inequality of the sexes. On the other, we had a movie that showed explicit sex, but with men and women depicted as perfect equals. Which represented the healthier message for children to imbibe?

To this day, I remain an unabashed advocate for pornography, to be precise, the category called "non-violent erotica". I believe that sex is not just harmless but emphatically good. Sexual pleasure is the birthright of all, both men and women. This is also why I refuse to use the word 'slut' in any context. The word is meaningless, because the desire for sexual pleasure is not a negative feeling to be condemned. It is entirely positive and should be encouraged. The only thing that should constrain sexual intercourse is consent. No one should be subject to a sexual experience without their consent, and by the same token, any sexual activity between consenting adults should be above criticism. This includes (voluntary) prostitution, pornography, stripteases, homosexuality, orgies, etc. None of these should carry any kind of social stigma, either for men or for women. Society must accept human sexuality as a normal and natural thing.

What I'm particularly happy about is that I arrived at this philosophy independently, long before I realised it had a name - Sex-Positive Feminism.

6. I like Hindustani classical music!


I grew up with two kinds of music in Bangalore. Kannada film songs would always be on the radio, and I grew to love them without being consciously aware of them. My family had a set schedule every morning so we could leave for school on time. The radio would be on, and when the program changed, that would be our marker to start or complete an activity, for example, finish breakfast by the time the English news started. Kannada film songs would be on for about half an hour every morning, I think, so I got to know them over many years. I didn't know who the singers were or which movies they were from. I just liked them passively. I only started to miss them after leaving Bangalore. Today, thanks to Youtube and other websites, I can listen to my favourite ones once more.

I guess if I had grown up in Bombay or in North India, I would have heard a lot more Bollywood (Hindi) film music. As it happened, although I was familiar with the most popular Hindi film songs, they weren't a big part of my life at all.

The other kind of music I grew to like in the late seventies was Western pop. I very quickly got hooked onto groups like ABBA and Boney M, and my favourite was The Carpenters.

My parents knew Indian classical music (the South Indian, or Carnatic, variety), but were not so strongly into it as to play pieces at home. There was a phase when my mother used to learn the veena, and that was when I got to hear some Carnatic music. It was OK, but I never warmed to it.

Then when I went to IIM Ahmedabad to do an MBA after my B.Tech., I heard another genre of music for the very first time. There was a "DJ Club" in the campus, with wall-to-wall mattresses. There was a music system that could play audiocassettes and vinyl LPs (this was 1985). I liked going to the DJ Club and lying down on the soft floor with closed eyes, just listening to whatever other people played. Most of the time, the music was Western pop, with the occasional Hindi film song. One day, when I was lying there, someone came in and played an LP with something very different. It was an instrumental piece, and I found it haunting. I got up and went over to look at the LP cover. It was an album of the sitar player Nikhil Banerjee. The description had strange words that made no sense to me: "Raag Malkauns" and "Raag Hemlalit". I had no clue about any of this, except that I liked it, so the next time I went to the DJ Club, I played this LP myself. And I liked it even more the second time. And the third time. And the fourth. Then I got adventurous and decided to play other LPs from the same genre. There were about 20 LPs in the "Hindustani Classical Music" genre. The next one I tried was not instrumental. It was an album featuring a singer called "Pandit Jasraj", and again the description at the back had strange words that made no sense to me: "Raag Shuddh Sarang" and "Raag Bhimpalasi". The vocal LP had an even more powerful impact on me than the instrumental. I found myself going, "Wow! Why have I never heard this music before in my life?"

The very first Hindustani Music LP I ever heard - Nikhil Banerjee's Malkauns and Hemlalit

Today, if I had to name one genre of music that I love, it would have to be Hindustani Classical music. It transports me. When the music starts, I relax and smile almost reflexively. And to think that I missed hearing any of this for the first 22 years of my life!

7. Hindus can hate!


I had grown up in a benign home atmosphere where my parents never spoke in harsh generalities about other communities. There were light-hearted generalisations of course, but nothing that could be remotely considered "hard thoughts". On the contrary, there was plenty of self-disparagement about our own community. My mother even advised me when I left for hostel at the age of 18, "Only Christians and Malayalees will help you if you are in trouble. Tam-brahms will never help you." Perhaps this was based on her own hostel experiences.

In any case, I had never heard my parents, or even any member of my extended family, say harsh things about people belonging to other communities. To be sure, Christianity as a religion was spoken about with more acceptance than Islam, because it was considered more benign, but Muslims as people were never spoken about with hatred. Indeed, I would have proudly told anyone who asked that Hindus were the most tolerant people because we never thought ill of people of other religions. We were fine with them following their own faiths and never wanted to convert them to ours.

My first rude awakening came when I was at IIM. I met another Hindu student who had worked for a year or two at one of the South Indian manufacturers of two-wheelers. In those days in India, customers couldn't just walk into a showroom and drive off in a car or two-wheeler. They had to register for them and wait months until they got their allotment. This particular manufacturer had a monthly draw in which one lucky person from their waiting list would be selected for a free allotment, or something of that sort. This student told a group of us that he used to work in the IT department of this manufacturer, and that his team was responsible for running the software program that randomly selected a name from the waiting list each month. "If a Muslim name came up, we'd simply run it again," he laughed.

I was horrified at more than one level. The sheer unfairness of the act was the first thing that struck me, then I thought about other disquieting implications. Can a person hate another community so much that they would knowingly be unfair to them or do them harm?

The VHP's Pravid Togadia making one of his hate speeches - In the years since my IIM days, things have only become worse

In the years that followed, the answer to the latter question was reinforced again and again. In the last few years, especially since the explosion of social media, and the willingness of people to reveal some of their innermost thoughts, I wonder how I could ever have been so naive as to imagine that Hindus were incapable of hate. This has been one of my most depressing learnings about the world.

