India, the Moon, and Innovation

This article first appeared in The Juggernaut on September 9, 2019

Chandrayaan-2 - Wikipedia

In the wee hours of Friday, September 7, India, a country of 1.3 billion, came quite close to landing on the moon. The moon lander of its Chandrayaan (moon rocket) II mission went silent with just 2.1 kilometers out of the 384,400 kilometers left to go. It’s a big deal – India’s fairytale space program is a testament to the tenacity, ingenuity, and patriotism of a small group of government employees beating all odds. It also operated on a very small budget – $142 million, .005% of of its $2.7 trillion 2018 GDP. In comparison, the U.S.’s 1969 moon landing cost $25.4 billion, 2.5% of its $1 trillion GDP at the time.

Full article available here.

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The Constitutional Immorality of Abrogating India’s Article 370

This article first appeared in the Fair Observer.

The decades-old Hindu nationalist dream of confining Article 370 of the Indian Constitution to the dustbin of history is on its way to becoming a reality. Historians can debate the circumstances in which the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir became a part of the union of India and whether awarding special status to the state through Article 370 was appropriate. However, judging by the euphoria and muted dissent with which the decision to abrogate it was greeted, the prevailing public opinion is that Article 370 was the original sin of the birth of India and should be scrapped.

Ever since Jammu and Kashmir’s accession to India in 1947, only a handful of political families have ruled the state as their fiefdom, and they have very little to show for it in terms of peace or prosperity. Cross-border terrorism has ruined a couple of generations of Kashmiri youth. Scores of Kashmiri Hindus have been driven out of their homes and had their properties destroyed.

The central government has thrown the kitchen sink — from near-total liberty to separatists and freedom fighters, multiple rounds of peace talks with all stakeholders, pouring millions of rupees to build infrastructure, to ruling with an iron fist — at the geopolitical problem in the region, and it has failed to achieve durable peace and usher in an era of sustainable development.

Army personnel fighting on the ground privately admit that terrorism and ancillary businesses in Jammu and Kashmir have become more of a thriving cottage industry than an ideological war. It is natural for generations of Indians born after independence, far removed from the brinkmanship that went into making Jammu and Kashmir part of India, to believe that some drastic steps are required to ensure that it does not become an unending conflict like with the Israelis and Palestinians.

To achieve lasting peace, perhaps dividing the state of Jammu and Kashmir into two union territories administered by the central government will, in due course, prove to be a step in the right direction. While constitutional scholars are debating the legalities of the decisions, the manner in which they were taken is dangerous for the future of Indian democracy. It brings up issues related to the fate of Indian democratic institutions, the nature of progress India is choosing and constitutional morality.

Independence of Democratic Institutions

When Narendra Modi was elected as prime minister of India in 2014, albeit with a weaker majority in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of Parliament, it was with the promise of steering India away from the Congress party-led socialist economics, heavy-handed decision-making and social policies skewed toward minority appeasement. Voters were expecting the nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government to respect the independence of various institutions, uphold the primacy of the constitution and perform its duties without fear of favor.

After five and a half years of the BJP’s reign, which includes a thumping re-election victory and a stronger mandate earlier this year, it is quite clear that the party is not interested in the independence of democratic institutions. Demonetization, contentious or abrupt departures of its governors and the government’s repeated attempts to raid the Reserve Bank of India’s (RBI) cash reserves to make up for budgetary shortfalls have left the RBI’s reputation in tatters.

Successful attempts to hide 45-year-high unemployment data until the conclusion of the 2019 elections led to resignations at the National Sample Survey Office. Conveniently turning a blind eye to repeated code of conduct violations by BJP leaders during the elections have raised serious questions over the actions of the Election Commission.

Lokpal, an anti-corruption ombudsman that the BJP wholeheartedly supported before 2014, was appointed only after five years of inaction and the Supreme Court’s ultimatum to the Modi government. While a Lokpal is in place now, the famously efficient bureaucracy of Modi has not found the time to approve the format of complaint forms that would allow people to submit complaints to the Lokpal.

Recent amendments to the Right to Information Act would ensure that information officers are beholden to the government of the day, which could lead to hiding compromising information about its decisions. Just like the Congress era, central investigative agencies like the Central Bureau of Investigation, Enforcement Directorate and Intelligence Bureau are being used selectively to intimidate political opponents.

Until the recent changes in Article 370, national security issues remained above the fray. Historically, the ruling party built consensus and consulted political rivals on issues of national sovereignty and foreign relations. This had become part of the national political ethos. The spread of deliberate lies and secrecy surrounding such a monumental geopolitical decision speaks volumes about the short-sightedness and lack of political maturity of the current political leaders. Instead of strengthening and relying on the independence of institutions to act as guardrails against dictatorial tendencies, the current BJP leadership is indulging its own authoritarian impulses.

It also brings up concerns related to the nature of progress India is experiencing. The five-and-a-half-year report card of the BJP government has several admirable bright spots. Thanks to the rapid expansion of pilot projects initiated by the previous United Progress Alliance (UPA) government, corruption in distributing subsidies to the poor has gone down. Highways, ports and public transportation systems are being built and expanded at an unprecedented rate. With the rollout of the goods and services tax, India has ushered in a one-nation, one-market era. Some macroeconomic indicators like inflation and external debt seem to be under control (although there are some reports of fiddling with the figures to underreport the fiscal deficit).

In spite of these achievements, with the bone-headed economic adventurism of demonetization, tax terrorism, recent increases in taxes on the rich, the near bankruptcy of infrastructure finance giant IL&FS and non-banking financial corporations, and arbitrary changes in regulatory regimes, India is already staring at an economic slowdown of its own making. International media have begun doubting the Indian growth numbers.

