A Secularist New Year Resolution


Ever since the BJP came to power, they’ve been crawling out of the woodwork – RSS ideologues, Hindutva radicals, and random school teachers. They want to remind you in speeches that India is Hindu; that Hinduism is great and any book or movie that says otherwise should be banned; and that their version of Hinduism (no short skirts! no public kissing!!) is the one that everyone must follow. It’s pervasive, relentless and, to the dismay of those of us who disagree, it is slowly moving from being intolerable to being irritating, but “chalta hai.”

There seem to be two aspects of what is happening. Let’s call one – What is Being Said. The other – Real Changes.

What is Being Said is getting crazier and crazier. Should we clamp down on inflammatory speech? Nitin Pai, a public policy commentator with Acorn, makes a good case that protecting freedom of expression is better and easier than restricting inflammatory speech. Why? Because you can’t ensure that nobody is ever offended.

It might be better, but I’m not sure it’s easier. Rioting in India is difficult to control because of the 24 X 7 news cameras and because the rioters tend to be unemployed youth for whom rioting is a source of income. The odds are stacked against the police.

In any case, there are laws on the books that supposedly curb hate speech. So perhaps there’s not much to be done here except murmur to yourself “Sticks and stones will break my bones but words can never hurt me.”

The problem is that things don’t end with What is Being Said. It drives Real Changes. Books are being pulped (Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus, Sekhar Bandopadhyay’s Plassey to Partition). Textbooks are being changed (Dinanath Batra has rewritten the Gujarat state school textbooks  where science and history are liberally mixed with mythology). And there are serious extra-judicial bans being placed on all kinds of ‘unacceptable’ behavior. Small, but Real Changes.

What is Being Said is not independent from Real Changes. When What is Being Said goes unchecked it supplies oxygen to Real Changes. It emboldens all the closet Hindutva sympathisers to come out in support of What is Being Said. Which gives the mistaken impression that there is broad-based public support for What is Being Said. And the next thing you know, a book or a movie is banned. Or it becomes OK to harass anybody who kisses in public. Suddenly, Real Change has happened.

Bit by bit, these ideologues and goons are chipping away at the edifice of our beautifully diverse, secular India. And it all begins with letting What is Being Said go unchallenged. While politicians and pundits rant about What is Being Said on TV (and that is important) the secularists among us are not doing our bit in the forums where opinion is formed – among friends and family.

We secularists tend to not engage with the Hindutva-flavored friends of ours on social media. It’s OK, we say. I can’t change the way they think so why engage in a meaningless debate. But that’s misguided. You can change the way people think. Most people don’t put too much thought into these issues. They tend to go with the flow – wherever they think the majority of their family, friends and people who they respect are going. We need to let them hear what we think about What is Being Said.

If the discourse on Hindutva in your homes and chai shops, on Facebook and Twitter, remains one-sided, then be prepared to lose what you love. Years from now you’ll look back and regret that when Real Changes were turning the clock back on secular India, you could have been more engaged and made a difference, but you didn’t.

Are you OK with that? I’m not. Ain’t gonna happen. No sir, not on my Newsfeed. I will engage. And that is my new year’s resolution.

My Lost Years Without Desi Ghee

From The Guardian

Butter, cheese and even red meat are not as bad for the heart as has been maintained, a cardiologist has said in a leading medical journal, adding that it is time to “bust the myth” of saturated fat…
“Recent prospective cohort studies have not supported significant association between saturated fat intake and cardiovascular risk,” he argues. “Instead, saturated fat has been found to be protective.”

Doctors and scientists are now ready to proclaim that saturated fats are good for you. Not just OK, but good. Better than those sucky unsaturated fats we’ve been using all these years. This is not just the opinion of one diet guru somewhere. There are now many studies and meta-studies (apparently that is a thing where you study other studies) that conclude that saturated animal fats of the kind found in butter and lard do not lead to heart disease.

