Sunday, November 11, 2007

Free Rice

Just today, I found out about this website, funnily called Free Rice, and intriguingly ventured in to see what all the fuss is about. Pretty soon I realised that although it does present itself as a way to have some fun, the ulterior motives are anything but. It is part of a small movement which not only makes people aware of the problems of World Poverty and the everyday fight for survival the world's poor have to live through, but also tries to do its bit in letting the more gifted countries and average joes like us play a part in helping the ones who can't even aspire to a square meal a day.

Online Ration Shop

If you haven't clicked either of those hyperlinks above yet, I urge you to. Free Rice is a really innovative way they have found to help the hungry in the world get some access to food. It presents a simple website that fires vocabulary questions at you, and donates 10 grains of rice for every correct answer. It is a novel concept where you can help even as you pass time and sharpen your linguistic skills. Right now, it's only in English, but I do hope, given how the poverty problem is a world-wide phenomenon, they do support other languages too. If you are wondering why "only 10 grains" and why "do we need to play to donate", they have answers in the FAQ section. Basically, advertisers get to put their logos up next to the questions, and they in turn do the actual donations through the United Nations World Food Programme.

Hunger As A Shock
When one makes it to the parent website, the index page presents itself as a shock-effect (nothing to do with shockwave!). You should see for yourself. But, the core message is that around 25000 people die each day for want of food, and most of them, expectedly, are kids, who cannot bear the anguish long enough to wait it out for the next meal, whenever that is.

It is pathetic when I realise, I just had a plate full of rice myself. There is no corner in my belly that could hold another grain. But, there are kids out there who just don't have the same liberties. Kids who would eat cooked plain rice just like that if they got some, while I crib at Mom for only making a Daal to go with it, and no sabji. It is even more pathetic to see people waste food, throw it in the bins, eat so much more than they need to. I am always proud my Mom taught me not to waste food since I was little, and she would always give me the example of the little kid who was begging at the railway station, who for all certainty, did not get a full meal that night.

How can ONE make a difference?

We have all heard those stories about little deeds that matter, how the sea is ultimately composed of little drops (boond boond se sagar). But I, for one, have never seen it in common practice. At my college hostel, the flattering government's Human Resource Development department showered excesses on us, so that we would have tons of food present itself every day at our disposal. Hundreds of students would stuff their big plates with food, more than they could ever eat. And obviously, throw away that they couldn't eat. Every one of those plates could have fed another hungry child. When my employer started giving away free food, I saw more of the same again. I have heard all kinds of responses when I tried to rebuke them -
"Man, that food isn't any good. Those kids you are talking about, I am doing a favour so they don't eat this and fall sick."

"You talk about poverty! I myself hail from a far-off village. My parents struggle from meal to meal. I think I would know if not throwing this food away made a difference!"

"How can one person like me make a world of difference for the hungry? If I stop, there are others who still go on relentless."

It is truly ridiculous. And to think, these are once again, comments from the "cream" of the brilliant minds of the nation. It's true - when you don't have the problem, you don't realise its seriousness. The noteworthy thing is, when the food was not free, I never saw the same wastage.

Where Does The Food Go?

From individuals onto nations. Such a large part of the Western world is noted as developed, and none of their denizens (picked that word from the vocab quiz at Free Rice!) have to worry about the problem of hunger. I don't like to say this, but it is a glaring fact. I see the homeless here in Strangeland, and they are out on the streets begging, but mind you, a number of them are, to say it lightly, well-fed. I compare this to the beggars back home, and it is distinctly obvious they are begging so they can quell the burning fires in the pits of their stomachs.

I had taken a course in college on "Globalisation and the Modern World" or something like that. I don't remember the name of the course or much of its contents, which is obvious given my profession, and the fact that we were forced to take the course! But, some ideas from the course stuck. One of them was the problem of hunger. makes an important statement on its front page which I had learnt in the course too - "there is plenty of food in the world for everyone. The problem is that hungry people are trapped in severe poverty." Isn't that remarkable? Where does all that extra food go? The rich nations have more than enough food for themselves. But, they bargain to make that extra buck when exporting to the poorer nations. So, a lot of the food rots in storage warehouses. Their own citizens get food on the cheap, and the prosperity literally shows.

