An Irrational Neuroscientist

This article originally appeared in Mint on Sunday here.  You will find some related pictures there.

An Irrational Neuroscientist

On October 9th, 2017, as the world commemorated the 50th anniversary of Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara’s assassination, my mind went back to January 28th, 2008.  It was the day I got my first job offer, deferred my joining date by a couple of months, landed in Cusco, Peru, hopped on a motorcycle, and hit the road; a la Che Guevara.  My 4½-year stint in the neuroscience PhD program at the Johns Hopkins University had ended disastrously with a Masters. But now inspired by the movie The Motorcycle Diaries, I was ready to explore South America.

There was only one catch.  I didn’t speak any Spanish.

Having led a sheltered life in academia, this was my first brush with irrationality.  Everything I was doing was possibly wrong, undoubtedly stupid, and potentially life threatening.  On my first day on the road, I lost my way in the Peruvian Andes and spent a night in a hospital bed in a village of not much more than 50 people.  As if that were not enough, I rode through a desert storm the Atacama desert – the driest in the world – that offered stunning views of the soaring Andes ranges on one side and the deep blue Pacific on the other, bribed a cop with sign language to help a penniless hippie – riding with me without a helmet – cross police checkpoints, and narrowly escaped a late night pub brawl.

Along the way, I also learned enough Spanish to get by, but more importantly, I learned a lot about myself and the lives of people from different walks of life.  Academic mentors and peers occasionally have fascinating personal stories, but most of them have similar goals in life and choose predictable strategies to reach their destinations.  Plus, most of science is incremental and too much risk tends to be avoided.  And there I was, ploughing through the back roads of Peru, Chile, and Argentina; with no plan and no knowledge of the people and cultures I was encountering.  The backpackers I was bumping into were telling me that it was ok to quit your job and go sailing for a few weeks, sell everything and live out of a car for a few months, only to see your girlfriend break up with you, or blow your savings on a round-the-world trip.

For the first time in my life, I was being a bum; searching for nothing in particular.

That nothing in particular turned out to be a latent desire to write.  The neurotech start-up I joined after the trip was the perfect choice for a rationalist.  We were developing a tool to collect electrical signals from the brain, albeit superficially in the form of electroencephalograms (EEGs), while patients performed specific cognitive tasks.  Our challenge was to figure out whether we could detect early stages of cognitive dysfunction in Alzheimer’s disease.  As an electronics engineer, biophysicist, and a neuroscientist, I was using everything my rational mind had learned in academia.  I was also learning some valuable lessons in business and entrepreneurship; things that academia rarely appreciates and mostly looks down upon.  The love-hate relationship between the traditionally liberal academia and conservative business world was interesting to observe, too, but the irrational part of my mind had already veered off on a tangent.  With minimal knowledge of Spanish and limited interaction with the locals, I had managed to internalize so many details of my bike trip that I started writing about it.

The rational part of me was convinced that writing about a six-week trip shouldn’t take more than six weeks.  It took me a year just to write the first draft!  In my first attempt at creative writing, I was probably using parts of my brain I had never used before.

***

After the first wave of mass migration of Indians to the United States in the sixties and seventies, which my dad, a doctor, was part of, I religiously joined the second wave of mass migration in the 1990s.  This wave was dominated by engineers.  While most of my peers stuck to computer science for graduate school, I took a minor diversion.  As the black sheep in a family of doctors, I decided to venture into biophysics to make amends for the hitherto lack of biology in my life.  As an electronics engineering student, I had spent four years studying transistors and microprocessors.  Instead of analysing inanimate circuits that breathe life into computers, I started analysing streams of data coming out of MRI machines which were, in turn, trying to understand how human computers work.  I was still on the periphery of neuroscience and still playing with numbers.  While the brains were busy doing their magic tricks – firing up different parts in different sequences to accomplish amazing cognitive tasks – I was busy crunching numbers to figure out whether we could enhance the confidence in our statistical inferences about those brains.

The ‘Aha’ moment, which was a comedy of errors, came towards the end of my first semester in graduate school.

The annual Society for Neuroscience (SfN) conference, the largest gathering of about 30,000 neuroscientists, was a month away.  I had no data to present and was not planning to attend it.  With my advisor’s grant period about to run out, he had some money to spare and offered me a trip to New Orleans, where SfN was being held that year.  SfN is as close a neuroscientist ever gets to a carnival, but it was my first time attending it and I had no idea what to expect.  I pounced on the opportunity because it was a free trip to New Orleans! As if flying from cold and dreary Urbana-Champaign to the sticky, warm air and French architecture of Bourbon Street were not enough, the plenary session of SfN was about to change my life.

It was the early 2000s and deep brain stimulation (DBS), the technique that allows scientists to insert electrodes in specific parts of the brain to electrically stimulate them, was fairly new in the world of neuroscience.  A neurologist stood up and showed a before-after video of a Parkinson’s patient on DBS treatment.  The patient with shaky hands and legs, who couldn’t even take a few steps properly, was back to his normal gait with a flip of a switch.  For a rationalist in me, it was more than magic.  Scientific ethics do not allow nerds to poke around electrodes in normal human brains and alter their electrical activity.  One has to demonstrate that there is something abnormal in the brain and that DBS is going to benefit the patient to justify it.  But if you can alter actions of humans – to some extent – by artificially stimulating the brain, the idea of altering human thoughts was just a thought experiment away.

All of a sudden, computer brains were passé.  Human brain was the in thing.  What are the equations underlying a perfectly executed pirouette?  What are the physical underpinnings of a thought?  Of memory?  Of future planning?  Of love?  It seemed like I was entering a rationalist’s goldmine!  Pretty soon, it seemed, we would bust the myth of God, reduce violent crime, cure drug addiction, bring people and societies together, and, most importantly, challenge free will.

Ironically, it didn’t take too long for that quest to unravel.  On the one hand, by applying the latest mathematical tools, neuroscience has taken some major strides in understanding how our brains process information.  We understand how we plan and execute actions to the extent that we can directly read them as electrical impulses from the brain and reasonably replicate them with robotic limbs.  We have a bird’s eye view of the hierarchy of visual information processing.

To some extent, we know how touch, heat, various tastes, and smells are processed.  Over the last five decades of neuroscience research, we have come a long way.  Jumping into a PhD program in neuroscience and working on a tiny part of a mouse brain that serves as its internal compass gave me a momentary sense of purpose as well.  I went from crunching numbers to sacrificing mice, making thin slices of their brains, sticking electrodes in neurons one at a time; all in the hope of understanding their electrical properties.  I managed to add my drop in this burgeoning ocean.  Along the way, it was interesting to notice the star status accorded to us on and off the campus by people from other walks of life.  Comfortable in our academic bubble, we could afford to make a few jokes about the job prospects of liberal arts and history majors.