Now I’m not a science hater. In fact some of my best friends are scientists. My father was one. And I do understand that paradigm-shifting is in the nature of scientific revolutions. (There is actually a book by Thomas Kuhn, sitting on my shelf, that explains all this. It is an important book, though totally unreadable.) For example, at one time Neanderthals were supposed to be cousins of us homo sapiens but from a branch on the family tree that died off before we hit the scene. But with more fossils and genome analysis it has emerged that homo sapiens were contemporaneous and interbred with the Neanderthals and we all now carry Neanderthal DNA. Delightful shift in paradigms, no? Though a little embarrassing for those people who used the word “Neanderthal” to describe certain people at work.

But I have no problem that 2.7% of my genome is Neanderthal. I’m pretty liberal that way. On the other hand, this latest round of myth-busting, paradigm-shifting science about saturated animal fats has gotten me terribly depressed. To think that all my adult life I have substituted margarine for butter and Crisco for desi ghee fills me with great regret.

I grew up in a place called Hisar, in the state of Haryana, India. Hisar was the proud seat of Haryana Agricultural University. My father was a dairy scientist and a professor of animal nutrition in the College of Animal Sciences.

For those of you who aren’t as familiar with Haryana, it is an Indian state neighbouring Delhi that is famous for many things including Haryanavi, a bold, assertive dialect of Hindi that you will often hear in Bollywood movies used by thugs and comedic policemen.

new milk chart

But the thing that Haryana is most identified with is milk. The state poet Uday Bhanu Hans has described it thus, Desan mein des Haryana, jit doodh dahi ka khana. Which is too deep to translate into English, but roughly means that Haryanavis like their dairy products.

In this state, in its only agricultural university, in its college of animal sciences, my father was a professor of animal nutrition. My connection with livestock and milk was visceral. Literally. Besides spending many a Sunday at the University farm (see photo), I consumed copious amounts of milk and dairy products.


Ghee, or clarified butter, is the pinnacle of a Haryanavi’s connection with milk. It is its most refined, celestial form. It goes into the havan fire as an offering to the gods. It also goes into every edible thing imaginable. And if you can’t do without it, mixed with some milk, it can be had straight from the glass, between meals.

In the bazaar ghee was often referred to as Shudh Desi Ghee. “Desi” separated it from that evil concoction of hydrogenated vegetable oils called Dalda. And “Shudh” was well, pure. Some halvai’s would mix in a bit of Dalda since it was much cheaper. But not this halvai.

All through our childhood, we had lots of ghee. But as an adult who made responsible health decisions, I reduced and then completely stopped having ghee. We cooked in vegetable oil and ate sukhi roti. I pined for ghee, but knew that she wasn’t right for me. For twenty years now, I’ve been living a sukhi zindagi, thanks to faulty science. I may find it in me to forgive her in time, but this is not one to forget.

On the bright side, I should still be thankful that I have the rest of my life to enjoy ghee. Just imagine if I had died before the saturated-fat-is-bad paradigm had shifted. To have gone through my adult life without ghee, only to have it poured on my funeral pyre would have been such a travesty.

And now that ghee and butter are good, what about bacon?

What Do You Stand For?

What do I stand for? What do I stand for?
Most nights, I don’t know.

– fun.

Last week’s Economist carried an editorial called True Progressivism. I found myself nodding in agreement as I read through the long editorial. When I finished reading it, I felt like it had perfectly captured what I felt, what I thought, what I believed about government and public policy but would never have been able to articulate this well.

I hope you will go read it. If more people believed in something close to this True Progressivism, it could be a very important path out of the bipolar mess that American politics is today.

I happened to mention how much I liked this piece to a guest at an Infosys event last week. He said that his wife sometimes echoed similar sentiments about Tom Friedman’s writing – that it almost speaks to her. But he tells her that that is because her thinking has been shaped by Friedman’s writing. And now, obviously, what he writes agrees with her viewpoint.

Was it the same way with me and the Economist? Had I read it for so long that it had shaped my own belief system about politics and economic policy and now when I read something like this piece, it seems like it was speaking to me?

Perhaps. But I have read the Wall Street Journal longer, though less nowadays. I read the New York Times a lot more than the Economist. But I don’t always agree with the New York Times editorial page, and rarely with WSJ’s.

No, I don’t think the Economist has brainwashed me. I think that good newspapers are a little bit like friends. Your friends do influence you. But you tend to spend more time with the ones that think like you do. And the way you think is a product of your experiences and the people that have influenced you. And hopefully, rational, independent thinking.