If you add the steady rise of incidents of lynching of minorities by fanatical Hindu mobs, criminalizing the Islamic practice of triple talaq (instant divorce) to selectively put Muslim men in jail for abandoning their wives, arm-twisting media to muzzle dissent and the newfound zeal to keep critical national security decisions like abrogating Article 370 secret, it is worth asking ourselves whether sacrificing our fundamental rights and institutional independence at the altar of development is worth it.

Whose Model of Development Is Worth Emulating?

The historical trajectories of the top two economies by GDP today, the United States and China, are quite instructive. At its inception, the US was far from a perfect union and, by some measures, it still has a long way to go. As an example, slavery was clearly one of the original sins of the US Constitution and it almost ruptured the union during the Civil War of the 1860s. While it took more than half a million lives and led to the abolition of slavery, it took another century for the United States to desegregate society through the civil rights movement.









Mass incarceration and disenfranchisement of African-Americans is still a burning social issue, but the US has been slowly and steadily moving toward a more just society with stronger and more independent institutions, and hence, a more perfect union. While post-World War II American history is replete with foreign policy misadventures, the stability of its domestic politics is evident in the way other institutions are pushing back against a racist and xenophobic executive branch under President Donald Trump. Structural transparency of the American system compared to other countries has given it arguably the biggest economic prize: the US dollar as the reserve currency of the world.

After the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 as a communist country, the Chinese went through two gruesome internal conflicts. The idealistic social reform movement of the Great Leap Forward in 1958-61 led to the massacre of an estimated 15 to 35 million Chinese, which was followed by persecution of the Cultural Revolution era that began in 1966 and lasted till Mao Zedong’s death, taking an additional half a million to 2 million lives.

China has belatedly adopted a right-wing economic agenda to achieve breathtaking development and lift millions out of poverty, but it has systematically destroyed individual liberty and human rights in the process. Chinese President Xi Jinping has abolished term limits and declared himself the supreme leader of the country. The opaque economic institutions and centralized decision-making have made other nations suspicious of its global ambitions vis-à-vis the Americans, evident in the difficulties China is facing in expanding its signature Belt and Road Initiative.

The repeated failure of the US to address gun violence and the success China has demonstrated in adopting renewable energy to combat climate change illustrate that every system has its pros and cons, but that would be missing the larger point. The nature of progress India chooses now will define its trajectory for the foreseeable future. In representative democracies, development is inherently slow. Some degree of inefficiency is a feature of true republics, in which deliberation and bringing all stakeholders together are designed to ensure that pitfalls are minimized and the next step forward doesn’t backfire.

Having demonstrated nearly two decades of double-digit GDP growth, the authoritarian Chinese model seems more attractive, but it lacks the human ethics and moral authority of a democracy and is more susceptible to collapses. The emergency declared by Indira Gandhi in the 1970s has already given Indians a taste of dictatorship. The most ironic aspect of the latest turn toward authoritarianism in India is the fact that the current crop of leaders earned its political chops during Gandhi’s state of emergency.

Modern Republics and Constitutional Morality

And that brings us to constitutional morality. In modern democratic societies, concepts of justice, liberty and equality flow from the text of the constitution — free from religious baggage, sociocultural history or any claims of racial superiority or victimhood. When India adopted its constitution in 1950, an overwhelming majority of Indians was oppressed, poor or illiterate with no exposure to constitutional morality. And yet, India gave all its citizens the right to vote regardless of race, caste, creed, educational qualifications, ancestral history, land ownership or any other vested interest in the success of the new republic.

It was a quintessentially Indian democratic experiment, a huge gamble that even the vaunted American system cannot boast of, and truly made it a revolution. Inherent in the monumental decision was the hope that elected officials will uphold the law in letter and spirit until the Indian polity builds a constitutional ethos and holds them accountable.

While rampant corruption has been a mainstay in Indian politics for decades, barring Indira Gandhi, all other Indian leaders had admirably kept that promise. Modi’s hypocrisy of bowing in front of Parliament as the temple of democracy for photo-ops and swearing by the constitution as the holy book, only to change it without even informing fellow parliamentarians, is on full display now.

The most troubling aspect of the decision to abrogate Article 370 is the fact that Article 367, which is the interpretation clause of the constitution, was changed by a presidential order, not a constitutional amendment. The requirement to ensure that changes in Article 370 are in line with the will of the people of Jammu and Kashmir was summarily diluted so that a governor, appointed by the central government, could sign off on them.

These changes go to the heart of India’s federalism and are not minor clarifications to be brushed aside with a presidential order. More importantly, while Indira Gandhi was a populist with authoritarian tendencies, her rhetoric and actions were largely devoid of any claims of religious superiority. What makes Modi’s populism more dangerous is his majoritarianism, which is difficult to tamp down once unleashed.

It is also a scathing indictment of the level of appreciation of civics and history in India. Instead of questioning the legal validity of the orders and debating the larger implications of changing the constitution without following the process of an amendment, Indians seem to have entered a phase of mass euphoria. Even some of the staunchest political opponents of the BJP have wholeheartedly embraced the way in which the government has gone about it. Gandhi had to declare an emergency to make significant changes to the constitution without going through the process of an amendment. Modi doesn’t feel the need to do that because, despite higher literacy rates compared to the 1970s, a majority of Indians is craving authoritarian leadership.