There is so much diplomatic politics in play at the global level, that I should really leave that for some other time. But, the bottom line is, no one cares enough for the fact that people, even in this day and age, die of hunger.

The Larger Perspective

It is obvious that the richer nations can do their bit to help erase poverty. estimates that $195 billion needs to be allocated every year to eradicate the deaths caused due to hunger. That may seem a big amount, but it really is only a fraction of the GDP of most of these prosperous nations in question. If only they cared enough about humanity, and not about less trivial issues. Oh, wait, the "Fight Against Terror" has to be more important. It frees the world of "bad people", in the words of the famous Strangeland Kid.

International Aid statistics show that while 189 members of the UN promised to dedicate 0.7% of their yearly income toward eradication of poverty and hunger, only 5 have reached the mark so far. Some of the economic superpowers, have been found to be seriously lacking in their contribution. Take Strangeland for instance. They have managed 0.17% so far. Now compare that to their Military budget - a whopping $532.8 billion. And that does not include spending on nuclear research or, even the spending on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Enough said.

Bottomline again. If only everyone contributed their mere 0.7% share, the world would already be a better place.

I don't claim to be doing anything myself about this. But, I can say for one, atleast I only cook as much as I can eat, and eat everything I cook. I try never to waste my food, in the hope that, the food I saved from wastage, might end up somehow in someone else's plate who needs it more than the garbage bin. Can you do your bit?

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Where Am I?

That was my first reaction when I first heard what was going on right outside my front door - to ask myself where I am. Because this isn't a scene I have witnessed before. I was chatting with my buddy Ashwin, and it was 1am at night here in Austin, and he was surprised when I asked him too - Where Am I? Call me naive, but I have never heard this kinda talk in my life before.

The Conversation

Girl A : comes the birthday girl! And here is her birthday boy, her birthday gift.

Girl B : This is a birthday party? should have told me. I just got a fresh stash yesterday. We could have smoked some pot tonight. Hey, have you done it before?

Birthday Girl : Nope.

Girl B : friend here..what's your name?..

Birthday Girl : Gina.

Girl B : Yeah, Gina, here has never done it before people. Do we still have time?

Boy C : that Cigga-weed?... Ha? ...Ha? How come you are doing it alone. Come on give me some.

Girl B : C'mon Gina. Give it a shot. It's just marijuana. It's clinically approved.

Loud cheers sound out.

What is so weird?

Well, I have never had friends that indulge in such acts. Never. Neither have I ever been in the neighbourhood of such activities all my life. No wonder then that this incident, happening right outside my door, late at night, with some of the people that poured out of the loud, obnoxious party next door, gave me a little shock.

Except at work and at the stores, I hardly interact with StrangeLandians here. Atleast, most of my friendly chats are limited to Indians, and that made me feel I am still in India, to some extent. But, this kinda jolted me back to reality. It's hard to escape this here in StrangeLand, no matter where you live, what with the "fresh stash" apparently available freely.

Is India clean?

With all the overnight prosperity HomeLand is seeing, with bloated salaries and extravagant lifestyles, which is only true of the urban classes, how far can we be from this way of life? A life where your only intention is to live happily, with no consideration to morals and with no attachment to one's culture that parents try hard to inculcate. "What I like, is what I shall do."

With both parents increasingly deciding to take up full-time jobs to support the family's lavish needs, kids are thrust relatively early into life on their own, with no protection whatsoever of the parent's guiding words to keep them away from vices. I have lived in Pune, and witnessed how a mass of young students and highly-paid young professionals exploit their new-found freedom. Exposed to the western way of life on TV, chat shows, tabloids, gloss magazines, movies, they are beginning to discover what they are missing out on, in life. The old adage, "You only have one life" is beaten to death to explain all the vices one will indulge into.

I have encountered people who acknowledge, very openly, that they are into smoking gaanja, or marijuana, right there in Pune. I have heard them talk about finding their way through the police bandobast to get their hands on some "maal" for the weekend. They are even known to make the cigga-weed mentioned above and present it as a cigarette to unsuspecting friends, to help them grow their circle; you know, increase the demand, so that the supply chain stays strong.