The world is full of tribalism. If your family, friends and the people around you believe in something, you are almost predestined to believe in the same thing. Good writing like the Economist’s and thinking for yourself can save you from this dreary predetermined destiny.

Strange Name Discrimination

Researchers have found that the easier it is to pronounce your name, the better your chances of getting promoted.

From The Telegraph

The team of American and Australian scientists concluded that the easier a person’s name was to say, the better their success was in the workplace and the quicker they were promoted.

In a fiver year old post I drew the very same conclusions. From My Secret Starbucks Name

All things being equal, in Sales, you can be under a major handicap if the client is unsure about how your name is pronounced. A guy I know had the following email signature – Niraj (knee-rudge) Sharma. He was a top Sales rep at Infosys. Others have to take even stronger measures. There was a guy I had some business dealings with in New York, whose parents, in an inspired moment nearly half a century back in India, had named him Bhuleshwar Gandhi. In New York, when he wisely decided to change his name, he decided to not succumb to sentimental half-measures – he changed his name to Bill Grandee. I suspect that was a turning point in his career.

The research studied the effect of last names. In my opinion, first names matter more because you need to use them over and over again.

The average Indian first name is tough to pronounce in western markets. If you contrast Indian first names with typical American first names there are key differences in design and intent. American names are short and the nick names are shorter. The nick name for every first name is pretty standard. David is Dave. Timothy is Tim. Robert is Bob or Rob. American first names are designed for an easy “user interface”.

Indian Hindu names, on the other hand, are designed to be unique and beautiful. When parents name their children they want other parents to ask them the question “What a beautiful name, what does it mean?”

Also, the Hindu names are always in Sanskrit – the language of the gods. It is as if, it doesn’t matter if mortals can’t pronounce it, as long as the gods can.

By the time my daughter was born, I had a keen appreciation of the value of a short, familiar name. My wife and I named her Lori, which is a familiar American name. It also happens to be a Hindi word that means lullaby. In Sanskrit lullaby would be Alolika. Which is a non-starter. She would have been called Aloo by all, which means potato.

But even with her name, we couldn’t resist the temptation of an honest-to-goodness Sanskrit name. So we snuck in a middle name, which she will probably shorten to an initial all her life.

In this new world that is fast globalising, my advice to Indian parents is to please be kind to your children and name them with simpler two syllable names.

Tiger Moms and Indian Parenting

Amy Chua made waves with this piece in the Wall Street Journal. She also had a very successful Davos visit where she found herself debating Larry Summers, which is a daunting task, even on a subject that you might think you have him on the backfoot for.

Summers had a quotable quote

I think you have to decide whether achievement is the route to self-esteem or whether self-esteem is the route to achievement.

But he also said

“It is not entirely clear that your veneration of traditional academic achievement is exactly well placed,” he said to Ms. Chua. “Which two freshmen at Harvard have arguably been most transformative of the world in the last 25 years?” he asked. “You can make a reasonable case for Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, neither of whom graduated.”

Now, Gates and Zuckerberg will certainly bump up the average earnings of Harvard dropouts quite a bit. I don’t have data to tell you if that will be enough to outdo the hedge fund millionaires among those who graduated. But I can guarantee that the median earnings of a Harvard graduate far exceed the median earnings of a Harvard dropout. And to Moms, medians matter, not averages.

As an Indian, I totally get where Amy Chua is coming from. Our Indian friends in the US are no less focused on their kids academics and extra curricular activities. You may think that this kind of parenting is part of the culture. It is, but it is not deep-set. It manifests itself because of economic reasons.

India, like China, is a poor country. There are no safety nets – no unemployment benefits, no healthcare insurance. If you don’t have a job, its a ticket straight to the poorhouse. The govt. hospitals don’t work and the rural employment guarantee program can only prevent starvation.

But just education doesn’t guarantee much. The dispersion in outcomes of your education is very, very wide. Even among college graduates, the average IIT graduate’s life-time income could be 10X that of an Arts graduate. I doubt that that is the case anywhere in the developed world.

