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11 December 2007

Indian Railways: An Anachronism

The Indian Railways’ act of using signal detonators (crackers) about a quarter kilometre away from outermost signal points to warn train drivers of approaching stations and yard’s staff of incoming trains under foggy conditions is a ludicrous anachronism in this high-tech era. The news comes in the wake of a recent Press release by the Railways that talked of a laser technology to be developed jointly by IIT, Kanpur, the Research Design and Standards Organisation (RDSO) and other industry partners on a “fog vision instrumentation” project, which will allow trains to run unhindered in foggy conditions.

This is nothing impressive. The largest public sector employer has never suffered from a dearth of ideas. But converting science into practicable technology has always been a problem with it. Browsing the documents of the Commission of Railway Safety, one comes across a plethora of ideas for safety that were either not implemented at all, or were meant only for privileged trains like Rajdhani Express and Shatabdi Express, or were used for experimentation in limited distances within a Division and rarely extended to the rest of the country.

It seems a clear case of glossing over public safety concerns when the files of four committees formed for the purpose in the past -- Railway Accidents Committee (Kunzru Committee) in 1962, Railway Accidents Inquiry Committee (Wanchoo Committee) in 1968, Railway Accidents Enquiry Committee (Sikri Committee) in 1978, and Railway Safety Review Committee (Khanna Committee) in 1998 -- did little more than gathering dust in Rail Bhawan. At the same time, the allocation for the Railway Safety Fund, instituted in 2001, keeps increasing in successive budgets to fund engineering fancies that produce nothing more than pilot projects.

Despite recommendations, old tracks stretching up to more than 10,000 km are not renewed, hundreds of “distressed” bridges remain without reinforcements, more than 1,000 stations are found not to have replaced their overaged signalling gears, more than 1,000 vehicle units are seen running with coaches almost crumbling due to age, and ageing wagons of four-wheeled units run in thousands, as per most bi-monthly safety audit reports. This dismal picture notwithstanding, if there has been a declining trend in the number of accidents from 351 in 2002-03 to 195 in 2006-07, the credit goes to manual vigilance by Railways’ workers, toiling as hard as ever without Government enabling them with adequate technology.

The ‘crackers’ are just one example of Government’s callousness, which is an eyesore considering that, first, the Indian Railways has been patting its back for realising a fiscal ‘turnaround’ for a couple of years. Second, the purported leaders of this change are being invited by one management institute after another where they are supposed to decipher their mantra of ‘success’ to an audience of starry-eyed students.

It will be interesting to hear how the ‘gurus’ explain the awkward paradox when an MBA undergraduate asks them next time if resorting to crackers is the height of ingenuity or subscription to obsolescence. Up to 1.7 lakh crackers at Rs 65 apiece is not even good economics. This funny technique, discarded by the leaving Britons in 1947, demonstrates Indian Railways’ lethargy to innovate and disinterest to implement modern methods of transportation -- to the peril of the harrowed Indian passenger.

26 November 2007

The Joy Of The Precocious

{Excerpted from my autobiography}

An immense hunger for knowledge that about a dozen of us had ensured that we kept ourselves abreast with the latest that was happening around the world not in the fields that comprise matters of general knowledge interest, but ones that the students learn reluctantly.

We found mistakes in the suggested academic curricula. We suggested improvement in teaching techniques. In the third quarterly issue of the school magazine, Panorama HCS, for which I was entrusted the task of editing, I brought in features – like interviews and debates – that were hitherto inconceivable for school-goers. As teachers from Kerala were slowly replacing the European ones, we feared our perfect Surrey accent would go for a toss. When the brown mem-sahibs came to know of our consulting the ex-English teachers at their homes, a sense of inferiority got the better of them.

The school library was a favourite spot for unwinding. Curiously, our relaxation too was fuelled by exploration of the unknown. I spent hours learning techniques of derivation in mathematical formula-making and soon stopped learning new formulae completely. It did take me a minute or two more to solve sums, as compared to those who knew the applicable equations by rote. I was nevertheless ready to pay that price for the sheer joy of discovery I got from derivations.

I can now recollect two particular incidents of Standards VII and XI where I had put the teacher in a soup. In the first case, a sum gave us the annual income of a person and asked us to find how much he earned per week. I was the only person to get it right though mine was the only one to be marked wrong. Many divided the amount by 52; some, first by 12 and then by 4, or straightaway by 48. Those who followed the first method scored full. The second got 3/4th of the allotted score. I didn't even get a zero. In its place was rather a poignant remark: "You think too much!" I had first divided the amount by 52 and 1/7. Then I went on to provide a second solution in case the year concerned was a leap year. In the second solution, the divisor was 52 and 2/7. (52 weeks means 364 days. In non-leap-years, the 365th day was considered 1/7th of a week. Hence, two extra days of a leap year made 2/7th of a week. Therefore, the divisors had to be 52 & 1/7 and 52 & 2/7 respectively).

I was surer than what The Bible is in saying that Adam and Eve were the first humans on earth, that my method was perfect. That evening I complained of the matter to father.

Baba was the most doting father on earth. To him, I couldn't ever go wrong. If I did, he would look the other way (Ma was a contrast. She persecuted me even when I was right). This time, I was right too. Baba didn't heed to Ma's advice that it didn't look proper carrying the child's complaint to the teacher. That month he strictly issued a dictum to Ma barring her to attend the Parent-Teacher Consultation Day. He went instead.

Ms Celina, the maths teacher, must have never had such a harrowing debate on maths with a parent. I blushed out of embarrassment as Baba asked her about the fastest ways of reaching answers in things as banal as ordinary multiplication. Though such things are wrongly left out of syllabus in Indian schools, the teacher should have known the techniques. Unable to keep pace with Baba's Vedic mathematics, poor Ms Celina broke down. That was enough for Baba to understand he had crossed the limits of propriety. As such, putting the teacher to shame was never my intention. I just wanted her to give me the score I deserved; the new total would give me my lost first position back. Anyway, we both apologised and I never got those 'marks' that were rightfully mine.

The other incident relates to the concept of angular velocity. This was in Standard XI. As the physics teacher noted that the formula was as simple as linear velocity divided by the radius of revolution, I asked why she ignored that the thing revolving was on earth, which too was revolving. The answer was simple. The dynamics of a macro system never affects its infinitesimal fraction. In case of the earth, since the planet rotated and revolved along with its atmosphere, therefore within the setup, there was no relativity. And I am sure the teacher had the answer. But my rising from the seat would invariably cause her nervous breakdown. She stammered and fumbled for a while and finally yelled, "You need not exhibit your extra intellect during the regular class hours!"

One day in Standard IX, Surendra Kumar Akela and Chandravikas Srivastav fought for the entire duration of the lesson with the teacher of Hindi on the pronunciation of 'committee'. Ms Sushma Srivastav, the teacher, had pronounced the word as 'Cuh-May-Tea' as north Indians do. But she did not get bogged down. Instead, that turned out a very interesting lesson on how and why English words' phones change in different places around the world.

Kishun Prasad was not satisfied with the explanation that blue was blue as the object concerned absorbed rays of all other wavelengths but reflected the blue. He would ask why the object was so partial to the given colour!

But far more than queries of academic interest, it was our unique brand of politics that threatened the school authority.

It is generally seen in major political movements that a mass uprising results in the fall of a regime. That mass movement, in turn, is facilitated by the growing of unity among the general class of people. And as and when such a phenomenon takes place, the ruling class gets jittery of the outfall. We, the students, had no such intention of toppling any authority.

What triggered a sudden unity amongst the students of Standard VIII were some lessons in our Hindi textbooks that caused an upsurge of values like nationalism and friendship. Suddenly nobody was complaining either to parents or to teachers about the misconduct of a classmate. Suddenly there was a self-styled governing body of ours that decided on rights and wrongs of each one of us. Parental guidance and tutorial guardianship became redundant. The parameters were not only iconoclastic, but also absolutely radical. So far so good. The problem started when we widened the purview of jurisdiction and started judging everything from what our parents cajoled us to do, to what the school management dictated.

It should be a pleasure seeing your children imbibe high morals. But the fact is that the teachers and parents are mere mortals. They have their own share of faux pas and blunders. More bluntly speaking, they do not adhere to the norms that they impose upon the children; and they will never like the children pointing that out to them.

And that is exactly what we did. I spearheaded that movement and thus was the foremost to enrol myself in the bad books of guardians. The line of demarcation between motions of unity and movements of politics could not be seen or appreciated by the elderly. They thought we would soon get affiliated to political parties and start a union in school. But we were very clear on that account. We hated politicians from their very looks. Our fight was for the betterment of students and hence there were no separate inter-class or inter-school lobbies indulging in squabbles. All students were ONE.

What took the happiness out of teachers was the election of the school council of 1986. Prahlad Rao Chetty, a classmate was shoved by the physical trainer for being a bit outside the queue to the polling booth. Five classes – that made about 12 sections with 30 students in each – boycotted the election in protest. The electoral event turned into a damp squib.

The obsession of Indian elders for keeping children under control put us in the bad books of both the teachers and parents. I topped the blacklist for my straightforwardness. It was not that we hid our misdemeanours. In fact, as and when any of us was at fault, we would meet outside the classroom, discuss and reach a judgement that the given student was wrong in whatever he had done; and he was forced to confess, apologise and voluntarily ask for punishment. But this couldn't satisfy the school authority. They wanted to keep the judge's chair to themselves. Self-discipline did not suffice.

Holy Cross was a rare school that not only inspired students to participate in activities other than the regular academic curricula, specialists were appointed to turn the students into pros. From the music teacher to the physical trainer, every recruit was far more expert in her respective field than average schoolteachers are.

We were also given another rare education: Marketing. Whenever certain commodities were needed for the school, we were exhorted to organise events to raise the requisite funds.