A government run by the constitution and independent institutions is better than any other form of government because it outlasts any leader — good or bad. The process of amending the constitution is meant to be difficult to ensure the country is not run by the whims and fancies of one individual. Indians are rejoicing today because those whims and fancies are in line with an overwhelming majority of voters, but if the Supreme Court allows the government to set this precedent, they will soon come to regret it. India cannot dream of becoming a mature democracy unless constitutional morality is etched into the national psyche. It might be sleepwalking into authoritarianism again, but the world is watching.

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Techies are ruining our democracies. It is high time we held them accountable.

This article appeared in The Wire on 14th July, 2019.

In 1989, Francis Fukuyama, a little-known American diplomat with a front row seat to the crumbling empire of the United Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR), boldly claimed that we were witnessing the end of history. With the world counting down the days to the collapse of the communist regime, it was an intriguing argument to entertain. Had the Western political order, with its constituents guaranteeing freedom of speech and expression, privacy and due process won the ideological war? Had capitalism, believing in individuals as rational decision makers and championing efficient, market-based allocation of resources, decisively prevailed over other socioeconomic theories?

Thirty years later, it is worth thinking whether Fukuyama had ever imagined that engineers were waiting in the wings, ready to conquer the world and write the next chapter in history.

Technology and engineering are not new to humankind. Engineers have been reducing human suffering and simplifying our lives for centuries now. Game changing inventions like the printing press, steam engine, internal combustion engine, assembly lines, airplanes, integrated chips, wired and wireless transfer of information, personal computers, and even rudimentary forms of internet were all invented before the end of the Cold War. After each of these inventions, there were fears that they would irrevocably change our way of life and wreak havoc on society.

While they did indeed change our lives and societies, the Western liberal society was lucky to get enough time to adjust to these social disruptions. However, since the end of the Cold War, the trifecta of advances in data processing and connectivity, rise of social media and miniaturisation of electronics have occurred at such a breathtaking pace that engineers seem to be, perhaps unwittingly, ruling our everyday lives.

The takeover is complete. As soon as this article is posted online, these words will be accessible to anyone around the world who has internet access. Our daily jobs are unimaginable without interfacing with sophisticated computers and communication equipment. We are more loyal to our cell phone brand or online shopping site than to the brand of clothes we wear or the newspapers we read. Instead of the company we keep, we are increasingly known by the social media platforms we frequent and the online profiles we create. Face-to-face conversations, phone calls and even emails have given way to terse text messages, composed of emojis and their own shorthand lingo. Instead of nuanced political debates, people are increasingly interested in forwarding viral posts, encouraging groupthink and indulging in ad hominem attacks, lacking any desire to verify facts.

Engineers are slowly occupying the tops of the lists of the richest people in the world. The five biggest corporations in the world, by market capitalisation, are tech companies. Under the guise of simplifying our lives, techies have made us slaves to their innovations. As a society, are we ready for these new rulers and their social disruptions?

The spread of global connectivity and data processing abilities led to rapid improvements in infrastructure and movement of goods and services, making it easy to take raw materials from one continent, make products out of them on another continent, and sell them in a third continent. The birth of the World Trade Organisation and other ancillary trade agreements set up workable global rules and a forum to settle trade disputes.

It spawned global supply chains at breakneck speeds and the early adopters – primarily Western multinational corporations (MNCs) – reaped the benefits. Capital moved efficiently around the world to places where goods could be manufactured at the cheapest cost and sold at the highest price. Millions of workers in developing countries were being lifted out of poverty, consumers were getting good discounts, and shareholders of the MNCs were enjoying the dividends.

In the early 2000s, globalisation seemed to be greasing the wheels of the inevitable spread of the liberal world order. Who could complain about that? Russia and China, the top two ideological adversaries of the United States, were falling in line. Russia was politically moving towards a functioning democracy, and, economically, China was becoming a market-driven society. Conventional wisdom said that, eventually, Russia would become a market-driven economy and China would become a liberal democracy.

It took less than 20 years for that narrative to crumble. It was primarily because corporations in the developing world figured the game out and began moving up the value chain. Instead of making products for and providing services to Western MNCs, they started making and selling their own products.

However, capital was still controlled by the West. While engineers aided the efficient allocation of capital around the world, they also helped money managers in the West consolidate their powers. With the help of technology and the instantaneous availability of information, wealth managers sitting in New York and London could dictate the flow of global capital with the press of a button, without any regard for local social context or knowledge of political ground realities. In 2008, when that system took the world to the brink of collapse, it was a rude wake-up call for the rest of the world.

The wave of nationalism and xenophobia that has gripped the US and some European countries is partially a result of the developing world catching up with the West in playing this game of capital and corporations. It is easier to play identity politics than to explain complex issues like advances in connectivity, globalisation, movement of capital, and loss of blue-collar jobs.

Some of the beneficiary countries of these trends, like India, seem benevolent on the world stage. The Bharatiya Janata Party, the nationalist dispensation currently ruling India, has been ruthlessly exploiting connectivity to promote a nativist and xenophobic agenda, which could pose a threat to the liberal world order. However, given India’s limited GDP and influence on world affairs, it will take a decade, if not more, for that threat to materialise.

More importantly, since India is still a democracy, course correction in the near future is possible without major social upheaval. On the other hand, the way Russia and China have exploited the other two advances – the rise of social media and the miniaturisation of electronics – is more sinister and destabilising, posing an imminent threat to the post-Cold War global order.

The rapid worldwide spread of social media is another coup engineers have pulled off in the dead of night. When the framers of the American constitution enshrined freedom of speech in the first amendment and recognised a free press as the fourth pillar of democracy, the press in question comprised a small group of people and organisations that would ensure a meaningful political discourse and serve as a check on political power. Self-restraint, neutrality, and a certain sense of national duty, while not explicitly spelled out, were its underlying responsibilities.