Not too long ago, a rave party was organised in the outskirts of Pune, apparently by a drug-dealer, and it lured over 250 youngsters from Mumbai and Pune, all having cash and the will to have a good time. They were rounded up by the cops, and a few kilograms of stuff, a large stack of alcohol, and a couple hundred condoms, were recovered from the site. The worst aspect of this was that a large number of them were under 18. And, where were all the logistics finalised and people invited? The friendly neighbourhood social community - Orkut. No, we aren't too far behind in HomeLand ourselves.

Ok, now Where Am I Going?

I have no right to comment on what people do, and what they shouldn't. But, if there are laws against some activities, and are widely approved, I believe they were meant to maintain order. And to provide security to the innocent little kids who can be dragged into this way of life, especially when there is a parent who isn't keeping tabs on their offspring. Freedom and having fun, is very good. One empowers you and prepares you for the life ahead, and the other, gives life a certain refreshment to keep you chugging along.

But, there is only one end to all this. A shorter life. Losing touch with life itself, and ending up disillusioned about its purpose. Losing your parents, your family, and ending up with friends that do fill up your holes enough, but are only around as long as you are like them - high.

I am worried, and only because I have now seen with my own eyes how HomeLand is transforming. With all the good that is happening in the country, slowly sneaking up, unnoticed or ignored, behind all the limelight, is this evil, the unmistakable side-effect of growing prosperity. I fear for whether my country will end up being exactly what I hate about StrangeLand. I fear we are too quickly replacing thousands of years of heritage with the brash attitudes of the West, instead of letting the natural confluence of the cultures happen to bring out the best in them. Is HomeLand growing too fast for its own good?

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Expression or Repression?

The other day I was reading about another (yet another, really) public outcry in the Islamic nations against a cartoon depicting Prophet Mohammad. Another cartoonist, who either doesn't understand the religious sentiments that are tied to this act of depicting the Prophet pictorially, or doesn't think that anything is beyond his freedom of expression, has "blasphemed". He was so ignorant, that he went to the extent of using a dog's body to describe the Prophet. Free press? A few people laughing? To be frank, I miss the point really. Especially, when there will be a few readers laughing, but a lot more boiling over.

Free Press in the West

The Western world really give utmost importance to the word "Freedom". I don't know how many of them really understand what it means, but they demand it anyway. Honestly, I believe that you don't know what freedom is, until someone has taken it away from you, be-shackled you. What proportion of the Western world can claim to have been there, I am not certain. The press especially though, lives and breathes on this one word. Why not? It gives them the right to conjure up radical images that people want to see, to stir up controversies that no one cares for but everyone wants to read about. It's all about the money, honey. Even something as inspiring and thought provoking as the press, can get its hands down and dirty just to sell a few more copies.

I am not saying the actions of the press are always bad. Their desperate search for a sizzler, so often does make them open a cupboard and have skeletons fall out - skull, bones and dental remains in tow. Politicians are exposed, cruelties come to light, and so often, justice is delivered. But, that of course, cannot always be true. So, just conjuring up something that sells, seems to be the mantra.

Press In India

When I was at school, we would learn in history about the freedom struggle, and how India attained independence from the British. In those days, the press was an astonishingly great force in the way it spread the message of the leaders of the movement for the nation's citizens to stand up as one against the oppression. Readers would come to know about how the incumbent British would try to squash every uprising, the atrocities doled out, the ideas and thoughts of the great leaders who were leading the movement against the East India Company, and they would be provoked into action themselves. It was the single-most largest non-violent movement for freedom the world has ever seen, and the press had a large role in putting that together.

After independence, the press was still respected to a great extent, as it mirrored the progress of a developing young nation that India was. Bringing forth the rapid changes that the nation was undergoing, to the eyes of the avid reader. But, I, having been reading the newspaper since I was a kid, have seen a huge transformation in the mass media. The papers I started out with were really huge spread-outs with a fresh scent that can only come from a fresh newspaper. The really important news could always be found on the front page, and I would quickly scroll through the politics to get to the last 2 pages - my favourite sports pages. I would turn on the television at 8pm to get this lady with a single rose in her tresses and absurdly loud make-up read out the news to the whole nation, and wrap it up in 20 minutes. That was the dose for the whole day, and on the only channel we had back then!