In 1982, Bokaro saw load shedding for hours on end. A massive generator was needed to keep the classes going in our four-storey 'A'-shaped building that had sections A – D each in KG I, KG II, Std I, … Std VIII; one class each from Std IX to Std XII; besides laboratories, sports and other accessories' rooms. We decided to hold an exhibition to sell the handicrafts we made that year and included many interesting games for the general public at our playground. The proceeds from the event far exceeded the amount needed to buy the generator. The balance was spent on equipping the stage of our auditorium with seven microphones, a good addition to the three we had earlier. That in turn enabled us to deliver dialogues even in whispers when the scene so demanded during plays; and what was supposed to be drama virtually became as natural as cinema during the cultural extravaganzas.

Such added education and calibre that we developed gradually made us known in the entire city. While walking on the streets, we could hear onlookers whisper our names with admiration. Every year our identity changed. We were Napoleon, Nelson and Bishop in the years that English plays were staged. We were freedom fighters and even terrorists in the years of enactment of Hindi plays.

Then there were students who had the enviable record of standing first in successive years' class-graduation examinations. I had a strange record in this regard. I stood first and faired miserably according to my whims and will. One fine morning, I might find history fabulous and spend a month learning more about Adolf Hitler than what his mother knew about him. Another month a buoyancy of appreciation for Archimedes could float my fortunes in physics. A third month I would put a Euclidean notice on the bulletin of our classroom: "He who does not understand Geometry need not enter!" A fourth month I would just not care and somehow manage to pass in the exam. Studies since Standard VIII has been a child's play for me. That had two pitfalls: One, I often lost interest and hence, my academic record was not consistent. Two, I could not finish my entire formal education before I completed my 25 th year on earth. Depending on the quality of teachers, tutorial tools and course materials available, studies were either too interesting or outright monotonous. In the second case, I would invariably refuse to turn a page for months and think that was that. No more studies.

Back to the school-life between Standards VIII and XII.

In due course, many of us acquired larger-than-life stature in the society we lived in. I cannot deny an element of vanity that crept into our psyche at such adoration. We forgot our age and thought there wasn't anything left to be seen in life; and that we knew as much as the elders and could draft our destinies thereon.

On the positive side, we heard teachers lamenting the fact that ours, the senior-most batch and the most promising one at that, was soon going to leave the school and migrate to other states for higher education. On the negative, we heard, "Who the hell they think they are!"

This gradual ascension to being the prime bête noire was to my peril when eventually in December 1988, I had to be judged on a controversial issue. A docile chap in my place would have got a far more lenient reappraisal.

21 November 2007

"Bihari Hai Kya?"

“Dream Girl” of yesteryears Hema Malini was, in January-February, in the eye of a storm for reportedly asking the migrant labour class from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar — it’s funny, they are referred to pejoratively with the respectable address bhaiya — to leave Mumbai for ‘home’. It must be her personal opinion as none from her party, the BJP, seconded her ‘motion’, though some said she was misquoted. Her concern, if it may be termed so, is however not uncommon among Maharashtrians and people from other parts of the country eking out a living in Mumbai. This is a bogey often raised by the Shiv Sena too. It would do Maharashtrians a world of good if they stopped looking at Gujaratis with envy and Biharis with disgust. Why not compete with them with entrepreneurial skills and hard labour respectively?

Those averse to the bhaiyas forward a specious logic of economics to make their grievance sound authentic. They say these people mostly do not have identity proofs. Obviously, they also don’t fall in the tax bracket. Further, the slums they live in are notorious for theft of electricity.

Time and again studies conducted by energy-sourcing companies have marked factories as the biggest thieves of electricity (that the rich are the biggest tax evaders, too, is a foregone conclusion). But since these factories also help in the country’s substantive economic growth, it will be interesting to know how many Bihari baiters think that against each progressive act, one is permitted to commit a peccadillo, if not a crime!

The palpable aversion for the Hindi-speaking migrant labour class is more of an anti-Purvanchali feeling, if any. But not too many people outside Bihar and Uttar Pradesh are familiar with the term Purvanchali. The loathing has much to do with the dominance of these two States in the country’s politics for about three to four decades after Independence though even then the economic growth of much of the rest of India was more impressive. The ministerial politics in New Delhi kept being dominated by MPs from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar even as the labour class from their constituencies went into a mass exodus out of their birthplaces. Before PV Narasimha Rao became Prime Minister, it was often opined in the media that the post of the highest executive was reserved for Uttar Pradesh! So, is the juxtaposition of any pre-1991 Prime Minister from Uttar Pradesh with a bhaiya from the State an apt analogy for the quintessential slum next to a five-star hotel in the country?

North Indians may argue that most Prime Ministers from UP have been the Nehru-Gandhis, implying Kashmiris, though they were elected from UP. That does not matter. Where a candidate gets elected from dictates which part of the country benefits from that politician's governmental measures. It is the equivalent of Rohan Gavaskar playing for West Bengal in the Ranji Trophy to get the advantage of zone-wise quota system in the selection for the Indian cricket team. In this analogy, Maharashtra does not benefit though a Maharashtrian does.

Much as the erstwhile Fundamental Right, Freedom of Movement, cannot be disputed — an Indian has a right to live and earn a living anywhere in India — the political class of a large part of north India cannot disown its failure to facilitate industrial growth and thus generate employment in the region. History of labour movement around the globe shows that the working class has always been reluctant to leave its native place and hesitant to set foot for an alien environment initially, no matter how lucrative the employment scenario of the latter appeared from a distance. So, the SP and RJD head honchos, instead of demanding the scalp of Hema Malinis of India, should introspect and be ashamed of the state they have dragged their States down to.

Unfortunately, even a proven official record of intellect hasn’t helped Bihar. The State’s bragging of an enviable record of students successfully clearing the IAS preliminary and mains exams has not elevated the State’s people in general public esteem. The ubiquitous languid, paan-chewing Bihari-accented civil servant in safari suit has only institutionalised, rather oddly, the work ethic of people from that region of the country and has incensed the antipathy for them in the rest of India. So much so, in the National Capital Region, the term “Bihari” is now virtually an expletive. Sample this: In Delhi even when a non-Bihari person behaves awkwardly, or fails to follow what is apparently simple, it may be seen that none other than a Bihari thunders at that person thus: “Bihari hai kya?” What an ironical insinuation!

Curiously, Biharis cement their own stereotyping. Many years ago, my teacher of Sanskrit, a Bihari himself, had taught the class: Hari is someone who does haran (stealing/kidnapping); and one who steals a lot is a Bihari! I am sure the word is derived from one of the appellations of Lord Krishna, cutely infamous for stealing butter from all Braj households. But the Bihari teacher had not explained so. It is my interpretation.

Next comes the question of public education through mass media. If needed, journalists should not shy away from pointing fingers at people at large when correctives aimed at the political class alone do not help. Bengali columnists of late are commendably describing the flaws in the community’s beliefs and practices especially in The Telegraph and The Statesman. Premen Addy paints bleak pictures of self-congratulatory Bengalis in The Pioneer. If there is something essentially wrong, maybe anti-modern, in the ethos of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, scribes (mainly reporters; there is a phenomenal Bengali presence among editors) from these States being so prevalent in all media houses will be the politically least incorrect to tell their bhaiyas (respectable) the dos and the don’ts.

Risking a backlash, I may make a point: Stereotyping virtually runs in the Indian blood. If a “Bihari” (according to prejudiced eyes; he may actually be from any of the three other Hindi-speaking States) is being persecuted, other linguistic communities are not spared in Bihar either.

From 1975 to 1989 as a child and then a teenager in Bokaro Steel City which was then in Bihar, I along with children from a sizeable Bengali population had no option but to gulp down many a slighting limerick aimed at identifying our group as a bunch of meek scavengers. One of them was: “Sadal machhli, geela bhaat, Bangaliya mare lamba haath (Bengalis feast on rotten fish and stale rice)!” Accepting the not entirely untrue accusation, the supine Bengalis — the term ‘Bong’ was not coined back then, I guess — lived in fear of being heckled and manhandled to let any excesses committed by the native class go without protest.

Objectionable acts by the natives were many: They started with innocuous acts like not letting Bengalis have their indispensable afternoon siesta in the weekends by occupying their terraces and gardens by force so that Bihari children may play and women knit sweaters and indulge in gossip there. Irrespective of education and profession, Bihari women folk littered the walls of our houses with cowdung cakes and men spat so frequently when outdoors, it raised a terrible stink. There were more serious crimes like evicting Bengalis and “Madrasis” — there were hardly any Tamils in Bokaro; the name-calling was aimed at government employees from Andhra Pradesh — from their legally owned land. Except in extreme cases like murder, the local police station, a few buildings away from my father’s government quarter, refused to accept FIRs lodged by non-Biharis against Biharis.

Being identified as a non-Bihari was so scary a proposition, we all picked up Bhojpuri and Magahi dialects to mix with the milieu incognito. Learning any language is a great educational pursuit. But learning it at gunpoint (figuratively) is living the hell.

Bengalis are treated normally everywhere in India, sporadic offensive name-calling for them notwithstanding. But that is not the case in Bihar and Jharkhand. It did not happen to me because in conduct I was more Bihari than many Biharis themselves. It happened to all other Bengalis and people from Andhra Pradesh (whom Biharis called MADRASIS). In large parts of Hindi-speaking regions, mostly in eastern UP and Bihar, also in parts of cities nationwide where people from those regions are the most populous, no matter how long you live with them just like natives, when you are not around, in common references, you are called a Punjabi, a Bengali, a Gujarati, a Lalaji, a Panditji, etc… all parochial/ sectarian addresses. Nobody cares for the name your parents had given you, the name that is so dear to you, the name that is not merely a name — it is a symbol for emotions that you grew up with from your mother’s lap. But among the Purvanchalis, that emotion is unfashionable to be appreciated. Much as you may be Moinak or Venkatesh, in Bihar, you are a BUNG-AH-LEE or a MUD-RAH-SEE!