There is plenty of evidence demonstrating that some sections of the traditional media have forgotten those responsibilities, but social media never had them in their DNA. Under the guise of connecting people – and without knowing whether there was any inherent social value in that endeavour – Facebook allowed everyone to air their unfiltered opinions.

Mark Zuckerberg could be given a pass early on when college students used Facebook to post relationship statuses and vacation pictures. However, once it spread beyond college campuses, the personal quickly became political. With its paltry character limit, Twitter made it even worse by removing the socio-political context to the spread of people’s unfiltered opinions. Add the advances in machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI) to it and you have a recipe for disaster.

On its own, AI is already creating headaches for the political class by threatening to automate huge swaths of industry segments. Political leaders have already begun contemplating a world in which large sections of the population are unemployed because AI and robots have taken their jobs. The biggest surprise in the 2020 American election cycle isn’t the presence of self-proclaimed democratic socialists but a candidate advocating a universal basic income in a capitalist society. While that might be food for thought for the next decade or two, the marriage of social media and ML has already wreaked havoc in our world.

In addition to allowing people to air their opinions without editorial oversight, social media ensured that their ML-powered newsfeeds would create deadly echo-chambers, which have been exploited by people at both ends of the political spectrum. On one end are countries like Russia: with a GDP a fraction of the US, Russia recruited a handful of skilled political strategists halfway around the globe and disrupted the 2016 American presidential elections. On the other end are non-state actors like Al Qaeda and ISIS, who have successfully used social media as tools for spreading their message and global recruitment. On both ends, actors operate with impunity, out of reach of all existing international treaties and judicial systems of sovereign nation-states.

Like the Arab Spring, there were occasional bright spots in the social media narrative, but when WhatsApp was used to spread lies and rumours, leading to mob-lynchings in India and a deranged killer live-streamed a carnage in a New Zealand mosque, the downside of connecting everyone truly reached living rooms across the world. No wonder the Sri Lankan government instituted a blanket social media ban after the recent Easter Sunday bombings. If Russia’s reported interference in the recently concluded European elections is any indication, we are a long way away from internalising the danger posed by social media to our democratic institutions, let alone guarding ourselves against it.

China is demonstrating what is looming on the horizon by exploiting the miniaturisation of electronics and the ability to mass-produce them inexpensively to manipulate society in ways that seemed impossible less than a decade ago. Hailed by engineers as a prime example of human ingenuity, we all embraced the faster, cheaper and more powerful cell-phones, tiny webcams and microphones, and ubiquitous home assistants like Alexa and Google Now. Assuming their governments will not be able to interfere in the functioning of private enterprises, the liberal West willingly traded their privacy for the sake of faster and global social connectivity. And with their holier-than-thou attitudes, the Facebooks and Twitters of the world believed they could use the gospel of global connectivity to convince the Chinese to jump on the bandwagon.

The Chinese government didn’t buy that argument. Instead, they built their own alternatives, tightly controlling their servers and the flow of information. When this goldmine of private data is combined with inexpensive electronics, the results are truly Orwellian. If reports coming out of China are to be believed, apparently innocuous policemen at traffic intersections sport goggles that can track all vehicles that have crossed the intersection and automatically flag errant ones. An entire town in the Uighur-dominated western province of Xinjiang can be wired up with CCTV cameras to record the movements of every individual every day.

Online and offline activity can be tracked to give each individual in a country of 1.5 billion people a social credit score to determine how good their behaviour is. We can bemoan the lack of institutions in China to challenge such an unprecedented assault on privacy but it is safe to assume that the overwhelming majority of Chinese people are getting sucked into this surveillance system without ever being exposed to the virtues of privacy.

One could argue that the US and several European countries are also employing these innovations to expand the surveillance state and curb privacy. However, unlike China, their free press, democratic institutions and independent judiciaries offer them avenues to check industry excess and government overreach. The European Union has already instituted the General Data Protection Regulation to hold private enterprises accountable for the way they handle personal data, and several National Security Agency surveillance programs in the US are either under the purview of Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Courts or are being scrapped after review. There are no signs of China even acknowledging such issues, let alone addressing them.

Taken together, the rapid, unprecedented global spread of these engineering innovations is perhaps the biggest threat to the liberal world order. Nationalism and globalism operate in cycles, and we can only hope that the US and Europe will soon escape the grip of the former. However, there are no signs of societies working towards any workable solutions to the challenges software engineers have posed.

Universal basic income, a patently anti-capitalist idea, might solve the issue of widespread loss of blue-collar or even white-collar jobs, but the privacy and connectivity quagmire we have created through social media doesn’t seem to have any easy solution. We might have to ask ourselves whether connecting the world can, in and of itself, be beneficial to humankind. Instantaneous, unfiltered access to information from halfway around the globe might make our economies more efficient but does it truly make our lives better? Given a choice between an echo chamber and an impartial, free press, how many of us would choose the latter?

More fundamentally, we need to think about the future of republics and representative democracy. In the history of modern human civilisation, which spans roughly five millennia, democracy is a very young and dynamic experiment.

By using modern engineering innovations to tighten their control over their populations, countries like China are already giving wannabe autocrats around the world lucrative alternatives to the liberal world order. Given this state of affairs, it is worth pondering the future of rule of law, due process, freedom of expression, separation of church and state, independent judiciary, privacy and individual liberty.

The list of social and economic benefits these engineering trends have enabled is long. Instantaneous access to information has helped spread education and healthcare to remote areas and accelerated the speed of collaborations and innovations in all areas of industry. A software engineer’s instinct to find solutions to problems, reduce human suffering and just simplify life appeal to our survival instincts. However, authoritarianism and dictatorship are not exactly traditional problems, to be solved with engineering approaches.