On the other hand, I learned a lot about the illogical side of academia.  I noticed that the way neuroscience research was being conducted – at least in the American system – was ironic.  Studies galore showed how working long hours, sleep deprivation, and lack of exercise lead to high stress levels, loss of attention and focus, and, in extreme cases, depression.  And yet, that was the normal state of a neuroscience graduate student.  The higher up you went in academia, even the concept of what constituted a doctoral thesis had been so rigidly quantified that pursuit of new knowledge had lost its sheen.  Regardless of the scientific import and validity, you had to have a certain number of research papers published to get a PhD.  The competitive bidding system of research grant allocation made researchers chase what was hot rather than where their heart was, because they had to cross a certain threshold of a grant score to get money.  Most importantly, the world of neuroscience – tasked with understanding the mind – was plagued with the same mind games, iniquities, and insecurities as those of non-neuroscientists.  It was a bittersweet goodbye to academia.

My first job was interesting.  In addition to the diagnostic tools we were developing for Alzheimer’s, I was hobnobbing with other neuroscientists applying their knowledge to solve some vexing problems.  One guy I met was developing MRI-based lie detectors.  The idea was to show the person some specific pictures or videos of a crime scene and see how the brain involuntarily reacts.  A concept fraught with lots of practical issues, but intriguing, nonetheless.  The holy grail was to get it accepted in the court of law, but in the meantime, he discovered that one of his largest customer segments was people suspecting their spouses cheating on them!

Another company was developing MRI-based tools to help patients with conditions like chronic pain by showing them real-time activity of their own brains.  Apparently, if you show patients with chronic lower back pain live images of the part of their brains that lights up when experiencing the pain, they can develop strategies to reduce activity in that part of the brain.  It was like mind-over-matter; neuroscience bringing me closer to meditation and yoga, practices firmly rooted in my Indian heritage.  These rational and intriguing extensions of our rudimentary understanding of the brain, although exciting, pale in comparison to the chaos and serendipity of unplanned backpacking and travel writing.  A wildly successful four-year stint at the start-up was enjoyable, but my irrational mind had already started yearning for something intangible.

Another solo backpacking trip happened.  This time, it was an yearlong, round-the-world trip to 36 countries.  Another book happened.  At the end of the trip, when I decided to move to India, I knew that I would be kissing neuroscience and American six-figure salaries goodbye.  Other than a handful of academic institutions, very few people in India work in neuroscience.  I have still managed to keep my one leg in the technology and start-up world.  But in my first week back in India, I met a movie director for the first time in my life.  I had spent most of my life staying away from the film industry, thinking that it was full of inflated egos, insecurities, scandals, and a lot of negativity.  But this director seemed different.  A common friend had introduced us while I was bumming around on my round-the-world trip. After I emailed him about it, he was curious to hear my stories.  The first meeting was a disaster because he was expecting a lot of photographs and video footage from around the world, and I – eternally camera-challenged – had virtually none.  However, he liked my stories enough to suggest that we could make a movie together if I agreed to backpack in India.

During my 36-country trip, I had managed to burn a huge hole through my savings.  Where was the money going to come from?  Where would we travel in India?  Would anything interesting come out of it?  None of that mattered.  Along with a daredevil American backpacker girl, a UC Berkeley student of anthropology, I managed to backpack through the backroads of India, capturing some of the social, cultural, and economic contradictions of modern-day India.  In fits and starts, I managed to raise all the funds for making the film.  A group of filmmaking pros, from the director all the way to subtitles writer, took two people who had never been in front of a camera and turned it all into a movie nearly two hours long.

Before we could celebrate completing the film, we were staring at the challenge of reaching our audience.  Documentary is not a popular genre in India and we didn’t have the funds to market the film in North America and Europe.  The film went to a few festivals and we keep having screenings across India.  Those who come to the screenings are glued to the screens for the entire duration of the film and organizers routinely kick us out because the post-screening Q&As go on forever, but how do we get more people to the screenings with no marketing budgets?  If you think selling technology is challenging, try selling art.

Ironically, it is that higher level of risk and the challenge of bringing together such a diverse pool of talent – arguably unmatched in the startup world – that I now find alluring.  This seemingly nonsensical foray into filmmaking that I am contemplating has thrown up a lot of personal dilemmas.

What if I had studied creative writing or literature instead of engineering and neuroscience?  Then again, regardless of what I think, my degrees have enabled me to work a few hours a day and make ends meet, giving me the time to explore the topsy-turvy world of cinema with some level of comfort.  I remember reading an interview of Nawazuddin Siddiqui, a well-known Indian actor, in which he said that he left his hometown in eastern India and moved to Mumbai thinking “If I have to die of hunger, I might as well do so in Mumbai.”  For every success story like that, Mumbai is full of at least a hundred broken dreams.  With those odds, would the rational part of my brain have allowed the irrational part to do anything crazy like that?  And if I did not have that kind of a risk appetite, would I have had any reasonable shot at success as an artist?

Secondly, impact of any technology is easier to quantify in terms of money, man hours, or energy saved.  But how do you quantify the impact of art?  Slowly but surely, I have started doubting the claims of start-ups and new technologies about making our lives better.  Having a reasonably good idea of the neuroscience that goes into the design of Snapchat, or the algorithms that populate Facebook walls, lines are blurring fast between utility and addiction.  Still, an entrepreneur has numbers to show to a potential investor.  Historically, art has thrived because of the patronage of thriving kingdoms.  Making a business out of art is quite a new phenomenon and, in a way, closely tied to the advent of democracy.  The constant debate over the funding of the National Endowment of Arts in the United States is quite instructive.  When people have the power to decide how to spend their tax dollars and it is difficult to assign a dollar value to various art forms, why fund them?

A couple of years ago, when I attended my first film festival, I argued with a bleeding-heart artist that the movie industry does not make evolutionary sense.  Storytelling has some value in transferring knowledge and nurturing social mores, but it can be done through oral and written media.  Would humanity cease to exist if the movie industry suddenly vanished tomorrow?  The girl replied that everyone around us would be offended by that observation.  Point noted, but when you can’t put a price tag on art and humanity can survive without it, who should fund it in non-kingdoms?