That reminds me of the language issue. Many Indians are today well versed in the written form of Queen’s English. Our accent, rightly and non-apologetically, remains Indian though. However, there is something called SIE (Standard Indian English) accepted worldwide today. Easier still should be the accent used for Hindi; choice of words may vary in Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar. As far as the English diction is concerned, people of India may be divided in two broad categories — those from an English school background and the rest. Normally, where a speaker hails from can be easily figured out from voice’s intonation and modulation when he or she belongs to the second group. But why is it that only in the case of Bihar, most people from English schools too have a heavy regional accent? And why is it that they seek pride in refusing to modify the accent of their Hindi as well?

The reason that language needed a mention here is the fact that it is a kind of an individual’s outfit. With due respect to the mantra of “unity in diversity”, in any society, mainstreaming those who sport a distinct look or sound becomes difficult. That may not be how it should be; but that is how it is.

It is to be noted, however, that the intellectual record of UP and Bihar is indeed impressive. The sad part is that it is elitist. That is why the exalted nature the language of Maithilisharan Gupt, Ramdhari Singh ‘Dinkar’ and Surayakant Tripathi ‘Nirala’ dims in comparison to the crass nature of language of common Hindi speakers. Unlike elevated Hindi literature that is confined to lecture sessions inside school and university classrooms, standard Gujarati and Punjabi literary work (belonging to the States known better for their entrepreneurship skills and rich farming communities respectively) is read by commoners in Gujarat and Punjab.

Back to people of UP and Bihar, the knowledge of Hindi among Hindi speakers is so pathetic, I — a Bengali, generally known to be horrible in Hindi — have to correct their errors in office and in the neighbourhood as much as in the language-based communities I own in orkut. Yet people of the region think being unwashed is highly romantic! As an alibi they say that if your language is proper, it indicates you may be a crook within!

They say the miserable knowledge of hindi owes to the fact that actually Hindi is nobody's mother tongue. People of north India have rather spoken Bhojpuri, Magahi, Maithili, Bundelkhandi, Khadi Boli, etc. Then, why not strive to make these dialects graduate to the standard of well-regulated languages?

There is a more serious indictment of the people of Bihar. Stand at any of the railway reservation counters in Delhi. Passengers travelling eastward by train ask if it is possible to get a train that does not pass through Bihar. Can this be wished away as unwarranted stereotyping?

If Lalu Prasad Yadav’s regime turned Bihar into a living hell, why couldn’t any regressive government in any other State push its region so much backward? The experiences I have related above are those I had when Bihar, let alone the rest of the country, knew little of Lalu.

19 November 2007

Fight Information With Information

From the issue of cloning to publication of research in journals to intelligence tests carried out on various peoples to reproductive health, a brigade of 'conscience keepers' springs up to protest something it does not understand fully

Cloning is now a hot topic of discussion in the fora of medical ethics. Prof Ian Wilmut of Edinburgh University, who gained celebrity status and attracted criticism equally for cloning the first mammal from an adult cell in 1996, has decided not to pursue a licence to clone human embryoes which he was awarded two years ago in favour of a method pioneered by Prof Shinya Yamanaka at Kyoto University, Japan, who has managed to create stem cells from fragments of skin in mice without using embryos.

A UN report called last week for efforts to ban reproductive cloning worldwide after a US research team reported the first-ever cloning of a rhesus monkey whose embryo was cloned from adult cells and then grown to generate stem cells. 'Moralists' fear it is probably a question of when -- and not if -- the first human clone will be born!

How much the media is now scared of moralists was witnessed when Nature published last week the news of the creation of stem cells from cloned monkey embryos. The journal took the unprecedented step of inviting an independent third party to validate the paper before publication. It then published that validation study alongside the original research by a US team at Oregon Health and Science University. Normally, scientific findings are only validated by third parties after they are published. Peer review, the checking of the paper itself by relevant experts, is usually the main form of quality control before publication.

In 2005, the journal Science retracted a study by South Korean scientist Professor Hwang Woo-Suk, who said he had produced cloned human embryonic stem cells. The scientist later admitted he had faked his data. Nature must have tried to avoid the kind of embarrassment Science had to meet.

In another question of medical ethics, our Government had banned sex determination tests on foetuses for the fear of female foeticide without much public debate on the issue in 1994. Yet, the scourge continues in semi-urban parts of the country with impunity. What is ironical, the "girl birth deficit" is more common among educated women. Clearly, these "educated" women and their equally "educated" husbands are halfwits. Their partial information needs to be addressed with full information on the implications of their gender-biased act. Alas, for their diabolical acts, those parents who are ethically educated cannot know the gender of their to-be born baby, a useful piece of information in the preparation for parenting.

One common factor that misses the ethics brigade in each case is that in this age of liberal communication, no science/ information, ethical or otherwise, can be blocked from the public domain. It will find a way -- among scientists through slips of the tongue during talks between peers and the lay people through Internet -- to sneak in. Therefore, the only possible redressal mechanism is to fight abuse-prone information with useful information.

And then recently, my op-editorial article in The Pioneer, “Nothing racist about it” (October 31), led to heated exchanges between some readers of the newspaper, with one set saying IQ tests were drafted with malafide intentions of White people and the opposing group questioning why then Mongoloids would be judged to have intelligence superior to the Whites and why pointing out the dominance of the Blacks in athletics was not racism.

It is pertinent to note that while a research that is accused of being biased takes years or decades to accomplish, all that the ethical brigade has to do is write a polemic article from the comfort of one's living room without any rigorous fieldwork.

In case of protests to cloning, how many protesters know that the human body has been cloning naturally for ages? A clone of cells refers to the descendants of a single parental cell. As such, adult organisms can be viewed as clones because all their parts stem from a single cell -- the fertilised egg. Likewise, many tumours are clones, derived from one aberrant cell that no longer obeys the normal rules of growth control. Offspring of organisms that reproduce asexually, like corals, are also clones, as are identical twins produced by the natural or deliberate splitting of an embryo.

In the past, every time there has been news of cloning, a whole lot of people, without second thoughts, have cried, "Immorality! Gosh, the world's now going to be filled with 'copies' of individuals." Little do such protesters realise that the unfertilised eggs of all mammals accumulate a supply of proteins and the means of making more protein as they mature in the ovary of the mother. This way, the egg brings with it a larder for the embryo to make use of until the embryo's own genes become active and supply these things for itself.

Further, the sheep embryo does not start to depend on its own genes until the 16-cell stage, four cell divisions after fertilisation. In contrast, the mouse embryo gets off to a very quick start, becoming reliant on the activity of its own genes after just the first division when the fertilised egg becomes two cells. The human embryo is thought to rely on its own genes after three cell divisions, when it comprises eight cells. So, going by the nature of the reprogramming in each species, cloning mice and humans is difficult to sustain.

Unfortunately, the judiciary too hasn't been found informed while deliberating on medical ethics. Take the recent Ghosh vs Ghosh divorce case in the Supreme Court for instance. The apex court, in its March 26 verdict, said, "if a husband submits himself for an operation of sterilisation without medical reasons and without the consent or knowledge of his wife and similarly if the wife undergoes vasectomy (read tubectomy) or abortion without medical reason or without the consent or knowledge of her husband, such an act of the spouse may lead to mental cruelty."

The error corrected in the parentheses couldn't have been a typo. The judge should have known that the term "vasectomy" is derived from vas deferens, the sperm-carrying ducts that connect a man's testicles to the penis, which is snapped by surgical means. So how on earth can a woman have vasectomy?

This glaringly flawed entry in its ruling apart, the court also ruled that a refusal to have sex with one's spouse and a unilateral decision to not have a child would also amount to mental cruelty. This ruling overlooks the fact that insistence on the consent of the spouse often prevents a woman from accessing safe abortion or sterilisation. In a study among rural women by Gupte et al, women said that the most important criterion in abortion services was that the husband's permission not be insisted upon. In a study on sterilisation services in Chennai, it was found that "informed consent" is akin to ignoring the woman herself.

It is impossible to fight the progress of science either towards genesis or nemesis, and foolhardy to thwart an individual's freedom. So let scientists fight scientists and information fight information.

13 November 2007

Kolkata: A Cultural Shock To A 'Probashi Bangali'

[Caution: The use of Bengali expletives could not be avoided in some parts of this article for the sake of an authentic feel of Bangla, in which street language, I observed in course of my life in Kolkata and visits to some suburbs, is indispensable. Readers are advised discretion.]

Relevant portions of my e-mails to friends will be added towards the end of the blog (after Anjan Dutta's lyrics) from time to time

naqsh faryAdI hai kiskI shokhi-E-tahrIr kA?
kAghazI hai pairahan har paikar-E-taswIr kA.

[naqsh = a drawn impression
faryAdi = appealing
shOkhI = style, coyness
tahrIr = writing
kAgh'azI = made of paper, fake, useless
pairahan/pairAhan = outfit, clothing
{kAgh'azI pairahan/pairAhan = plaintiff's dress
pairahan/pairAhan kAgh'azI hOnA = be a plaintiff (in an old Iranian tradition, one who came to the Shah to appeal against some injustice done to him would hang from his neck a sheet of paper, sometimes containing the written complaint, before presenting himself in the court so that he is easily identified as a complainant}
paikar = body, embodiment (of something)
taswIr = photograph, portrait]

Mirza Asadullah Khan 'Ghalib' was for the first time invited at the court of the last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah 'Zafar' II. Ghalib's poetry, as such, was highly philosophical, far ahead of his times. Given that the audience would be connoisseurs of poetry, Ghalib chose the best from his collection (the above couplet) to impress the gathering. But alas! In a type of assembly of poets where it's a convention to treat each verse with overt encomiums, not a single soul moved in appreciation. Ghalib's parlance was beyond the comprehension of his contemporaries.