A liberal world order might alleviate human suffering but it does not easily appeal to our natural desire to create group identities and seek refuge among our own in adversity. Appreciation for and the desire to uphold individual liberty go beyond basic problem-solving instincts and have emerged after centuries of social experiments and contemplation of human nature, which is often irrational.

Perhaps that is the reason why the perils of innovation for the sake of it, without accounting for the diversity of social structures and political histories around the world, capture the uncertainty of our times better than any other trend.

That uncertainty was evident in the recently concluded elections in India, where there was a visible sense of alienation among some liberals. In a vast and diverse country like ours, election results can never be pinned to any one trend. A lack of credible options certainly played a role in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s reelection, but what worried the liberal Indian mind more is the nomination and then thumping victory of an alleged terrorist with an extremist right-wing agenda. Some are cheering the ruling party’s desire to fight corruption, build infrastructure, clear British-era cobwebs of bureaucracy and move away from a political discourse dominated by the centuries-old caste system, but are worried about its desire to remake India into a Hindu state by marginalising minorities.

While the Indian government does not have the sweeping surveillance powers that Chinese ruling class enjoys, there is a palpable sense of unease in some sections of society over the way connectivity and social media have been exploited to create a false narrative of cultural uniformity in a land where that has never existed. World history has repeatedly demonstrated that it takes decades of dedication to build democratic institutions, but they can be destroyed quickly by authoritarian leaders, and the engineering innovations of the past three decades — in global connectivity, social media and availability of cheap electronics — have made that destruction easier.

While India has, at long last, begun the much-needed dialogue about the social impact of technology, the ruling class in the Western world is slowly waking up to the grim reality and demanding social accountability from engineers.

Based on recent reports, Google, Facebook, Amazon and some other tech giants are already under scrutiny for antitrust activities. After years of claiming to be a tech company and not a media company, Facebook has started exercising control over the content of Facebook Live and requiring funding disclosures for political ads, tacitly admitting that it is a media company and has editorial responsibilities.

Some Silicon Valley leaders have started championing product stewardship instead of product development. As any new tech product starts gaining traction, instead of being driven purely by profits, developers of the product should be vigilant about potential misuse, unintended consequences, and harm to society to ensure that those issues are addressed before they become unwieldy. And yet, there are virtually no incentives for studying the humanities, civics or liberal arts. Education in STEM is the in thing, but history is coming back with a vengeance.

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I Think I Like Djokovic…

…are five words I had never thought I would put together.  As a Federer fanatic, I was initially just relieved to see him win another epic battle against Nadal in the Wimbledon semi-final and prevent him from winning another Grand Slam.  If you are an altar boy in the church of Federer, you have to prevent Nadal from surpassing Federer’s Slam count at any cost.  We know it is inevitable, which will be a travesty of cosmic justice, but it is our duty to hold fort for as long as we can.  However, after his courtside interview and the extended post-match press conference, I convinced myself to put together the title of this essay.  Unless it is Federer, I rarely watch those press conferences.  But the physical nature of the match and perhaps what it means to Djokovic made me watch it.  And it changed my mind.

My earliest memories of tennis are related to the Boris Becker and Evan Lendl era when I didn’t understand much about the sport.  Along came Sampras and Agassi to define the 1990s.  The dignity of Sampras was a stark contrast to Agassi’s rebellious, punkish attitude.  Little did we know that Federer and Nadal were about to redefine the game.  If my memory serves me right, even Djokovic admitted in the mid-2000s that Federer plays in some higher dimensions while the rest are just playing catch up.  And then there was Nadal.  Even during Federer’s 2003-08 dream run, Nadal never conceded the French Open, creating his own identity.  Over the years, Nadal mastered all the other surfaces and earned his own place in tennis history.  When you are the only one to boast of a lopsided winning record against Federer, who, in turn, is shredding everyone else to pieces, you have to be part of tennis history.

Djokovic can boast of that rare distinction of not just having a winning record against both Federer and Nadal, but also being the holder of all the four Slams at the same time; something that Federer and Nadal will probably never achieve.  And yet, most of us shy away from taking his name in the same breath as Federer and Nadal.  Nadal owns Roland Garros and the French fans.  Wimbledon is Federer’s second home.  Which Slam can Djokovic call his own?  For a while, it seemed like the Australian Open would be his backyard, but Federer has already matched his record there.  More importantly, Australian fans have not embraced him like the British – or everyone, really – has embraced Federer.

How did Djokovic go from conceding that he is nowhere near Federer, or Nadal, to beating them both?  If I ask you what his secret sauce is, would you be able to point it out?  What is his signature shot or X factor?  If I want to hang a poster of Djokovic in my room, which shot would he be playing?  Federer’s list is too long, but perhaps I would choose his silken forehand; his body rotating one way and his right hand rotating the other way.  It should be called the Federer pirouette.  Or his legendary one-handed backhand.  If it is Nadal, it would be the ferocious forehand topspin, bulging biceps and all.  What would the Djokovic shot be?

It would most likely be his outstretched body on the forehand or backhand side, trying to reach for that ball that nobody else would even bother returning.  It is not an elegant shot.  He has an uncanny knack of hitting winners from defensive positions, but this signature shot is not one of them.  If anything, with that shot, he barely manages to get the ball back in the opponent’s court and forces him to play one more shot.  Metaphorically, that seemingly inelegant shot captures his entire tennis journey.