And one more thing. The difference in quality of life between Rs. 4 lakhs and Rs. 40 lakhs p.a. is stark. Not like that between $40,000 and $400,000.

So if you are one of the millions of salaried, educated, middle class parents in India and you are thinking about the life your children are going to have, you are not thinking about self-esteem or creativity. You are thinking about simpler goals like how do I get my son into an engineering college? If your child shows just a little bit of promise, he will be entered into coaching classes every spare minute of the day. Or be sent to Kota. He will not have a life for two years of his childhood. Activities? Forget about it. You can’t make a living playing the flute. And no Engineering college needs you to have any extra-curricular activities.

Now imagine that you are that child. You made it into an Engineering college and then made your way to the US. How would you raise your kids? Probably the way Amy Chua did. Even though the income dispersion among college graduates is much lower in the US and even the bottom quartile of college grads have a pretty good quality of life, you raise your kids the way you were raised. It takes an effort to break away from your own upbringing. You may say, that’s why it’s cultural. But if it is, it wears off pretty quick.

The reason I don’t think this is culturally very deep set is because I can see how things can change within a generation. Even within India. Some of my friends in India would be called affluent anywhere, but in India they are in the top 1%. For their kids, they seek a more well-rounded education. Maybe they are wiser and know what really counts to get ahead. Or maybe they know that their own wealth gives their kids a safety net.

Does this parenting play out everywhere in the world? Probably not. I think there are a few conditions that are present in today’s India and China that make it so. One, the country must allow upward mobility. The economy has to be growing for there to be opportunities for talented graduates. Two, there should be a pretty sizable educated, salaried middle-class. That’s when parenting behavior becomes widespread enough to be deemed “cultural”.

A Leg Up for Indian English

In the mornings when I drop off my daughter at school, I generally have BBC on the car radio. (It’s Disney if I pick her up. That’s the deal with her. I can subject her to BBC in the mornings if I let her listen to Disney in the PM.)

For the longest time, BBC has had reporters in India or Pakistan or Africa who speak English like the locals do. So I’m used to hearing English spoken in a nice Indian accent on BBC. Which is perhaps why, I did not notice this till today – nowadays, even newscasters on BBC World News have Indian accents.

Today’s news, for instance, was anchored by someone with a British accent, presumably in London, and someone in India with a pucca Indian accent.

A few years ago, I had written a piece on The Future of Business English, predicting that Indian English would become more and more acceptable. That piece was more about words and phrases. But its the same with accents.

The acceptability of Indian accented English will be propelled by two things – India’s economic importance and the greater interconnectedness of the world.

The rise of Indian as an economic power is most important. Nobody cares about the culture and heritage of country that is poor. But as soon as that very country’s economy starts growing it presents opportunities. Suddenly, every one wants to learn what they can about the country, its language and culture. That’s the way of the world.

Now if this was all there was to it, China would be far ahead. But that will change. Western democracies have a natural preference for democratic India. And English is an Indian language. It’s a big window into India. English is not a Chinese language.

Greater interconnectedness comes from many things. Immigration is one. Indians form the largest (or one of the largest) groups of immigrants in the US, Canada, UK and Australia. Some come as college students. Others with the Indian IT Services industry. With the years, the number of Indian-born immigrants embedded in all walks of life in these countries keeps going up. And guess what, every one of them speaks in this accent that gets less and less strange to the natives, as the years go by.

The explosion of video on the internet also helps. You don’t have to depend upon the fare network TV is dishing out. You can go to TED Talks where you’ll find many Indian speakers. Or some Indian born exec at Google talking about the next big thing from Google.

But Indian accents on American TV still hasn’t caught on. We’re seeing a whole bunch of Indian faces – Aarti Sequeira on Food Network, Archie Panjabi on The Good Wife and Reshma Shetty on Royal Pains. But by some odd coincidence, they all speak in British accents. Outsourced, on NBC, has lots of Indian accents, but then its setting is India (though it is shot in the US). CNBC in New York has an anchor with an unalloyed Australian accent, which is a step forward. But BBC is way ahead. They are truly global. (sidenote: they announced that they are shutting down their BBC Hindi service on shortwave. Apparently, shortwave costs too much.)