Ditto my fate in Kolkata in 1989 and in the newspaper The Pioneer in 2005; hence the analogy.

The City's Appearance:
And you thought Bengalis were intellectuals? The following picture will show how much they are subjects of a herd mentality. Certain things about Kolkata do not show an inclination to (or a desire for) change -- narrow roads, for example. The administration has got so used to the sight that even when they get empty expanse of fields (the Sonarpur region beyond Garia, south Kolkata, for instance), they build 12-feet wide roads on them. Barring the stretch from Minto Park (Shahid Bhagat Singh Udyan) to Esplanade East, Salt lake and some other pockets here and there with multi-storeyed apartments, the rest of Kolkata looks like one big, stretched Middle India township: Most houses are never repainted; you may see moss and weed along the edges of most walls. The houses with broad windows are box-like, atop three or four step staircases. Manually pedalled rickshaws honk about in the bylanes of every neighbourhood. Mosquitoes trouble you even in broad daylight. Auto-rickshaws are not taxis; they take you up to a distance of five kilometres maximum...

As for the people, the young are certainly no longer miserly. But outsiders find the old antiquated; when a non-Bengali visits Kolkata and meets me on coming back, he laughs at the old folk walking about in dhuti-panjabi with a KC Pal brand chhata (umbrella) in hand -- whatever be the weather condition.

Once A Holy Cow:
Nevertheless, in the pre-1989 years, for us, the Bengalis detached from our land, Calcutta was a mother a child refused to hear censure of. I remember the almost 14 years I lived in the Hindi hinterlands as unpaid advocates of our El Dorado, Kolkata, a word only a Bengali can pronounce properly. A mere mention of disapprobation of the city by a non-Bengali, and Sandip, Soumen, Tridib, Bidyut, Partho and I would pounce on the violator of our holy cow.

Admission In College And Society:
Well, that was that. My voyage to Calcutta (not rechristened 'Kolkata' yet) began with the treachery of none other than a Bengali – Sandip Kumar Mitra. The snub I received in the Trandrima episode and the subsequent lower-than-potential fare at the AISSE exam was not enough for Sandip's sadistic satisfaction. He came back from Calcutta in July and (mis)informed me that the admissions to the colleges there had not yet begun. I believed him.

When I finally landed in the city in August, I found that almost all the colleges I'd aimed at were through with the admission round. Only pass courses had vacancies. The first disgusting figures came in the form of paan-chewing clerks of the University of Calcutta whom I had to humour to get past the migration formalities. From south of the city where I was living with my uncles to the north where the university campus was, I was made to run from pillar to post, facing interrogation of the type only criminals are subjected to by sub-divisional clerks for whom the opportunity knocked only once a year to wield the baton of authority. And they wielded it on hapless future citizens of tomorrow.

There was another unwritten code of conduct I saw the city dwellers adhered to. Those without grey hair had no right to speak. Whichever professor Jethu (elder brother of my father) and I met chose to speak only to the former keeping me out of the conversation. This was not plausible given that Jethu hardly had enough information of my educational details that far. I used to take him along only for his familiarity with the place and its people. Whenever Jethu chipped in a wrong piece of information and I had to step in to rectify it, the oldie would fume, "Badoder majhe katha bolchho keno? Tomar dhrishtota to kam noy!" (How dare you intervene when the elders are speaking!")

Towards the end of an evening, fatigued with questions that had nothing to do with academics, we trudged along into a small college situated in the midst of the only part of the city that looked like a city. It was Acharya Jagadish Chandra Bose College on the street known by the same name, though the appellation 'Lower Circular Road' sounds more familiar to people of that place. The building with its two storeys was no bigger than the shed where our Holy Cross sisters (nuns) used to keep their beloved Australian Jersey cows.

The Language:
Yet there was something appealing about the ambience, besides the razzmatazz that the area is associated with. After a long time, I was hearing students speak English that I considered English. The Bangla had no influence of Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay's archaisms that the Bengali-medium students of south Calcutta were seen very fond of. This college's was the Bangla we spoke in Bokaro.

While speaking, where we would say tai (so), the Calcuttans said sutorang and ato-eb* as if it were a mathematical sum they were dealing with. We said, "Jaboi" (I'll certainly go); they said, "Albat jabo" (I'll but go). We were not used to adou (pronounced 'Ah + though', means 'at all') while expressing doubt in a negative statement. Then there were expletives (curiously, Calcuttans think the word 'slang' means 'expletive'!) that were new. Boka choda (idiot) was the only Bengali cussword I knew of. On asking, Ma used to be unduly boastful in her sectarianism. She had said we, the Bengalis, were too civilised to use expletives in common conversation. After living in Calcutta for four and a half years, however, I realised Bangla had more un-parliamentary words than all the seven Indian languages I knew, combined. Khankir chhele (son of a bitch) was a new one. Besides, there were permissible words with the suffix choda. This could even be a compliment. For years, friends have called me a sati-choda (pious, maybe sanctimoniously).

[Sanskrit: Sutorang – sutah = the preceding (linked) theory + angah = (establishes) the body; this conjunction means 'therefore'. Ato-eb – Atah = henceforth + ewa = this alone; this means 'hence'. (In Latin, QED => 'quod erat demonstrandum', as is used in geometry at the end of the proof of a theorem)]

However, there is a lesson for other Indians in the Bengali usage of objectionable lingo. They are seldom uttered in quarrels. It is between friends that they find maximum usage. And no one minds. Once I asked my friend Partho how unbecoming it would be of me to call him 'son of a bitch' when I regarded his mother so highly. He asked me to keep "my brain at home" while in the company of friends and "while in Rome, do as…!"

The general English too was odd. Friends asked, "Where do you stay?" as if my house was a travellers' inn. When I said I lived in Naktala, they did not understand I was correcting them. In the rest of India, there were schools of two types: one where English was the medium of instruction; and the second where students were taught in one of the Indian languages. In West Bengal, if I had to make it clear that every word my teachers used was English, I had to say I was from a "convent". Though Holy Cross was really a convent, it was not what Calcuttans meant by the word. According to them, a non-convent was one where the medium of tutoring was Bangla although the textbooks were in English! 'Career' was pronounced "kay-rear", and 'problem' was "praw-lum".

The idea is not to poke fun at Indian English. Regional accents are too heavy in every State of India. But with prolonged exposure to English literature, films and civilisation, the influence reduces to a bare minimum. In south India as well as in Punjab, it is the ones from regional language schools among whom awkward pronunciation is commonplace. Among Biharis, almost everybody maintains his rustic accent despite many of them boasting of Westernised education. Bengal's case is different from both the scenarios.

It would not be entirely true to say that the oddity remains despite "convent" education. In fact, the odd phonetics is rather induced by the so-called convent education! This owes to the fact that Bengali teachers teach with an authority. Students, however reckless outside the premises, are epitomes of obedience inside classrooms. And mostly, a Bengali, one of the most travelled Indian, seldom travels to live out of Bengal. His travel is limited to tourism, an aspect that does not open all the windows to external civilisations. There is a popular joke among the travel agents of West Bengal: Bengalis only visit DIPUDA! On hearing it you may wonder who Dipu is. Nobody. It's the acronym of DIgha-PUri-DArjeeling. The point is, owing to Bengalis' travelling but not living outside the State, Bengal for long will remain, well, Bengal.

In AJC Bose College, for admission into the mathematics honours batch, I had to face an interview. Simple questions were asked. But the fatigue of the arduous day was too telling. I could not answer most of them. The outcome then was obvious. I couldn't make it to that college.

The Academia:
Two days later, I came across the biggest prejudice of academic Calcutta. On the bulletin boards of all colleges, notices declared that the "marks" of immigrating students would be subjected to a deduction of 20% of their aggregate score before being considered at par with the local chaps. Logic? One, the Central Boards were considered too lenient with "marks"; and two, they were also considered sub-standard. My Kolkata-fantasy was waning. The mother I'd always considered my own was turning out to be my father's concubine, my step mother. I call it his concubine because years of drubbing thereafter did not kill my father's fascination for Kolkata. A duly wedded wife, feminists say, does not enjoy such trustworthiness of her man.

The ignominy that had come with the Standard XII incident had wrecked my educational zeal. It had already ensured that I did not score well in my baccalauréat. With the score I was left with after a further reduction by 20%, I did not stand a chance of getting into a respectable college.

Many years later, in 2004, I was glad to see myself in the company of a rare species: objective Bengalis. One article after another published in The Statesman was peeling the mask off the face of the eulogised bhadraloke. And all the writers were Bengalis, many born and brought up in the very Bengal they were critical of. Let me cite my Op-Ed article, "Lord shave the queen!" that was met with dozens of letters of vindication by readers:

A way came out eventually as I was finally allowed to speak and I managed to convince a professor of Ashutosh Memorial College that I had some understanding of maths but was too drained out mentally to score well in my "Boards". He agreed to a provisional admission into the honours course. The condition was that I would be in the rolls of pass course and would have to appear for a test within a month. Provided a few already admitted students opted for other colleges after the second cut-off list was released, I could sneak in. I agreed. I had no option.

That evening, slapping myself to avoid mosquito stings the Tollygunge (as also Behala) region of the city is infamous for, I was such a relieved man. A pittance appeared godsend after the severe toil of three weeks. Those days in the editorial page of the Anandabazar Patrika, I read of similar experiences of many other fellow-immigrants (read 'refugees') in their own country.