Djokovic, along with Murray, earned his chops by winning several junior Slams, but spent the first few years on the pro circuit consistently losing to Federer and Nadal in semi-finals and finals.  Like almost all the other players of his generation, and the next, he was mostly a journeyman Federer or Nadal would have to brush aside before they set up their final.  I can’t imagine how demoralizing it must have been to wake up everyday and spend most of his waking hours thinking about beating Federer or Nadal, only to lose to them year after year!  There are tons of names in that category, like Ferrer, Berdych, Dimitrov, or Nishikori, who probably would have won a handful of Slams in some other era, but could never cross that mental barrier of winning against Federer or Nadal.

Djokovic broke that barrier, and how!  He started with beefing up his body, then switched to a gluten-free diet, probably to make it a lean, mean, fighting machine.  With the body conquered, he turned to meditation and yoga when he realized that his aggression is probably the final frontier.  After all these struggles and adjustments, when he reached the top, there was no stopping him.  He had a couple of years of ridiculous starting win-loss records of 38-2 or 40-3.  The exact statistics don’t even matter.  All of a sudden, he started winning everything.  He even beat Nadal in his own backyard – Roland Garros – a feat Federer could never achieve.  Before anyone noticed, he was sitting on 12 Grand Slam trophies.  His dominance was so complete that holding all four Slams was a foregone conclusion when he finally achieved it.  His goofy Gangnam Style dancing, imitating other players’ serving styles, tearing up his shirts after some hard-fought victories, or occasional bouts of anger leading to smashing his racquets into the ground gave viewers like us a pause.  He doesn’t seem to have Federer’s grace or Nadal’s humility and poise.  Can he truly be the ambassador of the sport?  The torchbearer of tennis?  But his 2015-16 run buried all those doubts.  With Federer and Nadal fading, he was the undisputed king.

Then came the inexplicable fall from grace.  It was almost as if he had stretched his mind and body as much as he could, conquered everyone and everything, and had nowhere to go.  Other than the elbow issue, he has been fairly tight-lipped about his personal and professional struggles over the past couple of years, but it was a spectacular fall.  Unlike Federer and Nadal, who returned from injury layoffs and started winning Slams again as if nothing had happened, Djokovic’s return to tennis in early 2018 looked shaky.  It seemed like he would never regain his dominance.  Sure enough, he is on his way to prove us wrong once again.

Anyone who watched the Nadal – Djokovic Wimbledon semi-final would agree that he is back at doing what he does best.  During the post-match press conference, Nadal said that he had put it all out there and there was nothing he would have done differently.  Coming from a warrior who gives everyone else that sinking feeling of ‘This guy is never going to give up,’ that was a compliment Djokovic can savour.  But there was a moment in Djokovic’s press conference that was poignant.  A journalist asked him about his outrageous stretches.  After being away from Slam finals for so long, and experiencing the ephemeral nature of success, he said with a touch of humility that he is thankful to his body that he can even attempt those shots.  And we are thankful that Djokovic is back again with a realistic shot at catching up with Nadal or Federer’s Slam haul.  For stretching his realm of possibilities way beyond the somewhat limited beauty of his game, I think I like Djokovic.

Categories: Djokovic, Grand Slam, Nadal, Sports, Tennis, Uncategorized, Wimbledon | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

In Karnataka Elections, the Joke is on the ‘New India’

As somebody who enjoys following and writing about current events, it is hard to find a situation better than the unfolding election saga in the Indian state of Karnataka for writing political satire, except for the fact that it is happening in real life.  This election was supposed to be a referendum on whether the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) political appeal can go beyond the majority Hindi-speaking northern states and enter the south of India, which has had misgivings about Hindi being chosen as the national language when India became independent in 1947.  Instead, like the election of Donald Trump as the president of the United States in 2016, the election results have exposed the underbelly of Indian politics.  There are numerous ways in which this election will be sliced and diced.  However, as the Supreme Court mandated test of whether BJP enjoys a majority in the lower house of the state looms on Saturday, 19th of May, three observations seem the most troubling:  The Orwellian decay of all Indian political parties, assault on our democratic institutions that continues unabated under the current leadership, and, most importantly, apathy of well-educated urban voters.

For those who remember the early days of BJP, it consistently claimed the moral high ground over other parties through its actions.  Some of its majoritarian social agenda has always been dangerous, but Lal Krishna Advani famously resigned from Lok Sabha when Hawala accusations surfaced against him.  Atal Bihari Vajpayee headed governments of 13 days, followed by another for 13 months, before getting a strong enough mandate for the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance to run a full term.  During those turbulent times, Vajpayee had no compunction about sitting in the opposition if his alliance did not have adequate numbers to prove majority on the floor of the Parliament.  Under the current BJP president Amit Shah, that seems like a dream from a quaint, bygone era.

The rise and fall from grace of Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has been faster and more perplexing.  While their economic vision seemed suspect from the get go, their focus on education and healthcare was laudable.  The jury is still out on whether AAP will get another five-year term in the state of Delhi that it is currently ruling, but the purge carried out by Kejriwal after attaining power and the lack of maturity AAP has shown in playing the long political game are saddening.  Regional Indian parties have had a hard time making a mark beyond their states and their primary interest seems to be creation of fiefdoms that can be handed over to their heirs or next-of kin.  None of these developments since the 1970s and 80s absolve the Congress, the Grand Old Party of India, of its long list of original sins which includes perpetuation of dynastic rule, pandering to minorities, subversion of democratic institutions, and large-scale corruption.  However, the ongoing post-election circus in Karnataka reminds us of the famous last line from George Orwell’s Animal Farm: “The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”