A recent article in The Washington Post elucidating the neuroscience of art mentioned that social art forms like ballets or plays can evoke some of the most intriguing patterns of neural activity in humans.  It says: “Neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran proposes several universal laws of art, or common patterns found in works of art across time and cultures. These principles powerfully activate our visual centers. In theory, they tap into evolved survival responses.”  With abundance of caution, it concludes: “Art has emerged from the human brain for tens of thousands of years, and every human culture makes it. Yet scientists are only beginning to understand how the brain perceives and produces art, and why.  Like so many artworks, the brain is largely an object of mystery. One secret yet to be discovered is how the fragile folds of matter locked inside our skulls can not only conceive art, create it and contemplate it, but can also experience being transported by it, out of the head, out of the body, out of space and time and reality itself.”

Financial return on investment for our film is still being worked out, but having fielded all kinds of questions after screenings of our film, I can vouch for that singular experience of art.  Plus, going from recording electrical activity of single neurons to evoking some of the most intriguing patterns of neural activity – or at least attempting it – doesn’t sound bad anymore.  Film making seems much more interesting when you look at the new crop of startups that is obsessed with artificial intelligence and the ability to predict human behaviour to the point of boredom; not just for the customer, who is being robbed of a sense of wonder and surprise, but also to the developers, who are fretting over minutiae of crunching big data to make human existence as banal as possible.  Is that the subconscious allure of this seemingly wrong turn in my journey?

***

When the film was 80% done and I was onto my second round of crowdfunding, some donors noticed my book about the South America trip.  They planted a seed in my head:  I should make a movie based on my book.  My first thought was that it was downright narcissistic to produce a film about my own life.  But a small group of angel investors was willing to write the initial checks.  Still, a jump from neuroscience to filmmaking sounded like a huge leap of faith.  Visual search and artificial intelligence in India, although a few years behind the American start-up ecosystem in terms of being cutting edge, was the natural and safe choice.  Why should I jump into the film industry?  The angel investors were promising to invest only a miniscule portion of the film budget.  Where was the rest of the money going to come from?  Would I ever manage to get any director or actor interested in my story?

On the other hand, perhaps that was my delayed gratification for the thankless job of doing that solo trip and writing the book.  And if a few investors felt that the story was worth telling on the screen and were willing to put their money where their mounts were, who was I to call it a narcissistic endeavour?  After a few months of sleepless nights, I set up my own production company, found a writer whose previous film had won the Crystal Bear at Berlinale, one of the top 3 European film festivals, and I was walking in and out of the ministries of tourism and culture of South American countries to figure out the logistics of making the film.

Fast forward to present day.  After preliminary discussions with some prominent directors and producers, it seems like things are slowly falling in place.  It is anybody’s guess whether the film will ever see the light of day.  In the meantime, I have already written half a script for another movie, have a synopsis ready for a third movie, and have conceptualized a couple of other film projects.  I have enough creative material to set up a film fund and embrace film making as a career!

Coming from the start-up world, where terms like pro-forma financials, EBITDA, valuations, and preferred shares were thrown around like loose change at every investor meeting, what am I willing to offer to investors funding my films?  If I am promising a sense of wonder and red-carpet appearances, with a level of uncertainty of financial returns much higher than the startup world, should anyone bother investing?  And yet, art has been the defining feature of all human civilizations and has had longer shelf life than any technology humans have ever developed.

***

It was a strange twist of fate that Richard Thaler, a behavioural economist, was awarded the Nobel Prize on Che’s 50th death anniversary.  Psychology, neuroscience, and economics are joining hands to demonstrate that humans are fairly irrational creatures.  It has huge implications for capitalism, libertarianism, and, in turn, democracy itself.  In a country like the United States and an institution like the University of Chicago – bastions of economic conservatism – Thaler can argue that it is in the society’s larger interest for the government to open individual retirement accounts for everyone and let them decide whether they want to opt out.  Behavioural economics is still a nascent field, but if the modern tools of neuroscience end up demonstrating that we go about living our lives fairly irrationally, I would have to dig deep into the world of literature to find a richer irony.

After reading about Che’s death anniversary and Thaler’s Nobel Prize on the same day, these are the issues that my rational mind is grappling with.  I will wait for Google to develop an AI algorithm capable of connecting those dots and an automatically curated Facebook post on my wall to take me on a trip of self-examination and nostalgia.  In the meantime, the irrational part of my brain is quite happy writing long articles and screenplays, taking unplanned trips, and embracing the film world.

 

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Second Book is Out

The round-the-world trip to 36 countries, which was the reason behind starting this blog, is available in a book form now!  After four years of procrastinating and a tremendous amount of effort by editor Devasmita Chakraverty, illustrator Leslee Lazar, and copy editor Nancy Wall, we managed to publish the book about the yearlong backpacking adventure titled ‘Packing Up Without Looking Back.’  It’s available in paperback and e-book versions on Amazon on all the continents (I think) and through Flipkart and a few other online stores in India.

Packing Up Without Looking Back

Book cover

There is a sense of continuity from the first book to the second.  If you haven’t read the first one yet, here it is:

A Ghost of Che

A Ghost ot Che Cover

 

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The Demonetization Circus

2000-note

In India, a unique set of circumstances brought a new-age Chanakya – or Machiavelli, for those who have only read Western literature – to the helm.  This time around, history decided to split this shrewd mind into two bodies; one is a flamboyant orator and the other is a behind-the-scenes operator.  A Modi and a Shah, if you will.  It is an interesting combination.  One goes around town taking credit for everything good that is happening in the country, cleverly avoiding comments on anything that will adversely affect his popularity.  The other, it seems, is tirelessly working backstage to orchestrate those events.  Killing of a Muslim Armyman’s dad?  It’s a state law-and-order issue.  Flogging of Dalits?  Wait, that is our vote bank.  Need to comment on that.  Glaring lapses in intelligence and surveillance during the Pathankot and Uri terrorist attacks?  No need to discuss those issues.  Surgical strikes?  Let the Defense Minister loose and dominate the airwaves.  GDP growth numbers?  Yes, we need to take credit for being the fastest growing big economies in the world.  Jobless growth?  We can avoid talking about that.  In a mere two years, this team has managed to turn the debate between haves and have-nots into a debate between nationalists and anti-nationalists.

We can see the same nationalist debate playing out during demonetization, but it has also made Indians temporarily forget the centuries-old caste system and reveal a new class system.  At the top of the ladder are the ones loaded with black money.  From politicians, bureaucrats, businessmen all the way to rich housewives are scrambling to meet the December deadline.  Some say there are apartments, basements, storage spaces and mattresses full of old currency dying to be renewed.  Those who can backdate invoices, businesses that can declare significant amounts of cash on hand, jewelers and peddlers of foreign exchange are suddenly in demand.