The Political Society:
When there is a court case that hasn't reached a conclusion for some time, the party to the dispute that owes its allegiance to the Left Front Government, mainly the CPI(M) (the party that heads the coalition) approaches the Nagarik Committee of the neighbourhood for an off-the-court settlement. Thereon, the comrades force the other party to accept the ruling which they arbitrarily hand out. This is no hearsay. This has been my and many other Bengalis' experience. Obviously, you wouldn't have experienced any such difficulty in Bengal if you are positioned politically at the side of the self-styled arbitrators.

Who votes for whom is known in every locality in West Bengal. You don't have to be Sherlock Holmes to figure that out. Any individual's/family's anti-Left stance spreads by word of mouth like wildfire. What follows is a kind of ostracism, making it clear that your living in the State thereafter will be difficult at every step. One day you will find your vehicle smashed. Some other day when you return from an evening walk, you will find all the window panes of your house broken. Another day, somebody will beat up your child while he/she is on his/her way back home from school. On yet another instance, somebody will kill your pet and leave its blood-splattered body at your verandah. Almost everyday, some guys ambling on a rock/rowak (Bengali colloquial term for the steps to a single-storey house) will catcall when your sister or wife ventures out of home... And yet, none of these gutless anti-social elements will appear in front of you all alone to throw a challenge.

The Amorous Society:
Nonetheless, amid all the frustration, there were two signs of coming of age, literally. One of those days, a bus conductor addressed me with an "aapni", the veneration equivalent to the egalitarian 'vous' of French, that I had found an adult alone received when addressed by another. That night I asked my mother if I'd begun looking grown-up enough. An otherwise ordinary incident was so elevating because I was used to a world where children were slaves of their parents. I gleamed with the hope that finally I'd have a say in the world's scheme of things.

The other phenomenon was just short of an aphrodisiac: Hordes of young men and women were seen moving about with the arms of one locked in the other's. To a poetic child in love with a dream-girl Anamika, who, it appeared, could only be fancied but never realised, a light appeared at the end of the tunnel. I was very pleased at the sight of freedom, the freedom to love and be loved. I thought my days of falling head over heels for a girl were in the offing. And that could happen in the very college I would spend the three following years. For a moment, I deliberately became unmindful of the fact that mathematics scared the hell out of women and that the chances of finding a girl, let alone one of my liking, in my batch were slim.

Jane Austen's Bengali Plot:
Back from the humdrum of the academia, in the contemporary society, I saw another noticeable change. It was an extension of the Indian form of democracy. As we have a nominal head, the President of the state, and the real one, the Prime Minister; in Bengali households, there was the father and the mother.

It seemed as if the moment a child gained consciousness, the first lesson the mother gave him was that his father was the biggest idiot in the world. In almost all family feuds I was a witness to in Bengal, the father appeared vastly outnumbered. In every quarrel, the children sided with the mother and the father was ultimately made to kneel down. Be it a macro issue of which school the child should study, or a micro one like whether a refrigerator or a television set needed to be bought first in a family of limited income, it was the towering matriarch who had the last laugh.

There is nothing objectionable in that. The problem starts when this matriarchy tears apart the fibre of Indian culture. Here, 'Indian' has a loose definition. Yet it translates more or less as conservatism.

Elsewhere in India, a father leaves home with the unstated (yet understood) assurance that the child is in the safe custody of his/her mother. Not in Bengal. All that a youth has to do to go wild in Bengal is to return home before the father does. And the mother will never let him know what misadventure the youngster has been into. So much so, the 'Young Turk' does not even have to leave home to be reckless.

If you are a man/ boy, call up your girlfriend and ask her whether she is alone at home. If she says she is with her mother, do not get hassled. Go there anyway. Have 'fun' (read 'sex'). While you are in the act, the girl's mother won't even peep into the room. She would further ensure no one else does. It is even easier if you are well established in the society to offer the mother the assurance of a rich jamai (son in-law). The girl here is a mere trap to ensnare a potential son in-law. And she need not be bothered of the boy's ditching her, as it is generally the man that is victimised in urban Bengal.

Welcome to the other England: Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. And Austen, a woman, could not have been a male chauvinist to create such a mother character in her epochal novel.

In various societies that I have lived in, I have always advocated the right of individuals to choose their life partners; if that has sometimes meant going against the wishes of the parents and society, so be it. In Kolkata, I was dumbfounded while fighting this social war as I didn't know how sincere the young people were whose battle I had to fight sincerely. After years of courtship, few pairs ended up getting married. Something would go horribly wrong days before the wedding date was to be finalised. Not that I found individuals loyal to their partners in Delhi, Mumbai, Vanves, Paris, London, Glasgow, Sydney and Melbourne. But certainly, the urge to project oneself as an epitome of religious purity is ubiquitous and all-pervasive only among Bengalis (For one, many Bengali middle-aged and old people still associate sari and denim with two different, immiscible and mutually conflicting cultures). So, all the episodes of liaisons of one's past are tucked away in the mind's attic while getting married to someone the person does not love after falling out of grace from the one who was the love interest till yesterday. Many years later, when truth unfolds, the lives of several individuals -- the couple and pre-marriage partners of the man and his wife -- are wrecked all at once.

My objection to this is on several counts. First, as usual though parents generally object to the child's choosing his/her own partner, the child concerned does not give two hoots to their concern. This shows that he/she is not a traditional person. However, for some reason when the relationship fails, the person reverts back to the same poor old parents whose views the 'child' had discarded outright once, and plead, "I am in grave trouble, please bail me out of this soup!" And then the parents, considerate of their child, quite unscrupulously catch hold of an unassuming chap with a clean history to bear the dodgy fellow's burden for the rest of his life.

But why is it a burden? Simple: A person who has had a failed relationship is normally left with a lot of bitterness and the spouse has to virtually play the role of a psychiatrist at home to counsel him/her for every little move in life.

Secondly, such people have a very poor opinion about the opposite sex just on account of one wrong person of that sex he/she had encountered in life. Thus, no matter how good the intentions of the spouse are, he/she is always a prima facie suspect; and it takes too long for him/her to prove he/she is a nice person.

Then comes the question of identifying with a certain mould of your belief system. A person who depends on his/her parents to fix a matrimonial match is traditional. One who does not could be called modern. But what would you call a person who first refuses to heed to the caution of his/her parents but eventually seeks the refuge of the same two persons to save him/her from society's censure? An opportunist, of course. He/she has had as much fun as the adventure of 'love' could offer; and then had to resort to tradition for the sake of security in future.

In case of boys/ men, if you are in wrong company and your father comes to know of it and bars you from bread, tiptoe into the house when he is not around. Your mother will lovingly feed you and ensure your route to escape.

The mother knows everything the child is into merely a few days after his or her going astray. The father comes to know of it only when there is an emergency. Maintaining a façade of discipline in front of all and living the devil within surreptitiously happens day in and day out until one day either a crime in case of a boy, or unwanted pregnancy in case of a girl, brings facts to the father's notice. The poor chap then has to unleash all resources at his disposal to bail the wretched child out. Otherwise, he is no more than a money-churning machine, doing a nine-to-five job, unmindful of the hell that has broken loose at home.

The roots of the oddity that was apparent to me as I was from the Hindi Gangetic belt go deep in evolutionary anthropology. Punjabis and Bengalis are unique. They are Indians but not historically. From the physical appearance it is too evident that people of the two regions are progenies of crossbreeding. While Punjabis are result of Central Asians fornicating with Indian women slaves, Bengalis have come as a result of hybridisation with various Mongolian tribal people, chiefly the Burmese, Burma being the neighbour of undivided Bengal.

And the Mongoloid society to the immediate east of undivided India is a matriarchy. With the genes from the Burmese as well as Indians, Bengali men are neither as macho as the Hindi-speaking Indians nor do they stay in drunken stupor as Burmese and Thai men do at the cost of their womenfolk, who must toil hard for a livelihood.

In my first office, Computer Point, Calcutta, and the current one, CMYK Printech Limited (the company that publishes The Pioneer), New Delhi -- both workplaces with an overbearing presence of Bengalis -- bosses don't rapproach but scold the subordinate staff as if the former were an annoyed father and the latter his spoilt brat. If Bengali men are seen yelling at each other in offices; and beating up their children black and blue when back at home -– as I'd mentioned in the second chapter of this autobiography (from which I have copy-pasted to create this blog) -– it is an aftermath of the frustration of losing the authority to their wives in crucial domestic matters.

Misplaced Concern For Health:
Decades of economic recession and the culture above have taken an inevitable toll on Bengalis' health and psychology. Here are some excerpts from my recent article on hypochondria(sis). (Just the other day a fellow Bengali from Delhi observed, albeit with some exaggeration, that 50% of women in Bengal have lost their uterus and the rest have lost their appendix!):

It happens to two classes of people: One, who are not able to engage themselves enough in constructive work and, two, amateurs in medical science.

The first class of people while idling around indulge in various useless thoughts, one of which is a compulsive niggling notion that something must be wrong in their body. It is, therefore, a major problem in those regions of the world where unemployment is a widespread phenomenon: Erstwhile socialist countries in Europe, a major part of Latin America and the State of West Bengal in India.

But hypochondria does not spare the prosperous people either. There, the victims are casual students of medical science. While being initiated into physiology, these amateurs read about various diseases and tend to take the reverse route to analyse their health. That is, they first read the symptoms, then recall their environment and physiological history, tally the third with the second and the first, and infer, wrongly, that one of the diseases mentioned in the books must have afflicted them. It is this reason that turns many Americans, Britons and Germans hypochondriacs.

As consumer awareness is high in these countries, and medical service falls in the ambit of consumer rights, lay citizens are given an elementary idea of various common diseases, their causes, symptoms and treatments. While this makes some people health conscious, others turn hypersensitive to possibilities of ailments...