Whoosh forward to the present day. We have more than 20 national news broadcasters on tv, that dish out news 24 hours a day. The newspaper has bloated into a thicker ream, but smaller in size, and more like a tabloid. It has as many pages dedicated to real nonsense grapevine crap, as to the rest of the news I am used to reading since I was little, and still manage a fistful for classifieds and advertisements. News on the front pages reads - "Superstar walks out of jail on bail", "It's official: Rushdie, Padma to divorce", "Sachin: Caught bad luck, bowled Taufel" and "Munnabhai goes to Gandhi's jail". The sports section is now 4 pages long at least, but 3 of those are dedicated to cricket (non-olympic sport, really just a pastime). Occasionally, we see one Sania Mirza glitz one of the articles. And there is a football section which has news which reads like - "Henry divorces wife and Arsenal", "Ashley gifts Bentley to girlfriend".

News that you can use?

I can now blitz through a newspaper in 10 minutes, because nothing catches my eye. Oh, except for the skimpily clad page 3 damsels of course. I missed them as a kid! Even the televised media isn't too far behind. But, who can blame them? They gotto run all day, everyday, and still get viewers hooked. What do they resort to? I like to liken what they do with what a computer geek does when he/she cant crack a software, or break into a website, or solve a problem in a straighforward way. He/she will "hack" in by any means possible - legal or illegal.

The news reporters seem to do that too now. The latest fad is the "Tehelka" way - hidden cameras and setups to corner unsuspecting victims to divulge vital incarcerating information. Political criminals have been uncovered. The casting couch in the film industry became a matter of public discussion. Saffron-garbed sadhus masquerading as social heroes were unmasked and their exploitation of children and women was exposed. So far, so good.

Now, it seems even this has taken a wild and desperate turn with so many news channels competing for the viewer's roving hand on the remote control. A teacher in Delhi was victimised and somehow revealed as a pimp who brokered kids into prostitution. She was beaten up by parents and sent off to prison for 10 days, before it came to light that there was absolutely no evidence, and that this may just be a sham by the "reporter" - a profound setup.

Bring back my newspaper

I just hope the Indian media doesn't go completely the way of the media in the West. Too often, the British media, for instance, is accused of being "star-struck" and following celebrities around. The news coverage in the US is so biased, that it can never be digested by anyone who ventures in from outside the country. Paparazzis abound in the West. Yet, the freedom of expression does ensure everyone has a voice, and that it can be heard out loud to everyone who wants to hear.

But, shouldn't there be limits to everything? Isn't there something which is off-limits? The Prophet Mohammad for instance. Or Hillary Clinton's low blouse during a speech. I just want my clean old newspaper back. Don't let it be this "one fix for all" thing that delivers news, gossip, and crap all in one single place. Oh and titillaton too for those who need that from their morning newspaper.

I go home to Chennai and find The Hindu on the couch in the morning, and it takes me back to the old days. That's how a newspaper ought to be. Everything has its place. Freedom is only good, when enjoyed by everyone.

Friday, July 20, 2007

What You See, Is Not Real

I have often wondered and marveled at this great creation that we call the human body. Nothing though, amuses me more than the human brain, the complex organ that effectively acts as the center of our nervous system, and is the one feature that we all are proud of as it apparently makes us superior to the rest of the creatures on our planet. In fact, the very abstraction of being proud is a figment of our brain once again, isn't it!

Center of control
The more I think about the brain though (who is "I" by the way? Isn't it my brain again?), the more I realize how much it is in control. Of who I am, what I sense, what I think, what I believe and eventually what I do. Why do we trust the brain so much? Why do we trust the signals it senses? Are the sensory organs we own the epitomy of perfection, so much so that all other devices we create for measurement and sensing should be judged against our sensory organs?

If one reads the ancient Hindu scriptures, one can read about Maya, also known as Mayajaal. It can be described as this veil that covers our eyes, and blinding us from the truth, the reality. Not that what we see is not true. Yes, that is a truck hurtling down toward you on the streets! What we see though is only one perspective of the truth, part of the whole, perhaps better described as a projection of the real thing on a smaller dimension, but yet something we are happy to accept as true. No matter how marvelous our senses, especially our eyes are, one can definitely question whether it can see everything as it is.

This whole thing sounds so "Matrixy", doesn't it? But, the very fact that it is very hard to accept we don't see the truth and that "Seeing, may not always be, believing", is why this is not very commonly heard either. Those who know that we cannot see the truth with open eyes, only advice that one must attain this realisation on their own. One cannot be told or shown what the truth is, but one can be guided how to seek it. Reminds me of a line from Brave New World by Iron Maiden -

What you see is not real, those who know will not tell
All is lost, sold your souls to this brave new world.