Then there is the middle-class whose entire income is white, but it is all stuck in the banks.  In their own country, they are queuing up outside their own banks for hours on end to get their hands on their own money.  In a land where, until recently, 60-70% of the population had no bank account, and only 2-3% of the population paid taxes, these guys are the collateral damage.  They don’t have the cash to pay taxis and rickshaws, buy groceries and vegetables, or even buy two square meals a day.  Some have resorted to chest-thumping and nationalism.  They are probably the ones who have ‘connections’ and have gotten their withdrawals and exchanges done without having to stand in the long lines.  Others are legitimately wondering ‘What is my fault?’  Unlike the black money class, though, they can at least post pictures of the new 2000 rupee notes on Facebook to celebrate their victory of getting their own money back.

And below that is the vast swath of humanity that has belonged to the unorganized sector and lived exclusively on cash.  Some of them are newfound owners of Jan Dhan Yojana bank accounts that have not been used much.  Others are still not part of the banking system.  Whether they are employed, partially employed or unemployed, they are noticing some unusual behavior among those at the top of the ladder.  Instead of 2-3 week delays in getting their salaries, they are suddenly getting salaries for 6-12 months in advance.  Some are getting a commission to open bank accounts and deposit a couple of lakhs.  Others are finding out that they can get paid just to stand in a line for hours.  Those in favor of redistribution of wealth will be proud of Modi.

It is easy to see the immediate benefits of the move.  Banks will get capitalized and the central government may not have to resort to financial jugglery to clean up the non-performing assets of the banks.  People will order more credit/debit cards and open more online wallet accounts.  More and more businesses will start accepting plastic money and e-payments.  But unless there are more tax reforms like GST and strong incentives to become law-abiding citizens, will demonetization significantly change the macro-economic picture?  For that to happen, the government will have to demonstrate that it can trust the people and operate with minimal corruption.  And the people will have to trust the government in return and pay their fair share of taxes.  Else, we are back to square one, with stashes of 500 or 1000 rupee notes replaced by stashes of 2000 rupee notes.

Above all, this new episode of the great Indian circus makes me wonder about the nature of money.  Back in the days, currencies used to be backed up by gold reserves.  The US dollar, the world’s reserve currency, was issued against a guarantee that the American government was in possession of an equivalent amount of gold.  Most of the other currencies were pegged to the US dollar.  That all changed in the 70’s when the US government under Richard Nixon did away with the gold standard.  What we carry around in our pockets is just a piece of paper whose value can go up or down based on how many new ones the government decides to print.  Someone like Modi can come along and render 85% of those pieces of paper worthless and there is not much we can do about it.  Does it ever make you wonder what kind of wealth we are accumulating?

The western world loves to stereotype India as the land of spirituality.  While demonetization has lifted some spirits and depressed others, we have carefully locked away our spirituality in temples and other places of worship.  These days, it can also take the form of a large, open public space where phony gurus set up their shops and pontificate for a couple of hours.  We attend the poojas and pravachans, only to get back to accumulating wealth that can disappear overnight.  After observing the seemingly endless queues at my neighborhood bank for the past week, I am wondering whether I should install an ATM in my apartment complex and play these famous Pink Floyd lines in an endless loop:

“Welcome my son, welcome to the machine…

What did you dream?  It’s alright, we told you what to dream…”

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The Genius of Bob Dylan

A quick question: How many times have you heard the announcement of the Nobel Prize for Literature and said ‘Oh yeah, he or she totally deserves it’?  I would assume that for an average reader like me, it almost never happens.  When it comes to Nobel Prizes in the sciences, those who are in the trenches generally know who the top contenders are.  And given how little gets accomplished in world peace each year, the contenders for the Nobel Peace Prize are also generally well known public figures.  By the very nature of literature, it almost never happens in this category.  Since literature in any language qualifies for the Nobel Prize, it is such a vast ocean that it is humanly impossible for anyone to have read everything – or even something – written by every author in the world.  To add to that, there are times when the writer’s socio-political relevance plays a major role and at other times, the author’s indulgence in magical realism has won him or her the top prize.  Come to think of it, it is actually a miracle that the committee for the Nobel Prize for Literature can even come up with a reasonable shortlist every year!

I have read very few works by Nobel laureates.  I cannot attribute it to my undying love for literature.  Rather, it is a side effect of being a compulsive traveller and an even more compulsive book buyer.  I hate shopping, but cannot walk out of a bookstore without buying a book.  I recently heard that there is a word for people who buy books and keep stacking them on their shelves without reading them.  Guilty as charged!  It has gotten to a level now where I avoid walking into bookstores.  However, I end up cheating myself when I am killing time at international airports.  And the bookstores at these airports invariably carry works of their homegrown Nobel laureates (if any).  I have picked up an occasional Orhan Pamuk, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, John Steinbeck or a V.S. Naipaul, but I believe that, for an average reader, the works can be hit or miss.  Orhan Pamuk’s Other Colors spoke to me because of its inherent East-West cultural conflict.  Naipaul’s Among the Believers worked exceedingly well, but ironically, India: A Million Mutinies Now somehow felt too dense.  Steinbeck’s legendary The Grapes of Wrath made me go from ‘Why?’ to ‘Nailed it!’ in the last five pages.  In magical realism, Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera seemed magical only in patches, but One Hundred Years of Solitude, which I am not done with yet, grips you from the first page.

All of this reading has been after the fact.  So, when I read last week that Bob Dylan won the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature, my first reaction was ‘For a change, I know the winner!’  It was quickly overshadowed by doubts.  In this vast ocean of world literature, where does a singer-songwriter stand in the hierarchy?  If you want to pick a singer-songwriter, why pick someone from the United States, which already has an outsized cultural influence around the world that half of the world has come to resent?  Would it make more sense to pick someone from some other cultural or linguistic background to help raise his or her global profile?  After all, Nobel committees have missed the mark several times in the past.  No Nobel Peace Prize for M. K. Gandhi?  A Nobel Peace Prize for Barack Obama?  Even in literature, no Nobel Prize for Jorge Luis Borges?  Not surprisingly, a lot of commentators have criticized the decision over the past week.

Some of the criticism might be valid, but listening to his songs for the millionth time over in the last couple of days managed to clear all those doubts for me.   A top down approach to making such decisions might be able to explain this anomaly.  Let us assume that we want to be unconventional this year and pick a singer-songwriter.  And we want to restrict ourselves to the English language.  How many artists come to your mind?  I don’t even need all the fingertips of one of my hands to count them.  An overwhelming majority of the songs talk about some stage of love.  The reach and influence of most of the bands rarely lasts beyond a decade.  Very few singers are gifted enough to write their own songs.  Or, the gifted songwriters are rarely good composers and singers.  Mark Knopfler stands tall.  Bruce Springsteen is a stalwart.  Alanis Morrissette brought something refreshing to the table.  Rage Against the Machine tried to capture the contemporary mood.  Some old school hip hop artists made the art form a cultural force to reckon with.  But if you go searching for something ahead of its times in the English speaking world, it will probably boil down to Pink Floyd and Bob Dylan.