But out of the two kinds of hypochondriacs, Bengalis are the worst hit. For them, it is a vicious circle where the first reason (decades of recession in West Bengal) augments the second (health consciousness). It is a rare phenomenon to come across a Bengali from the State --
probashi or non-residents are a breed apart -- who does not complain of ambol
(indigestion). If the listener is unlucky enough to be caught unawares by a Bengali hypochondriac, a larger health bulletin will follow, and a gamut of gastro-enterological ailments will be listed.

Regular visits to the local physician, right from his childhood, gives a Bengali a fair idea of names of a plethora of diseases and drugs. This, rather than keeping him alert of impending health crises, keeps him preoccupied with a phobia of diseases. He is obsessed with bodily functions and interprets normal sensations (heart beats, sweating, bowel movements, etc) or minor abnormalities (a runny nose, a small sore, slightly swollen lymph nodes, etc) as symptoms of serious medical conditions...

[A poem I had written in Urdu on 11 Sept 1998]
ai bin kinArE kI nAmurAd kashtI,
lutf-e-gh’am hai sirf tErI Ek mastI !

dUr sE bas gh’arIbI kA nuqs pAyA,
pAs sE dEkhA -- lagI har chIz sastI !

sIĐhiyOŇ pE baiThkar bEkAr laĐkE
’aql yUŇ bAŇTE ke jaisE kOI chishtI

ghar mEŇ bAp kOsE, mAŇ rOyE din bhar
muhallOŇ mEŇ bETE kI fAqahmastI

Ek taraf ’Alim-O-fAzil kE woh majmE’
Ek taraf har shakhhs kI woh tangdastI

communist bhI pUrI tarah nahIŇ hai tU
ghar ghar mEŇ dEkhI hai maiŇ nE butparastI

kuchh ‘guru’ jinkI taswIrEŇ dIwArOŇ par
lagA, unhEŇ bhagwAn samjhE sArI bastI

yAd kar tawArIkhh tErI aur sharm kar
khhAkistar kyOŇ ban gayI tErI woh hastI ?

kAmyAbOŇ pE fiqrA kastE kastE
Aj talak sudhrI nahIŇ hAlat khhastI

jinhEŇ talAsh-e-manzil hO woh yAŇ kyOŇ ho ?
rAh mEŇ bEmurAdOŇ kI lagI gh’ashtI

galiyOŇ kO kyA kahUŇ dil bhI tang tErA
miTTI yUŇ ke dIwArEŇ har roZ dhastI

tErE a’lAwah kaun tujhE shahar kahtA hai ?
hAi bastI, hAi bastI, hAi bastI !

Just in case some Marxist pseudo-intellectual calls my assessment of Bengal the rant of the bourgeoisie, I submit hereunder the lyrics of a song written by Leftist lyricist-composer Anjan Dutta, which paints no less grim a scenario:

আকাশ ভরা সুর্য্য তারা, আকাশমুখী সারী-সারী
কালো ধোঁয়ায় ঢেকে যাওয়া ঠাসাঠাসি বাক্সবাড়ি
এখান থেকেই চলার শুরু, এখান থেকেই হামাগুড়ি
এখানটাতেই আমার বাসা, আমার বাড়ি

১২ তলার অপর থেকে ১২ বছর কেটে গেছে
ইস্কুলটা যাওয়া ছাড়া নামা হয়না মাটির কাছে
শোবার ঘরের দেওয়ালটাময় হাস-মুর্গী অনেক নাচে
তবুও নানার চোখের ভেতর কোথাও যেন কান্না ভাসে

সেখান থেকে একটু দূরে, একটুখানি এগিয়ে গেলে
একলা থাকেন নন্দীবাবু, বন্দী সে যে বয়সকালে
সংসারটার হাল ধরেছে বখাটে তার ছোট্ট ছেলে
এক কাপ চা দিয়ে গেছে কখন জানি সাতসকালে
রেডিওটার ব্যাটারিটা হঠাৎ কবে গেল ক্ষয়ে
খাটের থেকে নামতে মানা, বুকের ব্যথা গেছে সয়ে
নীলিমার মা তাইতো যে আর ভাবেনা সংসারটা নিয়ে
এঁদো গলির সেঁধো ঘরে সবই কেমন বয়ে গেছে
এখানটাতে আটকে পড়া, এখানটাতেই ঘুরোঘুরি
এখানটাতেই আমার বাসা, আমার বাড়ি

চৌধুরীদের একুশ তলায় মদের নেশায় ঊঁচু গলায়
ঝগড়া চলে গভীর রাতে, লাজ-লজ্জার বাঁধ ভেঙে যায়
কোর্ট-কাছারি অনেক হল, হলনা যে ছাড়াছাড়ি
সন্তানটি আঁকড়ে ধরে গভীর রাতের মারামারি
সেখান থেকে একটু দূরে, পাড়ার মোরটা একটু ঘুরে
অলি-গলি পাকস্থলির ভেতর কারা গুমরে মরে
বলি হল আরেকটা প্রাণ - মস্তানদের ছোড়াছুড়ি
এখানটাতেই আমার বাসা, আমার বাড়ি সারি-সারি

চিলেকোঠার বারান্দাটা বন্ধ কেন জান কি তা?
এখান থেকেই লাফিয়ে পড়ে লাহা বাড়ির অনিন্দিতা
গভীর রাতে তাইতো কেউ আর ওঠেনা যে অদের ছাদে
অন্ধকারের বন্ধ ঘরে কারা যেন ডুকরে কাঁদে
সেখান থেকে একটু দূরে, ছাদের পাচিলটা ঘুরে
এক চিলতে রোদ্দুরেতে ছোট্ট মেয়ে নামতা পড়ে
তাইতো কালো ইঁটের ফাঁকে বটপাতাটি জিভ ভ্যাঙচায়
পাড়ার নেড়ি বাচ্চাটাকে মুখে করে হাটতে সেখায়

এখানটাতেই আটকে পড়া, এখানটাতেই ঘুরোঘুরি
এখানটাতেই আমার বাসা, আমার বাড়ি
আকাশ ভরা সুর্য্য তারা, আকাশমুখী সারী-সারী
কালো ধোঁয়ায় ঢেকে যাওয়া ঠাসাঠাসি বাক্সবাড়ি
এখান থেকেই চলার শুরু এখান থেকেই হামাগুড়ি
এখানটাতেই আমার বাসা, তোমার ভালবাসার বাড়ি


A letter to an old-time friend from Kolkata who now lives in Mumbai. I had compared Kolkatans' promiscuity with Mumbaiites' using the film, Life in Metro. The lady fumed, outraged, just as June has done in her comments to this blog. So I had to clarify more:

... ... ...
First, BPOs were unheard of in the 1990s when I saw Kolkata. Second, in the film, Life in Metro, three characters were from a call centre, others were not (therefore, it wasn't a call-centre culture on show, but Mumbai's culture on display). Third, why just zero in on one film? Watch all of Rituparno Ghosh's Bengali films -- mostly real life portrayals. Paramitar Ek Din is a case in point. Kolkatans and Mumbaiites may not agree, but this is anathema to the larger Indian culture: I have never seen among any other linguistic community a grandmother (Aparna Sen) having a secret lover (Soumitra Chatterjee), whom she helps to come out of a financial rut and the old hag accepts the money day in and day out shamelessly.

It's not one or two or three... I have seen them all over the place in Kolkata and its suburbs. Show me one -- just one Bengali boy in Kolkata -- in his late teens who does not drink. And then show me how many of their parents know that they drink. Every year during the Durga Puja, before and after I started drinking, I found hordes of boys looking for a hideout to drink -- in deserted houses under construction, in the Dhakuria Lake (Rabindra Sarobar), in Maidan, in Victoria Memorial's lawns behind the bushes... where not? Then they would mouth a fistful of Pan Parag before leaving for home to suppress the smell or wouldn't go back home at all.

Next is the high frequency of boys who frequent Sonagachhi -- I do not expect you to know this. They are mostly students from Bengali medium schools and colleges, frustrated at the sight of their English medium counterparts, whose lives appear glossy from a distance. One such gang (of which my best friend Parthasarathi Ganguly was a part) had challenged me that I was plain sanctimonious, and that I too would "enjoy the experience" when I am there.

A year had passed since that challenge was thrown at me. For a few months, I would be very wary whenever, along with Partho, I was taken to any old locale of the city. I had this much idea that Sonagachhi was in old Kolkata, but I hardly knew the city then. I would, on the sight of old houses in any locality, rush out of the bus and run for life in the opposite direction. Later, I would be laughed at by all members of that gang.

But in a year I almost forgot the challenge of Rs 100 (that was a big amount for students like us) thrown at me one day inside a park by Partho. Snehasis and I had stated vehemently that he could never take us to Sonagachhi; Partho insisted somehow he would manage.

That year during the Durga Puja, as in the previous year, we hired three taxis to see all the main Pujas in the city. Inside the taxi I was a bit drunk when it drove to Sonagachhi. But soon I realised where I was. As the rest disembarked, Snehasis and I refused to get down. They went away and came back with two pimps and a whore. By then, we had locked the car's doors from inside. They started banging the door. The rear window was lowered. They tried to pull Snehasis out as he clutched my hand as a last straw.

After a while they must have thought that energy was better spent in sex. So we were spared. About an hour later, they re-emerged from the stingy lanes, too exhausted to resume the fight. But before that I saw a plethora of known people emerging from there -- a few among them had supposedly had a happy married life. Many of them were held in high esteem by me till that moment. That gave me an inkling that I could remove the masks from the faces of many more 'gentlemen'.

In the next year, Partho went there at least twice (that I know of). I followed him in another taxi without his knowledge and stopped in front of the petrol pump of Chittaranjan Avenue (that's the spot from where Sonagachhi begins). And as suspected, I saw more people known to me emerging from the brothels.