In the meanwhile, us Indian-Americans, we’ll just keep rolling our R’s. And our kids will grow up having fun at our expense.

Failure 2 Communicate

We’ll be going to see a very interesting play this weekend in San Francisco called Failure 2 Communicate. The play is written by Valerie Fachman and directed by Scott Baker. Valerie describes the play

Based on my work experience in Chicago, this play immerses the audience in a maelstrom where autistic teens are forced into high school classes with gang bangers, while the teachers try to channel this chaos into an education.

Good friend Nandini Minocha is in the play as well.

The play is also trying to raise a modest amount of money to cover costs and such. If Autism or supporting the arts is something you consider a worthy cause, I hope you will be generous.

Indians and Unpredictability

A notice at a neighbourhood Postal Annex. Truly, a picture is worth a thousand words. The proprietor is, you guessed it, Desi.

The notice is a microcosm of Indianness. If you get past the English (hey, its a foreign tongue, so stop being so fussy) it really is a reflection of our relationship with predictability.

There are three kinds of Indians:

– Those that are unpredictable and don’t care.
– Those that are unpredictable, but would like you to expect, and perhaps accept, their unpredictability. The store owner who put this notice up belongs to this set.
– The predictable kind. Within India, this is a very small set.

Indians are not brought up to be predictable in their behavior. The environment (Bangalore traffic for instance) doesn’t allow us to be. But this is certainly a phenotype issue not a genotype one. Because somehow, when Indians leave India they leave their unpredictability behind.

The great achievement of the IT Services industry has been to extract predictable outcomes for clients out of this morass of unpredictability. They erect these boundary walls around the company. Within these figurative walls there are no power cuts and meetings start on time. Defects are measured and deadlines are met. Because that’s what clients in the developed world expect. It’s gotten easier and easier over time, but in the early days the pioneers did the equivalent of moulding square pegs to fit into round holes.

Hinduism and Evolution

Today the Texas Board of Education voted on how American history will be taught in Texas schools. It is a version of history that fits the conservative world view. From the New York Times

The conservative members maintain that they are trying to correct what they see as a liberal bias among the teachers who proposed the curriculum. To that end, they made dozens of minor changes aimed at calling into question, among other things, concepts like the separation of church and state and the secular nature of the American Revolution.

Texas textbooks are important not just because Texas is a big state, but also because many small states just go with the Texas version of the textbooks because it costs less than commissioning their own versions.

Around this time last year the Texas Board voted to change science text books. Evolution, which is always in the spotlight when such matters are discussed, was saved by the skin of its teeth from being relegated to “one of many alternate theories”. However,

Failing to overhaul the curriculum broadly, conservatives instead attached a series of measures specific to subjects like biology, where teachers would be newly required to “analyze and evaluate the sufficiency or insufficiency of natural selection to explain the complexity of the cell.”


An Indian Passport and Indianness

M. F. Husain surrenders his Indian passport and takes up Qatari citizenship. As the drama plays out and now peters out in the media an interesting question to ask is what is it that makes one an India.

Now one could write a book on this subject (not me, I’ve already got a gig going but someone, I’m sure) but here’s a short blog post.

Whether you have an Indian passport or not is a terrible way to look at it. From the Husain media circus, it appears that surrendering the passport was really the event that made him unIndian. In spite of his protestations to the contrary, Barkha Dutt (link to NDTV above) seemed to think that was the case. It so happens that India does not permit dual citizenship. The OCI is not the same as citizenship. If like many other countries like the US, India did permit dual citizenship then Husain could have added the Qatari passport and no one would have cared.

I have many friends who live in India but hold a US passport. I think they would consider themselves Indian.

What about residency? Is that a good criterion? But then there are all kinds of Non Resident Indians. Short stays, long stays, those that are waiting for the kids to go to college to return. And then there are those who don’t intend to go back but still feel very connected to India.

I think that its just silly to try to draw these boundaries, and affix labels. Let’s just celebrate a shared culture with great diversity within it and fuzzy boundaries at the edges.

And it is downright hypocritical to celebrate Sunita Williams as one of our own, but decry M F Husain surrendering his passport as abandoning his country.