Pink Floyd was undoubtedly a perfect storm.  Incredible lyrics, mind-blowing pyrotechnics, technical finesse, clever use of electronics, philosophical undertones that were only matched by the silent pauses in the music.  When you add up all the talent of the four core band members, the result is immortality.  As if all that weren’t enough, they came up with the concept of concept albums.  They imagined a world in which a 60-plus minute album like Dark Side of the Moon or Division Bell could be considered one song.  Or an album like Animals could brilliantly capture the human condition that George Orwell did in his book The Animal Farm.  Pink Floyd’s ‘artistic product,’ if you will, belongs to a rare genre in which you can just read the lyrics and without having heard the song, you are convinced that this has to be a beautiful song.

Bob Dylan’s genius lies in the fact that it belongs to that same rare genre, but doesn’t stop there.  The music has none of the pyrotechnics or the technical finesse, but it doesn’t need any of that.  Like Brazil’s Bossanova singers, Dylan could be sitting in a public square, strumming his guitar and humming along, and people will gravitate towards it.  The folksy, nasal voice.  The simplicity of the chords that is only matched by the incisive commentary on contemporary issues.  Capturing the vagaries of life that so easily transcend cultural boundaries.  Lyrics and style that evolve and age with the singer.  Music that appeals to everyone from an assembly line worker to a soldier on the field to an academic researcher to the occupant of the highest political office.  Even on a piece of paper, the songs sing themselves to you.

As an Average Joe, I can now stop knockin on heavens door and claim that, for once, I know the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature.  And with a singer-songwriter winning the coveted prize, I do not feel as if times they are a changin.  But I can definitely say to the critics:

We always did feel the same, we just saw it from a different point of view

That is the genius of Bob Dylan.

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The Triumph & Tragedy of Rio

I will start with a confession.  If I had another life, I would choose badminton as my career.  I have been playing it for as long as I can remember.  Unfortunately, like millions of other Indians growing up in the 80’s and 90’s, I entered tenth grade and kissed my dreams of a sports career goodbye.  For the past twenty years or so, I have been what Americans call a ‘weekend warrior.’  I still devote lots of hours a week to the sport, but I am not a competitive athlete.  The enthusiasm for sports, though, spills over to quadrennial events like the world cups and the Olympics.

As a country, we should be proud of the fact that we sent our largest ever contingent of more than 100 athletes to the Rio Olympics.  However, over the past two weeks, the skewed perceptions and unrealistic expectations of our nation of 1.25 billion people have disappointed me more than the valiant efforts of the Indian Olympic contingent regardless of whether they qualified for the finals or how close they got to winning a medal.  Until the mid-90’s, we were an extremely poor country.  And there are several studies establishing a reasonable correlation between per capita GDP and the number of medals countries win at the Olympics.  When a country is struggling to feed its population, it is foolhardy to expect a huge medal tally at an event that celebrates ‘Fitter, stronger, faster.’

After the first generation economic reforms of the early 90’s, millions of Indians have moved out of poverty and into middle class.  Globalization, disposable income and ease of travel have all made our society aware of what is going on in the rest of the world.  Unfortunately, a country trying to claim its rightful place in the international political and economic order is expecting the moon from our athletes without showing any interest in building a sports culture.  It is a huge jigsaw puzzle, but the three critical pieces of the puzzle are the government, corporations and the society.

The overall apathy of the government starts at the local level.  While there are schemes and allocations for promoting sports at the district and taluka level, the situation on the ground is similar to any other government scheme.  A friend of mine who teaches table tennis in a tier III city school recently mentioned that the government allocates money for annual inter-school tournaments, which is siphoned off by the ‘system.’  The tournament organizers have to scramble to get sponsorships, which are hard to find in smaller towns.  As a consequence, they have to ask the kids to bring all the required sports equipment and supplies for the tournament.

At the highest level, the government has undertaken some admirable initiatives.  The sports awards help the athletes get the much needed attention.  Supporting medal prospects by providing them the equipment and training facilities is another good initiative.  However, these initiatives serve only those who have beaten all the odds to reach the top of the pyramid.  Unless the bottom of the pyramid is widened by cleaning up the system at the local level, we will keep hovering around the 3-5 medal mark at the Olympics.

Government is always the easiest punching bag.  As a country, we need to realize that only about 3-4% of Indians pay taxes.  When the government is preoccupied with basics like implementing mid-day meal schemes, boosting girl child education, building girls’ toilets in schools and enhancing graduation rates, it is a long way away from building world class sports facilities in tier II or III cities.  This is where the corporations can step in.  The government has created huge CSR mandates for corporations, which can be effectively used for physical education, spotting talent early and supporting promising athletes all the way from age 5-6 to the highest international level.  Traditionally, PSU’s like Indian Oil, Railways, banks and conglomerates like the Tatas and Reliance have shown leadership in supporting athletes.  A lot of sports leagues are springing up, which assure the top athletes decent remuneration if they reach the top of the pyramid.  Unfortunately, most of this support comes after you have proven your mettle at the state or national level, which is a bit late in the life of an athlete.  If big names like Sachin Tendulkar, Abhinav Bindra, Mahesh Bhupati, Malleshwari, Mary Kom and others can get together with the big corporations, implementing sports programs from the bottom up will not be difficult.  Prakash Padukone proved it when he threatened a revolt against the badminton babudom in the late 90’s.  It is important to note that it took us 20 years – an entire generation – to start producing world class badminton players.  We see it happening in boxing, wrestling, archery and a handful of other sports, which is a good start.  It is an extremely slow and arduous process, which now needs to expand to other Olympic sports.

In the end, the onus is on the society.  It begins with us.  The most basic building block of a sports culture is putting physical fitness on par with intellectual achievements or success in business.  My generation mostly played sports in school or college as a hobby and then was compelled to start exercising again after age thirty or forty because of health issues.  That needs to change.  Let us prioritize physical fitness in our lives and build some appreciation for what it takes to run a 6 minute mile.  If your cousin or nephew or son or daughter are showing a spark, encourage them to pick up the sport they are interested in.  Tell them that representing our country at the Olympics is superior to getting into an IIT, clearing the IAS exam or building the next unicorn start-up.  We need to support local initiatives like city marathons and sporting events.  Even if you are not a sportsperson, just go volunteer for a marathon that your friend of family member is running.  I bet you will be motivated to run the next one.