That poignant quote does not seem to be restricted to those fighting the bare-knuckle grassroots political battles.  Notwithstanding my misgivings about Prime Minister Narendra Modi presiding over the Gujarat riots in 2002, his rise to the top was nothing short of spectacular.  He was not born in privilege and started from the grassroots.  He fought the somewhat democratic intra-party battles in BJP and had more than a decade’s worth of administrative experience in Gujarat before winning the top office.  His underlings might have sown seeds of religious bigotry and victimhood during the national elections held in 2014, but he projected an aspirational vision as a leader.  To a certain extent, he has delivered on some of those socio-economic promises.  Swatch Bharat (Clean India) is a laudable campaign that has at least brought the hitherto taboo topic of public defecation into public consciousness.  We can debate whether Goods and Services Tax (GST) could have been passed during the previous government’s tenure, but Modi demonstrated the political will to pass it.  Building of roads, trying to deliver uninterrupted power, boosting solar energy, infrastructure development in the Northeast of India, border treaty with Bangladesh; the list of Modi’s achievements is long.  However, it is probably time to ask: At what cost?

In the 1990s, when China was growing economically at a blistering pace, one of the former finance secretaries asked whether the lack of freedom of speech and political activity are worth the extra 1-2% GDP growth.  The increasing acceptance of fascist behaviour and extra-judicial authority under Modi’s tenure makes one wonder whether it is time to ask that same question about India.  Gau-rakshak mobs – vigilante groups claiming to save cows from being killed for food – lynching Muslims and Dalits for allegedly transporting cows to slaughter houses, Karni Sena threatening to behead a law-abiding citizen for acting in a movie that offended their cultural pride, or BJP party members leading demonstrations supporting alleged rapists do not seem to be worthy of rebukes from a leader who spends hours revealing his Mann Ki Baat (Straight from the Heart) every weekend on national radio.

More importantly, the destruction of institutions continues unabated under his leadership.  Modi, who famously called the Parliament the temple of democracy before entering it in 2014, has had no qualms about encroaching on the autonomy of the Reserve Bank of India during demonetization, the Election Commission when it announced elections in the state of Gujarat in 2017, the Supreme Court (SC) when sending back the nomination of High Court judge Kurian Joseph with some laughable excuses, and now the governorship of Karnataka by apparently forcing him to invite BJP to form a government in spite of not having a majority in the lower house.  The apparent timeline of the changes in the petition Congress was planning to file in the SC – going from pleading that the single largest party should be invited to form government to challenging the invitation to the single largest party because it turned out to be BJP – was political opportunism at its best.

The only institution that managed to beat that was the SC itself.  I am not aware of any legal theory that will justify the SC’s judgment after assembly election in Goa in early 2017, in which it refused to intervene when the BJP and its allies staked claim to form government in spite of Congress being the single largest party, and its judgment after assembly elections in Karnataka this week, in which it allowed the governor’s decision to invite the single largest part BJP to form government stand, in spite of it not having the majority.  During BJP’s reign at the center, SC’s reputation as an independent institution has taken a beating due to its apparent bias in allocating judges to various benches, revolt of four of the senior-most judges, and the impeachment motion against the Chief Justice of India.  However, this blatant flouting of its own legal precedent set a little over an year ago takes the cake.  The serial offender status of the executive branch against all other democratic institutions is only getting stronger under Modi’s leadership.

And that brings us to those for whom the entire system is set up: We the People.  As they say, democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.  We should not have any illusions about the pros and cons of democracy, but in the record-breaking turnout of little over 72% in the Karnataka state elections, only about half of the urban voters in Bengaluru seem to have voted.  Having spent an year of my life living in Bengaluru working in the high-tech sector, I have lost track of the number of young, highly educated, and restless wannabe changemakers who complain about traffic, power cuts, lack of running water, and a million other issues.  This ‘If only’ism of the educated class rings hollow if they are not willing to perform their fundamental civic duty of voting.  In our twisted education system, one might be forgiven if he or she does not understand the consequences of not voting until graduation from college.  Generations of Indian techies have grown up studying only physics, maths, biology, management, or some other technical subjects in colleges; civics and history being relegated to boring and irrelevant high school subjects.  However, after entering the workforce, it should not take long to connect the dots between lack of adequate infrastructure and governance.

The fact that all political parties and candidates are equally corrupt is not an excuse.  After a prolonged struggle against the establishment, civil society has managed to get ‘None of the Above’ or NOTA on the ballot.  If majority of voters consistently choose NOTA, political parties will be forced to nominate better candidate.  It might also encourage people from other walks of life to run for public office.  There is no excuse to not voting.

As a culture, we also seem to yearn for a strong or decisive leader instead of strong and independent democratic institutions that will outlast any leader.  It is shocking to observe the number of well-educated people finding nothing wrong with majoritarian rule.  If BJP has won a simple majority, the thinking goes, it has earned the right to trample on all other institutions and impose its socio-cultural worldview on everyone else, rule of law be damned.  Instead of being concerned about the eroding separation of powers in our constitutional democracy, they seem to be interested in discussing the next Indian start-up attaining unicorn status and forwarding messages about the AI-enabled capabilities of Google Duplex to book haircut appointments.  Perhaps they are already dreaming of a world in which robots, with their abilities to analyse personal data, will automatically figure out their political leanings and vote for them.

We get the government we deserve.  Where is my bucket of overpriced popcorn?