My interactions with Partho gave me an eye to identify brothels. And then I realised Kolkata holds a world record, maybe second only to Bangkok, in this regard. Sonagachhi is hyped. To an extent Boubazaar and Kalighat are known. But among the less known, but far more populous, are the narrow lanes somewhere tucked between massive houses in almost every locality -- from Garia to Dum Dum. They used to solicit sex from rickshaw pullers, bus drivers and daily-wage workers for a price as low as Rs 20 per session back in 1991-92.

As the city became more familiar, I found every ground and park to be extensions of the above brothels: They were the 'playgrounds' of the unregistered whores. During my college days, in the evenings we would go to one of the grounds for adda when we would run out of all the latest films that were released that week. Not a single evening passed when we were not approached by prostitutes.

Mercifully, with my constant rapproachment and counselling, Partho eventually stopped visiting brothels. I am thankful to him for at least one more thing: He opened the windows to the dark side of the city that I would have otherwise not come to know. As I have written in Shailesh Vora's (an orkut friend) scrap, nobody in the city admits to it.

Then comes the aspect of falling in love (or imagining to have fallen in love) at a premature age. Most of them do not culminate in marriage. It is not that I never craved love. I did. Very much so. But whichever girl I met in Kolkata was found to be 'booked' after a few conversations. And yet a few months later, we would come to know that the girl concerned did not get married to the boy she was often seen going around with.

There are three aspects that facilitate the above scenario, none of which apply to Delhi. First applies to Kolkata: Decades of economic deprivation. A young man who couldn't get himself a job for five years, who is heckled by his father and grudgingly tolerated by his mother, who is looked down upon in the neighbourhood where he lives, must hunt for happiness. And that 'happiness' is offered by whichever girl is ready to oblige him.

The second applies to Mumbai: Though everybody appears sporting in nature, there is a detachment that separates each one from everybody else. "Abhi dhande ka time hai" is the common refrain. No time for developing relationships. The void this creates in each individual's life is filled with sex. In this case, sex is a compromise for love.

The third factor applies to Kolkata again -- what I wrote in the last section of "Façade of intellect": Most fathers have lost their authority at home. They are merely sponsors of the family. When a girl meets her puberty, it seems her mother has got back her own lost youth. She tickles her daughter's mind to get into a relationship sooner rather than later. Then, as and when a boyfriend steps into her life, the mother often arranges for their rendezvous surreptitiously, without the father knowing it. Only in extreme cases -- positively, when there has to be a marriage called at short notice, or negatively, when the girl needs an emergency abortion -- is the father notified of the developments.

The uncle of a Bihari friend of mine who lived in Kolkata for 21 years -- and loved Bengal more than his native place in Mithila -- left the city huffing and puffing in fury one night when told by his son that he was going to be married the next day. He said just one thing before leaving the city, dragging the whole family along: " Tuhau Bangali ho gaichhai (You guys too have become Bengalis)?"

It is only in Bengali families where I have seen that in family quarrels, all children side with the mother and shout in one voice: "Baba, tumi kichhu bojho, chup karo!" Now, who told the children that their father is an idiot? Well, that is the first lesson Bengali mothers impart to their children. Indirectly, of course: Every child grows up hearing his/ her mother say the same words to his/ her father during every fight they have.

If you had read the scrap carefully, you would not have freaked. But your love for your native place blinded your discernment. I did say that dubious people abound in Delhi too. But they are very forthright about their whereabouts. Therefore, the probability of an innocent person getting ensnared is slim. A boy in Delhi drinks with his father as often as he drinks with his friends. In so many marriages whose courtship phase I have been a witness to, both the partners revealed whatever was there worth letting the other person know from their respective pasts -- be it past girlfriends/ boyfriends or sexual escapades with others. An aquaintance here, Subhro Dutta, went to the extent of telling the women in his office that he loved his wife very much but wanted to have 'fun' with other women too without any commitment beyond those few minutes in bed. Some women agreed to this open 'contract' and had 'fun' with him. He never pretended he loved any woman he slept with and nor was such a thing expected back from the women gratifying him in bed. This was very much unlike the KK Menon's character in Life In Metro.

Of course, I must add a disclaimer here. I have always maintained that I do not like to pass judgements on societies I haven't been a part of, of places that I have toured but not lived. Therefore, what I have said about Mumbai could well be a hypothesis that may be proved wrong if I ever have to live there.

But Kolkata? I'll stick to the horrendous opinion I have about that glorified Dharavi -- a.k.a. Kolkata. Forever.

In 1989, I didn't go to tour Kolkata. I have lived with pain every moment of those four-and-a-half years (September 1989 to February 1994). In 1990, I discovered that my khurtuto bhai (cousin) was no different from Partho and my khurtuto bon (cousin-sister) was no different from the three women I had written about in "Anatomy And History" (a chapter from my autobiography which shatters the myth that a man has to depend on a woman's word to know she is a virgin).

... ... ...
I'll take you to the lower middle class areas of Delhi (like the one you saw me living in, in 1998). See for yourself the purity in every heart and soul. I agree they are not generally intellectual-looking as Bengalis are. They too have dhandas like Mumbaikars have. But they don't forget they have a family while doing any dhanda (work/ business). Of course, I'm not taking into account the gay fashion designers of Hauz Khas, the frustrated, divorced womenfolk of Vasant Kunj and the sex hungry BPO guys of Gurgaon. The Delhi outside its posh localities is much bigger and is the real Delhi. And that is the Delhi I love. And that is the Delhi for which I am in Delhi.

To end for now, here is the lyrics of a song by Anjan Dutta:

akash bhara surjo tara, akash mukhi sari-sari
kalo dhonyae Dheke jaoa ThashaThashi baksobaD'i
ekhanTatei aTke paD'aa ekhanTatei ghuroghuri
ekhantatei amar basha amar baD'i
akash bhara
ekhanTatei amar basha tomar bhalobashar baD'i
(full song already cited above)

(I conclude,) quoting from my scrap to another Kolkatan, another orkut friend:
"ei drishyo protiniyoto Kolkatar protiTi paD'aay dekhe-dekhe abosheshe bitahshraddha hoye 13 bachhor agay tomar shahor chheD'e diyechhilam. abangalider kachhe aswikar korleo tumi ei gaaner katha katokhani sotyi ta bangali mahole (abangalider abartamane) aswikar korte paro?

(Being witness to this sight -- as depicted in the Anjan Dutta song -- so very often in every neighbourhood of Kolkata, I left your city 13 years ago, disgusted. Much as you may deny the truth in the words of the song in the milieu of non-Bengalis, can you, in their absence, deny it in Bengali circles?)"

... ... ...
Kolkatans pan Kolkata every moment and yet are too laidback to revolt. They reserve the criticism for the city as their sole right; no outsider like me dare raise a finger.

12 November 2007

A Piece Of Me

The train was moving as if inebriated. After hundreds of jigsaw-puzzle shaped irrigated fields, thousands of trees and lampposts, millions of rhythmic taps of the train-wheels' on the conjoint tracks and a billion stars in a moonless night, it stopped at a semblance of a station. A ramshackle structure was there, in which an excuse of a government servant, whose designation is a euphemism: "Station Master", was seen serving in odd hours, lest one should say the administration of the country does not work. In Baba's rectangular arms' lock, about five feet above ground level, I descended on what was supposed to be the railway stoppage of a paean-like name of a town—Bokaro Steel City.

It seemed Baba knew the Bada Babu. A child all of three, I used to wonder those days how almost every person the elders came across appeared an acquaintance. After the mandatory niceties, we left along a serpentine way that looked like the parting of hair of an old lady with thinning hair. Far away, tube lights on another street flickered to offer us a better deal than twinkling stars alone could. Every now and then, a snake, I guessed non-poisonous, crossed our way as I stayed safe aloft Baba's crossed arms. In another direction, six queues of government quarters could be seen under construction, exuding poodles of grey without having been whitewashed. Thrown every few minutes from Baba's left over to right arm, and then on to Ma's, I had a bumpy but enjoyable ride to the final house, which Ma said would thereon be our HOME.

Once lowered to the chilling floor, I rushed to the bathroom only to see sand poured over the urinal and toilet. I had the option of rushing out to the backyard. My parents had to clear the mess after all the journey's toil. I could already hear Ma complaining. It seemed Baba had projected a much rosier picture of Bokaro before we got to know that was what the place could become a few years thence. Baba stood with just a leg released from the shoe-sock's clutches, as if planning to denounce the government's audacity in dumping all of us there; and then declaring a retreat to the well-established Bilaspur city we had just come from. Ma went on with the typical feminine repertoire of husband-bashing vocabulary. Baba stood there looking as befuddled as an MCP who finds it too sub-standard to respond to the puerility of a wife's grievance. For me, that place was second to heaven: Vast expanse of wilderness in front of our first floor window gave me the thrill that a painter could get on seeing a blank canvas. I planned to do with the emptiness the next morning what takes city planners decades to accomplish.

Many years later, some fifty bubbly beastly children and an antonym of Charles Dickens' dormitory school gave the township a character that whoever left it for transfer or retirement wished time stopped ticking. But all that will come in due course.

Google's Hesitant Foray

Google's new platform, Android, takes on the might of Nokia's Symbian, Microsoft's Windows Mobile, and Research In Motion's BlackBerry, promising to turn handsets into fully functional PCs. Google must now take the quantum leap

It has been reported that Google, through a collaboration with 33 other companies, is going to launch in two years a Rs 4,000 mobile phone that will replace personal computers completely. Google's spokespersons say that the alliance is targeting Internet-enabled smart phones where the asking price worldwide is closer to $ 200 rather than $ 20.