When interviewing candidates for new jobs, most of us do not care about achievements in sports, which is in stark contrast to the recruitment process in some industry segments in the United States, where sportspersons are considered better than an average candidate.  The logic is straightforward.  The tremendous dedication and focus required to excel in sports even at the state level easily permeate in other aspects of life.  I was once told by a successful American businessman that he reads the resumes of the candidates from the bottom to the top.  Beyond a certain threshold of academic grades, everyone is intellectually capable of getting the job done.  What separates a candidate from the pack is non-academic achievements.

The Rio Olympics are over.  Before the Tokyo Olympics come around and we lament another poor medal haul, let us begin by picking up some physical activity.  Watch the sports you love on a regular basis, understand the nuances and try to inculcate them at your level.  As a society, if we start today, it will take at least 2-3 decades to start getting a respectable medal haul at the Olympics.  At the very least, instead of lamenting the near medal misses or criticising the athletes for not qualifying to the final rounds, we will start admiring their dedication, single minded focus, muscle tone, speed, agility and their athleticism.  And then, if Sindhu wins gold at the Tokyo Olympics and lets out another primal scream, it will give you goose bumps.

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Patriotism: Poles Apart

Ever since a handful of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) students shouted anti-India slogans at a campus rally in Delhi, a lot of airtime and pixel space have been devoted to covering all sides of the patriotism debate. In the last forty-eight hours, what changed the dynamic for me was the news from the other side of the planet that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) demanded Apple, Inc. to unlock the phone of a terrorist and – lo and behold – Apple refused to unlock it. Here is a company as American as apple pie – patriotic enough to manufacture millions of phones in China every year but etch ‘Designed in California’ on each one of them – refusing to play ball with the FBI in a case of terrorism on American soil. Can you imagine the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) demanding that Micromax unlock Afzal Guru’s phone and Micromax refusing it? If the unfolding events in Delhi are any indication, there would probably be no Micromax by tomorrow. The civilized way in which the patriotism debate is playing out in the United States is a jarring contrast to the immaturity on display from all sides in India. There are many facets to the debate, but there seem to be three important L’s defining it: Liberty, Law-enforcement and Leadership.

At the highest level, this is a question of liberty. The American declaration of independence famously proclaims that liberty is one of the unalienable rights of all human beings and – more importantly – governments are created to protect it. The constitution that is based on this core principle is one of the shortest constitutions in the world and enumerates all aspects of life the government cannot and should not interfere with. The Indian constitution, on the other hand, has the dubious distinction of being the longest constitution of the world and painstakingly lists all the powers vested in the government. Don’t get me wrong. Babasaheb Ambedkar is my hero; more so than Mahatma Gandhi or Pandit Nehru. At the time of gaining independence, his astute legal mind realized that India was an extremely diverse country divided along caste, creed and linguistic lines for centuries. Without the fear of a heavy-handed government, our society might not have had any incentive to reform. Unfortunately, the unintended consequence of the constitutionally vested powers in the government, combined with decades of socialist policies, have ensured that most of us grow up with a stunted view of liberty. Instead of doubting the government’s intentions and abilities, we implicitly consider government an unalienable part of our lives. Mai-baap Sarkar! Apple is a free enterprise and places its contract with its customers above its patriotic duty toward the government. JNU is a centrally subsidized institute and the government feels compelled to decide what is patriotic and what is not.

A few notches below liberty is the issue of law enforcement. Barring an occasional O.J. Simpson kind of case, which exposes the loopholes in the system, American police forces, investigative agencies and the judicial system form a well-oiled machine of delivering timely justice. Even the toughest terrorism and mass shooting related cases usually reach their conclusion within two-to-five years of filing charge sheets. On the other hand, the entire law enforcement machinery in India is stuck in a vicious cycle. While they consider Sarkar to be Mai-baap, Indian citizens don’t trust the government enough to pay taxes. Majority of those taxes get siphoned off by corrupt politicians and bureaucrats. Very little money is left for providing adequate resources and freedom to our police force, investigative agencies or the judiciary. All these branches of government are chronically understaffed (some of the lowest ratios in the world) and none of them have any incentive to defy the almighty government and show its independence. Just like politics hates a vacuum, society hates a vacuum when it comes to law enforcement. When evidence can be tampered with, witnesses can be made to disappear, cops and judges can be bought, and the system takes at least a decade to punish the wrongdoer, what is the harm in taking the law in your own hands, especially when the Mai-baap Sarkar is on your side? To add to that, when the judiciary moves at glacial speed, well-funded media assume the role of judge, jury and executioner. What is the harm? Over there in the United States, Apple may be defying FBI’s order and writing an open letter to its customers defending its stance, but the local representative of Cupertino is well aware of the fact that taking law in his or her own hands will be dealt with swiftly and sternly. Even the American media, mostly polarized, seem to understand the moral hazard in FBI’s demand and is conducting the debate maturely.

The final piece of the puzzle is leadership. On the economic front, Prime Minister Modi has shown some leadership and, after the initial hubris, seems to be willing to work with the opposition to get the economy moving again. But almost every time he has had an opportunity to demonstrate his leadership qualities, he has been missing in action. It is easy to argue that he has too many issues on his plate and cannot be expected to weigh in on every religious skirmish or caste-based crime in the country. Nobody is expecting that from him. However, his astute political mind and amazing oratorical skills seem to betray him every time an issue enters public consciousness and becomes a national conversation about the fundamentals of cultural, social or ideological liberty. Perhaps he has taken the ‘It’s the economy, stupid’ catchphrase to heart and believes that as long as he keeps his head down and delivers on his promises of jobs and prosperity, people will forgive him for his acts of omission and commission. On the other side of the world, President Obama does not comment on each incident of homicide or political dissent, either. But he rarely misses an opportunity to comment on the raging national debate of the day; be it a mass shooting and gun control, a seminal Supreme Court verdict on gay rights, or the signing of the Iran nuclear deal. Such statesmanship becomes all the more important in a country with a muddled understanding of the concept of liberty and a law enforcement vacuum being exploited by overzealous media.

I am not an unabashed admirer of the United States. As they say, ‘Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the other forms.’ The American system has its own flaws. A country with more guns than people, a rigged financial system that nearly took the entire world down, a racial divide that is still glaringly big, a foreign policy that preaches one thing and practices another; the list is endless. But the question for us is: Instead of pointing fingers at the Americans, are we willing to notice a few good aspects of the world’s first republic and implement them in the world’s largest republic? As the American presidents keep exhorting at the end of every State of the Union speech, are we willing to move toward a more perfect union?