8. I'm a Bombayite!


After my graduation in 1987, I went to Bombay (Mumbai) for my first job at CMC Ltd. I had lived all my life in South India (mostly Bangalore, with some experience of Chennai and Madurai), and had just spent two years in Ahmedabad, the closest thing to a "North Indian" city. I had also briefly stayed in Delhi for 2 months during a summer project. However, my experiences in Bombay changed me in many fundamental ways.

For example, in my very first month in the city, I was waiting at VT station (now called CST) to catch a train. I saw a train leaving the platform, and a man running beside it, trying to get in. The train was already chock full, and people were hanging out of the open doors. I stared in disbelief, thinking there was no way this guy was going to be able to jump into such an overflowing train. But as I watched in astonishment, four arms reached out from the human mass in the compartment's doorway and grabbed the running man. He was pulled into that mass of humanity as the train disappeared from the station. I stood there in wonderment for a long time, trying to process what I had just seen. Instead of pushing the man away saying "No room!", the people in the overcrowded carriage had made space for him too.

I realised intuitively that this was a peculiar aspect of the culture of this particular city. No other city I knew had this level of civic camaraderie. There was this sense of "We're all in this together. Let's help each other get by as much as we can."

You may not think it's possible to get into this train, but these guys could make it possible

Bombay was a place so egalitarian that a restaurant patron and a waiter could both call each other "boss".

Over the next 8 years that I lived in Bombay, I experienced many more examples of the city's no-nonsense can-do attitude. People didn't waste time complaining. They just rolled up their sleeves and got things done. And the characteristic sense of humour was something else. I remember telling myself, "I like this city. This is the kind of person I want to be. I want to be a Bombayite." The city moulds your attitudes into something much more positive.

In a literal sense, I grew up in Bangalore. But I really only grew up in Bombay.

9. No community should have a majority!


Over the months that I worked in CMC Bombay, I began to realise something about the culture of the various regional offices in the same company. I had been to CMC Madras, and also met people from other offices (CMC Delhi and CMC Calcutta (now Kolkata)). What I learnt was that CMC Delhi was dominated by North Indians, mostly Punjabis. CMC Calcutta was dominated by Bengalis, and CMC Madras by Tamils. Being a Tamil myself, I should have felt most at home in the CMC Madras office, but I didn't! I felt most at home in the CMC Bombay office, and I asked myself why I felt that way.

One of my project teams at CMC Bombay (That's me at the bottom right in the brown jacket)

I realised it was the sense of being left alone and not judged. The strange thing about CMC Bombay when compared to the other CMC offices was that it was not dominated by members of any one community, not even Maharashtrians, even though Bombay is the capital of Maharashtra. I actually sat down one day with the office phone book and marked the community of every single person in the office against their name, then tallied them up. I found that no community in my office accounted for more than 30% of the total (that was the Maharashtrians). No matter who you were, you were in a minority! It created a unique kind of culture where people were left alone and not judged. That's when I realised two things:

1. If one community forms a dominating majority, it makes members of the minority communities feel somewhat marginalised.

2. Even for members of the majority community, there is an oppressive pressure to conform. This is what I felt in CMC Madras. There was a set of "Tamil values" that I was expected to conform to, whether I approved of them or not. For example, managers felt entitled enough to upbraid younger staff if they socialised too much with members of the opposite sex!

That's when I distilled my learning into a general principle for the world. The best societies are those where no cultural group is in a majority.

10. I want to live abroad!


When I was younger, I never had the slightest interest in leaving India. My classmates at IIT, almost to a man, wanted to go to the US for higher studies, and most of them wanted to settle down there. I hadn't the slightest interest in going to the US. Besides, I had always been politically aware from my early teens, and US foreign policy had always infuriated me. I couldn't see myself living in that country or even going there to study. My parents often tried convincing me that a foreign degree might help me in my later career even if I chose not to settle abroad, but all those words fell on deaf ears.

When I started working in a software company, I found myself surrounded by people whose only aim was to acquire enough IT skills to be hired by a consultancy that supplied manpower to an American company. Like with my former IIT classmates, most of my CMC colleagues also ended up settling in the US. I still didn't care.

Then, four years after I started working at CMC, I was sent on a 5 week consultancy assignment to Mauritius. CMC was accommodating enough to book my return flight via Singapore, since that was only marginally more expensive than the direct return flight. I took 3 days out of my annual vacation to see Singapore.

To say my mind was blown would be an understatement. The place seemed too good to be true. Not only was everything amazingly clean, but the very systems seemed so well designed. I experienced this when I was walking out of the airport. I thought to myself at one point, "I need to get some local currency", and I saw a sign that said "Currency Exchange". Then I thought, "I need to get out of the airport and catch a taxi", and right there was a sign that said "Exit, Taxis". And people were so honest! I had to pay an airport surcharge to the cabbie when I arrived, and when I was leaving, I tested the second cabbie by asking if I needed to pay an airport surcharge. He said, "No, only when coming out." I was amazed at the pervasive honesty.

This country changed my mind in three days

When I was in the plane leaving Singapore, I swore to myself that I'd be back. I had realised one thing during those three days. I wanted to leave India and live abroad. My eyes had been opened to a different plane of existence. I had often thought about whether I wanted to leave India and live abroad, but had always contemptuously dismissed the idea. Now that I saw what that life was really like, my mind changed so fast and so emphatically it surprised me. As I joked to my friends later, "CMC made a mistake by sending me abroad."

A few years later, I had migrated permanently to Australia and never regretted it. It was a struggle to get to that point, as I've written about here, but it was worth it.