What does education have to do with it?

We turn up in schools with an open mind, as absorbent as a sponge, only to be taught some of the most outdated material one can dole out. This is especially true of all sciences including Mathematics. Perhaps we could leave out biology to some extent. All that we learnt were labeled as theoretically perfect sciences, where every statement worth its weight had a proof, devised in a precise, orderly fashion. Little did we realise that these perfect sciences were all standing on the foundations of certain axioms and statements of truth, that never needed to be proved. Indeed, if you think about it, such a science which is based on devising proofs and conclusions and cause-and-effect theories, can never exist without such axioms to start with.

I am not saying all we learnt was bullshit. But, could it not be possible that these axioms were only sufficiently biased to not be generally applicable? They may only apply to a limited array of problem-spaces, but all of these fill up our daily lives and overwhelm us so much, we don't realise there might be more to it that is missing . Take for instance, the Newton's laws of motion. We apply them everywhere today. It is impressive standing on its own. However, it only took a few nuclear scientists to start digging into sub-atomic particles and their microscopic properties, and someone called Einstein in 1917 to take the macroscopic view at the universal scale to realise that Newton's laws no longer dictate how things work. They weren't found wrong, but inadequate.

From behind the spectacles

Our eyes give us this amazing perspective to life and our surroundings and dictate our interactions with it. They are excellent when it comes to helping us survive on earth. But we all know its limitations. We can only see radiation in the optical wavelength range, which is just so miniscule compared to the whole observed spectrum in the universe. We already cannot see everything. Add to this the fact, we cannot view objects below a certain size and beyond a certain distance, and we come to know, there is so much more we would want to see, if only we could!

Let me present another interesting example of our limitations. We know this from school as Geometry. But, today, in scientific circles, it is classified as Euclidean Geometry. Why? Ever wonder why we could always solve those theorems and proofs on a sheet of paper? Because it only applies to flat surfaces and planes! If you try to take your theorems to a curved surface, like say the surface of a sphere, they fail to apply! A straight line on a flat surface is obvious - shortest line between 2 points. We can use the same shortest line argument on a curved surface, but of course, this line is no longer straight. The sum of the internal angles of a triangle is 180 degrees. But on a sphere? It's greater than 180 degrees! The figures below show "straight lines" on our spherical globe (latitudes), and a triangle on a sphere with sum of angles equal to 270 degrees..

What can we see?

We only "see" what we are taught to see. Over years, we have developed a notion of what is "real", and we understand images based on this perspective. The eyes and the brain combine to form an instrument, which together "see" what they are trained to, within the limitations of the eye as a lens with a fixed focal length range, and a filter that can decipher only a few of the radiations out there. This doesn't imply I shouldn't trust the things I see, but only that I should believe there are more ways to interpet what I see that can mean a lot more if only I tried. There are more revealing illustrations to feed one's mind and make them suspect their firmest beliefs, which I will leave for future posts for now. But, believe me, there is more out there than meets the eye!

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Push Pa For No Dowry

I am proud of my country and its rich heritage, the traditions, the spirituality embedded in every aspect of life and the fact that all of this has survived the test of time in a melting pot of the most diverse cultures one can find in any single country. But, at the same time, I despise belonging to a society where the masses still adhere to cooked up practices that no one understands, but everyone accepts. One of the most widespread of such practices is the tradition of dowry for a marriage.

Buy my love, love

Marriage is supposed to be a sacred bond between two bodies and souls that get tied to each other for eternity - as they say in those Western marriage vows - in sickness and in health. When it does sound so much as a pillar of strength and equality, how the hell did the concept of dowry fit into the scheme? Why does the bride-to-be have to pay her husband for his "services"? Last I checked, most men actually end up getting the service - both with their demands in the bedroom and with the daily household chores, and after there are kids in the house.

I don't really know when and how this tradition took shape, and I don't even care to research and find out, because what it has ended up becoming is a totally inexplicable farce. My explanation is that the woman has always been seen as the weaker sex and one needing protection. When she is born, she walks into the loving protecting arms of a father. When he finally hands her over to another man, he hands over the responsibility of protecting and caring for her, and ends up paying a price.