Categories: Current affairs, India, JNU, Patriotism, Politics, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

When Marriages are Made in Heaven…and Heaven is Called Koramangala!

X: Tell me a little bit about yourself.

Guy: I’m just a regular guy with an engineering degree. A decade ago, kids my age used to take their GREs and go to America. These days, everyone around me is moving to Koramangala and starting his own company. I thought I’d try my hand at copying some idea from America and Indianizing it. All of a sudden, my friends started getting married. Maybe it’s the right time for me to get married.

X: Tell me about your team. After all, we invest in the team.

Guy: Me, my degree that gives me the illusion that I can solve any problem, my raging hormones that make me believe that I can sell anything to anyone and the two I’s in my institute’s name that are enough to fool any investor in the world.

X: What if your illusion turns out to be delusional?

Guy: As long as I am painting rosy pictures to the investors and getting them to pay my salary, it’s a nice illusion. It will be a delusion only when the money runs out and we have nothing to show for it. Till then, just enjoying the ride.

X: So, tell me about your product.

Guy: It’s just the fourth question! I wasn’t expecting you to go there so soon. Well, I have a nice package. Once you test-ride it, you would wanna ride it some more!

X: How about market segmentation and product market fitment?

Guy: Till now, I was not too serious about relationships. I used to walk into bars and focus exclusively on the wild and single ones, married but looking ones or those who are divorced and are going through a mid-life crisis. Product market fitment was quite good because I rarely had any complaints. I can give you a few references, if you want. Markets have changed now and my offerings have also changed. So, I am focusing more on ‘homely,’ ‘wheatish complexion,’ ‘nuclear family,’ ‘cooking,’ ‘classical singing or dancing,’ ‘knitting and painting,’ ‘conservative values but liberal outlook’ kind of market. You know, the market where sometimes you see some subtle hints of caste and subcaste. Sometimes it’s all blatant and out in the open. I am looking for the ‘conservative values but liberal outlook,’ though. So, I prefer the subtle hints market.

X: And what about your product differentiation?

Guy: On the personal front, check out my history of clients. It speaks for itself. Plus, I can always give you some references who will gloat about all the different features of my product. Other than that, on the professional front, unwarranted swagger, ignorance about international trends, total lack of awareness about what it takes to build a large company, no vision or patience; the usual entrepreneurial stuff.

X: Tell me a little bit about your KPIs.

Guy: KPIs in marriage? They’ve been the same for ages! Destination wedding, FB photos, honeymoon at some exotic location, FB photos, new home and car, FB photos, kid # 1, FB photos, kid # 2, less FB photos, get stuck in a rut and start cheating, still lovey-dovey FB photos, kids’ graduation, FB photos, their marriages, their kids, hoping that they will keep the endless loop going and then, one fine day, say goodbye to everything. Even your FB photos that nobody cares about.

X: How about traction?

Guy: Solid traction in the married but looking and divorced and going through mid-life crisis markets. Traction in the wild and single market is a bit lower because, at the back of its mind, the market is still worried about mundane things like the ‘future.’ Traction was off the charts when I visited Bangkok a few months ago. A little less when I was in my previous IT job and had to do a few deployment trips to the West. I have heard a lot about the Uzbekistan market lately, but haven’t tested the waters there.

X: And growth plans?

Guy: I’m in the marriage market now. I foresee raging hormones disappearing and boredom setting in. Growth will stunt significantly in the near term, but once I join the married but looking market, I expect growth to pick up again. It’s cyclical. You have to study the ups and downs in the market and cash in when it is your time. Else, you just become a perpetual whiner.

X: Do you have any exit strategy in mind?

Guy: It depends. If there are no kids in the picture, the divorced market is open for you. The growth trends are quite robust in the market. Kids can complicate things a bit. Growth is slightly slower in that market, but the married but looking market is also decent.

X: It’s too early for me to invest. I need to see more traction. Keep me posted and let’s catch up again when you have more traction.

Guy: So, you have just borrowed the Western vocabulary. Not the mentality, right?  You are not intellectually capable enough to have any sensible conversation.

Moral of the story:  A lot (of nonsense) can happen over a coffee!

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Traffic: Indian Death-trap or American Libertarian Utopia?

There are a million differences between India and the United States; people, culture, laws, history, religion. The list can go on and on. But when you return to India after a decade or so in America, one thing you can’t escape from and have to deal with daily is the chaotic traffic. Depending on how you look at it, this phenomenon is either an incredible feat of human imagination or an utterly avoidable, yet worsening death spiral that is taking more and more lives every day. While I personally believe it’s the latter, there are times when, as a bystander, I wonder whether it can serve as Exhibit A for American libertarian philosophy.

Before we get into the specifics, a crash course on libertarianism as a political philosophy is in order. The popularity Ron Paul enjoyed in the last few election cycles has reminded Americans of this school of thought that I believe was pioneered by Austrians a century or two ago. But in India, forget about followers of libertarianism, finding people who are even aware of it is as difficult as find a unicorn. The philosophy is based on a deeply held belief that when it comes to the things governments can or cannot do, personal liberty and freedom trump all other considerations. Almost! The exceptions generally made are national security, law & order and certain infrastructure projects that ease the movement of people and goods around the country.

For starters, this concept is alien and even counter-intuitive for a vast majority of Indians of today. Other than a handful of big, well-established business houses and the new wave of entrepreneurs who have to constantly fight the archaic web of Indian bureaucracy, most Indians are brainwashed to think that ‘mai-baap sarkaar’ or, as right-wing Americans would call it, cradle-to-grave government, has an important role to play in everyone’s life and the society’s wellbeing. This has led to an interesting paradox that is modern-day India: A country of a billion+ people that has the fastest growing economy in the world and one of the worst rankings in ease of doing business (140 something out of 180-odd countries).

One can get into the historic reasons behind this implicit faith in government as a force for good. And in the long and illustrious history of India, there are many. There is Kautilya’s (Chanakya) ‘Arthashastra’ from ancient India, which advocated the setting up of a sprawling surveillance state to track and control every aspect of human life. And then, there is the post-independence socialist system set up primarily by Pandit Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister. After more than 150 years of British rule that left India indigent, illiterate, dying of hunger and hopelessly dependent on foreign imports, one can debate whether the bureaucratic cobwebs left behind by the British and the closed economy have done more harm than good. But the bottom line is that Indians are conditioned to look at the government as the enabler, or snatcher, of practically everything! If the government handles just national security and infrastructure, how can we justify the huge bureaucracy and their fat salaries? They need some work!