The Open Handset Alliance will include handset makers, technology developers and carriers, the prominent among them being Qualcomm, NTT DoCoMo, Telefonica, LG, and Samsung. Google will offer up something called the "Android Mobile Software Stack", an integrated family of software including an operating system and new mobile applications.

If you access the World Wide Web on a machine of Dell, Hewlett-Packard, IBM or Apple, the output on screen is more or less the same. But you haven't been getting the same effect on your Motorola, Nokia, Sony-Ericsson or Samsung handset, right? The scenario may be compared with a multiplex versus plasma TV experience; howsoever sophisticated the latter might be, there's nothing like the hall experience.

Google promises to change all that. Microsoft is trying as well. But as usual, the latter has been a laggard in this domain too.

The last PC revolution came about when Microsoft created a user-friendly operating system and coupled the marketing idea, capitalising on a lenient licence-fee regime and forcing all hardware manufacturers to produce desktops that are backward compatible.

Google is smarter. Based on the prediction that while the world will buy about 25,000,000 PCs this year, it will buy 1,000,000,000 mobile handsets in the same period, the company will surely put its money on a product whose unit-sales volume will 40 times its competition.

It's a battle of cultures. Google's business model, mobile and wired, is based on the simple premise that, given the choice, users will prefer its offerings. Anything that restricts that choice -- that locks users into a network, a handset, OS or application -- is an enemy. The mobile world is still gripped by a terrible fear that, given the choice, users will prefer to 'move'.

There's something more about the Google strategy that will be smarter. It won't look for a favourable licence structure. Rather, it will bet on advertising that is going mobile at a terrific rate. No wonder, there is frenzy among the chip businesses to partner with Google to share the ad revenue. Google's "Android", thus, has many takers -- YouTube, Facebook, and Skype -- all of which will be available on any handheld device that runs on the platform. And users will be able to download stuff as and when they like.

Now, this does not mean it's end of the road for handset manufacturers. If manufacturers like Nokia, Motorola, Samsung, Sony-Ericsson, etc cannot dictate anymore to their customers what they can and cannot access through their cellular phones, Google cannot dictate them terms either. The system in place for revenue sharing from advertisements of web-based products - search, maps, social networking applications, video, music, etc -- makes it imperative for Google to strike deals with product manufacturers and service providers alike. Or else, its own products may not be flashed on the screen when a user logs on.

This could mean that when you agree to the terms and conditions -- few bother to read the fine print -- offered by, say, a website, you are virtually agreeing to censorship. Moreover, what the constraints in the terms of service of Android itself will be is not clear.

Also, it will take the juggernaut of the 34-company conglomerate quite some time to get moving towards its market objectives. The already available services -- which India's Airtel, Vodafone, Idea, BPL and Reliance customers will vouch for -- such as downloading of games, ringtones, etc too will be difficult for such a large association to manage as each partner may push for its own brands.

There are more reasons to be pessimist. Early this year, a similar alliance comprising Motorola, Panasonic, NEC and Samsung had tried to engineer a shift towards an open, Linux-based platform for mobile phones. The project bombed.

It is intriguing, therefore, to note that Google, which has developed terrific brand equity by pioneering web services others couldn't envisage beforehand, is shying away from using its name on the new handsets. To do justice to its name, it would have certainly tried better to deliver had it been its own initiative. After all, any web venture carrying the brand Google has seen the light of the day the fastest of all.

Finally, let's not underrate a laptop's capabilities and Microsoft's marketing prowess. Everything said and done, the smartest mobile handset still is, in terms of technology, 15 years behind the science of the best desktop. There's still no monopoly operating system. Instead, there's a three-way split between Linux, Symbian and Microsoft, with Microsoft currently bringing up the rear.

If Google is smart -- and there is some evidence to that effect -- it will strive to develop a lively developer community. That's one area in which Microsoft is better than the competition -- the OHA would do well to note that its rivals are no pushovers. It takes more than just a software development kit (SDK), which Apple is wary.

The stand taken by handset maker HTC, Microsoft's most prominent hardware partner, is, of course, funny. It's saying that it's collaboration with Android does not mean it is no longer loyal to Windows. In the selfish world of business, nobody's believing it.

But before Google scampers for more partners or the manufacturers make a beeline for a "Gphone" known by any other name, Android must prove it works. A sensible year-long gestation period it has asked for has put the worry about compatible products on the backburner.

The mobile world is surely in for a revolution. Google has got the right idea, the right people, both at the right time, to lead that revolution. All it needs now is a little more confidence.

10 October 2007

Serious Or Joking?

The James Bond film, Die Another Day, had a fictitious North Korean terrorist scheming to set the Earth ablaze with harnessed solar energy. Now, some scientists want to use the idea to burn out asteroids rushing headlong towards us. Surajit Dasgupta differentiates science from fiction

Last week, a large section of the popular Indian media was abuzz with the possibility of an asteroid, Apophis, hitting the Earth after William Ailor, director of the Centre for Orbital and Re-entry Studies, Aerospace Corporation, predicted that the collision could occur in 2036 if not in 2029.

Elsewhere, Boris Shustov, director of the Institute of Astronomy, Russia, said on October 1 that the impact of the asteroid, of size equal to three football fields, would cause far more devastation than what the asteroid that hit Siberia in 1908 did. The Tunguska astral event affected 2150 sq km and blasted eight crore odd trees. The force of the impact was about 1,000 times more powerful than that by the atomic bomb the US dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, at the end of World War II and measured 5.0 on the Richter scale.

The scare scenario is significant as Apophis's latest predicted track would bring it about 28,730 km close to Earth in 2029.

What is curious, however, is why the media suddenly found the news so interesting when such predictions are made on a regular basis by different space observatories spread all over the world. Several years ago, NASA scientists predicted that a large asteroid 99942 (Apophis) would smash into Earth in 2029. After more research with readings from Cornell-run Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico -- they had claimed their calculation was "extremely precise"! -- people were assured that Apophis would miss Earth by 169,000 km. Now, is the renewed interest owing to our reduced distance (and hence greater chance) from a catastrophe?

Even if so, the Indian media is a full one month late. From Times to The Economist, most reputed papers in the West had reported the prediction -- and soon rubbished it too -- in September. The history of human discovery of asteroids is much older. And some or the other scientist has been scaring people of impending collapses of these massive rocks on us almost ever since.

On January 1, 1801, an object, initially thought to be a comet, was sighted by Giuseppe Piazzi. But after ascertaining its orbit better, it appeared more like a small planet. Piazzi named it Ceres, after the Sicilian goddess of grain. Three other small bodies were discovered in the next few years (Pallas, Vesta, and Juno). By the end of the 19th century, there were several hundred.

Several hundred thousand asteroids have been discovered and given provisional designations so far. Their diameters range from 1 km to 200 km. Will any -- even the smallest of them are big enough to destroy a city -- fall on us?

Well, the chances of an asteroid colliding with Earth are very small. Hermes did come as close as 777,000 km. But the closest distance of an asteroid's trajectory with the Earth is being perpetually reduced by the observatories almost every alternate year.

And make no mistake about it, if an asteroid has the potential to hit us, the Hollywood-style solution, as was shown in the film Armageddon -- of deep core drillers approaching it from behind, landing on it, drilling to 800 feet, and planting a nuclear bomb in the shaft and detonating it remotely after evacuation -- is likely to be more harmful than helpful.

Instead, they thought in 2004, a micro-satellite could nudge it into a safer orbit. The latest in the series of solutions, which sounds like make-believe, is to thwart the approaching asteroid using, hold your breath, flying mirrors!

A chain of mirrors harnessing the power of the Sun might 'burn' out the huge rocks hurtling towards us. While one may be inclined to dismiss this 'solution' as an inspiration from the James Bond flick Die Another Day, some researchers from the University of Glasgow are dead serious about the project.

About 5,000 mirrors placed at vantage points with respect to each other to augment the reflected solar power could be used to focus sunlight on to the asteroid, melting the rock and altering its orbital path away from the Earth.

The ingenious scheme was devised after a team at the university compared nine methods of deflecting near-Earth objects. The results were unveiled at the Jodrell Bank observatory in Cheshire while observing the 50th anniversary of the launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik I.

The research team compared the mirror technique with eight other methods, including nuclear explosion and -- believe it or not -- fixing a propulsion system to the asteroid! The propeller solution obviously had to be rejected, but the spare time or inclination of some scientists to joke cannot be denied to them. As such, scientific rigour takes much fun out of life. And the nuclear impact theory wouldn't hold, as it would be dangerous to turn the near-Earth space radioactive.

A mass-driver system where material is excavated and catapulted away from the asteroid, would also take too much time. A kinetic impactor which would knock the asteroid out of its orbit, was thought to require the launch of too big a space craft as was the option of using a large craft's own gravitational pull to drag the asteroid away from the earth.

The orbiting mirrors would be used to focus sunlight on an area of the asteroid between 0.5 and 1.5 metres wide, heating the rock to around 2,100 °C, hot enough to melt the surface of the asteroid and create a thrust which would nudge it off course.

The orbit of an asteroid of diameter 150 m could be sufficiently modified by a network of 100 mirrors in a few days. For an asteroid the size of the one believed to have wiped out Earth's dinosaurs, a 5,000-strong fleet of mirror-craft would need to focus a beam of sunlight on the surface for three or more years.

This could well be true. With only ten spacecraft flying in formation, each with a 20 m mirror, a asteroid, the size of which exploded at Tunguska, could be deflected to a safe orbit in about six months. This technology is genuinely feasible and there is no risk from fragments, unlike in the case of impactors. For a 10-satellite formation, a launch mass for each individual spacecraft will be around 500kg. This is a smaller and lighter satellite constellation than, say, the Galileo positioning system, so is well within our launch capabilities.

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Surajit Dasgupta treats no individual, organisation or institution as a holy cow.