Not many fathers have qualms about this, as they do not want to risk taking on the orthodox society they live in. Or worse still, because they have themselves received a dowry once upon a time. Not many girls raise their voice as most women still don't consider it right to speak up against the norm for fear of being outcast and bringing shame to the family. Hell, she instead turns into a bride-burner herself! Dowsing the newly wed bride with kerosene and lighting the match after an unsuccessful demand for more dowry.

What does education have to do with this?

Nothing, apparently. The practice is as prevalent in cities, as it is in the villages. Some urbanites actually pride themselves in "preserving the culture" in the face of invasion from western thoughts and this preservation naturally involves sticking with age-old practices like dowry.

I was never more shocked than when I brought this issue up with my fellow classmates during my Masters. It should be noted that these guys are some of the brightest young people around who have been afforded the chance to go ahead and get the finest education possible in the country. But when it comes to the issue of dowry, they were still massively orthodox and openly accepted that they expect a dowry, and that in fact, since they have had the privilege of studying in the top technological institute in India, they expect to land a fat one. Ask them how it is justified, and pat comes the reply. "My parents spent a fortune getting me this higher education, and I will ultimately end up earning more because of that. Hence, I need to expect a higher dowry." I persist, "But, why expect a dowry at all? Never mind the size of it." The reply has the same tone, "Who will repay my parent's efforts?". I am pissed by now - "Who will repay the girl's parents? Don't you know that the girl today also studies as much as a guy does? How can you not be ashamed to ask for money when you will never have less because of your pedigree?"

There are other explanations I hear too. "Girls have high expenses, dude. Her parents will have to cover for that." "My parents didn't find it wrong, why should I?" "We will be paying for my sister, I should get some back." Just to add spice to all this, I should let you in on the figures I heard. Try 50 lakh rupees for size, will you? If all this doesn't sound absurd by now, you are most likely part of that elite gang of thugs.

Save for the marriage, not retirement

Being a girl's father is sometimes cursed in this sense, as is being born a girl child. The minute you are born, daddy decides to start saving on that marriage fund. Even though he may want to raise the girl as well as he would raise a boy, he will still make compromises. Fewer girls make it to higher studies this way. Its a toss-up between spending on education and on the marriage, both once-in-a-lifetime events. I need not say more here. If you have a sister or better still, are one (!), you probably know all about this woe.


What can one do against a whole society of orthodox beasts who clamour for a slice of the pie everyone can get their hands on? We can pass legislation. Oh, but that's already been done. No one comes clean against the offenders, and no one testifies, so according to the law, it doesn't happen. I, for one, am definitely going to be invited to a lot fewer weddings, because I have threatened my buddies that they daren't get caught accepting dowry with me around.

How about the girl's dad refusing to relent? Well, not many will marry his daughter then, and if your daughter gets turned down by a few, people are already thinking she is "characterless". It all then boils down to the one person who is the central character throughout. The bride. If she refuses to marry a guy, openly and in full public view, and tell the world the guy is looking for a dowry, it will be the first step. I wish all the girls could do this and be strong enough to face the consequences. Marriage is not a matter of life and death. A collective action will definitely bring a change. But, one girl here and another there, cannot make a difference.

Recently, I was amazed by a daring move by one such woman claiming to be a dowry victim. This amazing personality from Gujarat had already lodged a complaint with the local police against her husband and mother-in-law (bride burner!), but got no response. She just marched out into the streets in broad daylight stripped to her undergarments to catch the attention of all and sundry and to highlight her plight. She definitely got the attention, but I am not sure it will be more than a "I saw a sleaze show on the streets of Ahmedabad" in the short-term public memory. Nevertheless, I salute her courage. The world just needs more.

There used to be an advert of a talcum powder (huh?), where this female would turn down a relation with a man because he asks for dowry. And then, as the whole world scorns at her and her dad looks forlorn, a handsome guy walks in from nowhere and asks her hand in marriage. The talcum powder actually helps. Maybe there are enough guys out there to walk in on a distraught situation, and I bet there are, given the male-female ratio in our country!

So, what are you waiting for? Push Pa! For no dowry. Not necessarily like Pooja Chauhan did by marching semi-naked onto the streets.