And yet, it is one of the biggest ironies that Indian traffic has developed as American libertarian utopia. It starts with getting licenses. In spite of recent attempts at reforming the driver’s license granting system, I can safely say that virtually nobody takes any tests or knows anything about driving rules and regulations. Through a vast network of ‘agents,’ Indians can get driver’s licenses by showing up only when a digital photo needs to be taken. The tests can be ‘managed.’

This leads to certain harmless, amusing spectacles like using the right indicator to let other drivers overtake you. Nobody uses the indicator for its intended purpose, anyway. If you’ve paid for them, might as well invent a new use for those blinkers. On Indian highways, a truck driver turning his right indicator on to ‘indicate’ that you can overtake him is quite common. But the lack of any rules also leads to ‘jungle-raaj’ (jungle rule) in lane observance. At any signal, the largest vehicle is standing in the rightmost lane. Smaller SUVs or sedans are next to them. Rickshaws come after that. And two-wheelers are like gap-fillers. They can fit in wherever there is space.  Plus, there is also an unwritten rule that the leftover space on the extreme left is a two-wheeler lane, which magically forms as soon as the signal turns red.  That’s the pecking order. In India, when deciding which lane you belong to, every driver implicitly agrees that size does matter.

There is also some weird competition to get to the front of the line at every signal, as if those precious 2-3 seconds saved are going to dramatically change your life. Indians may not have the time to ponder where the country is headed and whether obeying rules can help change that direction, but every Indian driver is dying to see what’s going on at the intersection and whether he or she can bump the red light!

To control pollution, Indian authorities have installed countdown clocks at some signals to tell drivers how long it is going to take before the light turns green. Instead of turning off the engine to reduce pollution, Indians have invented a new interpretation of the clock: How long before you can start encroaching on and effectively blocking the intersection. As soon as the countdown to the last 10 seconds starts, Indians think that it’s their moral obligation to start inching toward the middle of the intersection. If your ‘foreign-returned’ self wants to wait till the light turns green, they don’t hesitate to blow the horn and give you the ‘what’s-wrong-with-you?’ look when passing you by.

In cities like Bangalore with perpetually clogged arteries, drivers have taken this behavior to a higher plane. At certain intersections in the city center, to ensure smooth movement of traffic, cops suspend the automatic switching systems and manually control lights during rush hour. In such cases, when traffic from one side has to stop for longer than usual, Indian drivers suddenly get a fit of moral outrage. Even when they can see why they are not being allowed to go, after a few minutes, the horns start blaring in unison, telling the traffic cop that they have waited long enough. If the cop doesn’t budge, they take the law in their own hands, conclude that it’s their turn and hence have a right to proceed. The best part of this moral outrage is that it is felt only when you are the victim. It melts away into the ether, or smog, when the driver is breaking the law.

I am sure the helplessness of the traffic cops in such situations has something to do with the extremely low traffic cops-to-drivers ratio in India. But their lethargy knows no bounds and on several occasions, they can be seen encouraging unlawful behavior. To add to that, it is an everyday sight to see vehicles of government agencies openly flouting the traffic rules. The very people entrusted with law enforcement and performing government duties – traffic police, cops, public transport drivers, bureaucrats, politicians – roam around as if the laws don’t apply to them.

With this state of affairs, you can imagine the plight of pedestrians. It is an open secret in India that pedestrians have no rights. And since they are lowest in the food-chain and cops don’t have the time to help them, they take the law in their own hands. Literally! It is a perfectly normal sight in India to see pedestrians trying to cross streets waving their own hands telling the traffic to stop. Whether the driver will yield depends, naturally, on the speed at which he or she is driving. And while the hapless pedestrians can never find a big-enough and clean-enough footpath to walk on, bikers can occasionally use the footpath – or whatever is left of it – with no compunction; once again, just to get a good view of the intersection. Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it hasn’t killed any Indians yet who are curious about the goings-on at the intersection.

Come festival season, which is upon us, things get worse. There are huge processions of Gods being carted around town or gurus sitting in high chairs (like the Pope roaming around in Pope-Mobile) being paraded with pride. Since the traffic cops don’t have the time for these events, procession organizers turn into cops. They have the God-given or Godman-given and hence, unchallenged, authority to stop all the traffic at any intersection to ensure smooth passage of the procession. It goes without saying that in secular India, this right is extended to all processions and public displays of all faiths, blocking traffic throughout the year.

Some of the cities have now made helmets mandatory for two-wheeler riders. It is common to see helmets dangling by some hooks or resting on the footrests, only to be whipped out and put in the place they belong – the heads – as the rider approaches an intersection. More importantly, this has also led to the development of some exquisite, non-verbal communication at intersections. Helmets may have robbed us of yelling and cursing at each other, but hasn’t broken our will to break the law. When two two-wheelers approach an unmanned intersection at night, they don’t even need hand gestures. Head-and-neck gestures are enough to decide who goes first. When the intersection is packed and a two-wheeler wants to go in the wrong direction, a combination of head and hand gestures is enough to request others to let you go. If you are trying to ignore the rider at fault, the gestures are followed by a pat on your shoulder, a honk, a bike-to-bike nudge or some combination thereof. Things can get ugly after that. So, ignore the law-breaker at your own peril!

Honking is another integral part of Indian driving that probably deserves its own post. To give you an example, people in the West may be worried about early warning systems for natural disasters like tsunamis and volcanoes. The Indian driver is still preoccupied with using the horn as an early warning system to announce his or her arrival at the intersection. Even if it is 3am with no other vehicle on the horizon, an Indian driver has to honk when approaching an intersection. It goes on and on and on!

Long story short, in a country where no drivers learn any rules and the law enforcement officials are low in numbers and focused on collecting bribes, the system has invented its own rules. It is an accidental libertarian utopia for which mostly pedestrians and bikers – lowest in the food-chain – are paying the price by getting killed by the thousands every year. Nonetheless, in this stream-of-consciousness country and humanity called India, the streams of traffic keep growing exponentially every year with no change in sight.

Categories: Adventure, Driving, Travel | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

The final promo of Riding on a Sunbeam is out!

Here is the final promo. Enjoy! Share it NOW and let’s make it go viral!

Take the plunge, and swim upstream…
Let your body burn, and let your heart scream…
Embrace your foolish dream…
‪#‎ridingonasunbeam‬

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We are almost there! Let’s cross the finish line together!

A year ago, 80 of you believed in our dream. With your support, we have finished 80% of the film. This is the final push and it’s an all-or-nothing crowdfunding campaign. We have to raise 5 lakh rupees (~$7000) in 45 days to complete the documentary. Please donate (now!) and share. Join us as we go Riding on a Sunbeam!

Here is the crowdfunding link:

I am Riding on a Sunbeam

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