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#metoo, Psychology and Technology

Ever since Gretchen Carlson, a former Fox News anchor in the United States, filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against Roger Ailes a little over an year ago, the #metoo movement has gone global.  At least in the United States, big names in Hollywood, politics, and other spheres of life have been forced to resign or disappear from public life, and rightly so.  It is a watershed moment in our public discourse about gender issues and I will not be surprised if history ends up looking back at Gretchen Carlson as the Rosa Parks of the anti-sexual-harassment movement.  Given the historic suppression of women’s voices in this debate, the discourse has naturally been dominated by them.  With the kind of abuse of power documented in the media, men have had very little to say.  There was an occasional hashtag like #notallmen trending.  A few French feminists had started pushing back against broad generalizations and a hint of vigilantism in the #metoo campaign, but it all changed when the Aziz Ansari story, narrated by ‘Grace’, was published last weekend in Babe.  This is still treacherous territory for men to open their mouths, but here are a few thoughts that came to my mind as I read the piece related to Ansari and the worldwide reaction to it.

‘Grace’ was disillusioned when she discovered that Aziz ended up being different than what she had imagined him to be based on his books and his public persona.  Other than an occasional YouTube video, I am admittedly not familiar with Aziz’s body of work.  However, with a little bit of writing and film making experience under my belt, I can say that it is natural for humans to put their best foot forward in the public sphere.  Andre Malraux, a French novelist, famously said ‘we are what we hide.’  That characterization might be the other end of the spectrum, but a quick jog back through one’s memory lane is enough to convince anyone that intimacy and secrecy go hand in hand.  This is especially true in the case of men.  Women routinely discuss intimate details of sexual encounters with their girlfriends, but men do not bother going beyond who, when, where, and a few other basics.  A vast majority of conversations about sex among men begin and end with ‘Did you get lucky?’  Unless a girl happens to know a guy’s ex-girlfriend, it would probably be very difficult for a girl to know how the guy is going to behave in the bedroom.  Trying to infer it based on his books or public appearances seems like a stretch to me.  Once again, this is not an attempt to absolve Aziz of his alleged wrongdoing.  If a man is ignoring verbal cues, that is clearly crossing the line.  On the flipside, if people start sharing everything about their personal lives and preferences in public, that will be the death of intimacy and there won’t be anything left to imagination.  One-night-stands is a different story.  If that is what ‘Grace’ was seeking, what happened to her was bad, but it could have been much worse.  If ‘Grace’ was looking at Aziz as relationship material, perhaps a slightly slower approach by gauging each other’s personalities in person would have made sense.

Secondly, first date is when intimacy begins.  Or used to begin.  Having grown up actively participating in the PC – internet – email – messenger – smartphone – texting transition, what struck me was the pace at which human interaction has changed, particularly as it relates to dating.  I came of age in the 90s and it would have been odd, if not preposterous, for a girl to show up at a guy’s home based on a chance meeting at a social event and a few follow-up text messages.  Granted, it was Aziz Ansari, a guy who had built a reputation of being a feminist.  Still, meeting for a coffee or a drink in a public place would have been the norm just a decade ago.  Meeting someone face-to-face vs texting is like playing ping-pong vs chess.  When you are having a face-to-face conversation, you subconsciously and reflexively reveal a lot about yourself by the way you react to the other person’s comments, primarily because you don’t have the luxury of time.  Unless you are a fan of long and awkward pauses, a long one-on-one conversation is good enough for the other person to know whether you veer toward aggressive vs contemplative, romantic vs practical, and sweet talker vs geeky.  Going back home to take it all in used to be part of the process.  Texting as a means of getting to know someone robs us of this opportunity to gauge how the person from the opposite sex will behave once the clothes are off.  There are no guarantees, of course, and I am aware of the fact that I sound like someone nostalgic about a bygone era.  However, having studied a bit of engineering and psychology, and worked in the cutting-edge start-up world, I believe that the speed of innovation and technology adoption is so maddening that we, as a society, have no time to take a step back and assess where we are headed.  It is not an attempt to blame ‘Grace.’  Rather, I am wondering whether we are willing to pause and think about what technology is doing to our senses and instincts, which were developed and perfected through centuries of evolution.  Almost every piece of technology has impacted human behaviour and the society at large, but we have also had the chance to analyse the pros and cons of it.  In the last decade or two, we seem to have attained escape velocity, or are at least dangerously close to it.

Lastly, at a philosophical level, it is probably worth wondering what our definition of an egalitarian society is as it relates to male-female relationships.  The commentary in India seems somewhat skewed because this is truly the first generation in which women are joining the workforce in a big way.  Beyond the metros, it is still a thoroughly patriarchal and feudal society.  Anyone who has read Richa Chaddha’s poignant take on the relevance of #metoo to India knows that it will take at least 2-3 decades for an Indian Average Joe to develop awareness and a vocabulary regarding the issues at hand.  After the sexual revolution and women’s empowerment of the 1970s in the United States, it has taken Americans 4-5 decades to discuss consent and workplace harassment with enough nuance and arrive at this moment of catharsis.  In fact, through my decade-long stay in Red and Blue America, I interacted with a lot of empowered women who are perfectly fine with the traditional male-female dynamics as long as there is no abuse.  They still like men to open doors, ask them out, pay for dinners and drinks, propose, and prefer playing the housewife knowing that they can choose their preferred career path.  Western Europe seems to be a step further in the sense that women prefer to split the bills, single parenthood or live-in relationships are not stigmatized, and the gender gap in the workplace seems to be much narrower than in the United States.  And yet, I have not met too many European girls who would prefer asking a guy out or making the first move behind closed doors.  It is hard to generalize in such intimate matters, but as long as the guy has to take that risk, stopping at the first sign of a verbal cue sounds like acceptable behaviour on the first night.  There will almost always be a grey area in which both are trying to figure out what each other’s comfort zones are and how to read the non-verbal cues.  The question is: What is right and wrong in that exploration phase?

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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


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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