Monday, 31 May 2010

Revisting and retelling history

Amitav Ghosh has a talent for description. He describes in a way that makes me feel like I was right there, looking, watching, hearing. It's the quality I loved about Hungry Tide - I could use that book as a tour guide when I do make it to the Sundarbans. In an Antique Land also has that power. It makes me want to get up, go explore, see a new city beyond what tourists see.

It moves between the 1980s and the 1100s, smoothly; the Egypt of the Jews interwoven with the Egypt of Muslims.It encompasses two countries - India and Egypt - and examines the layers of their relationship with each other - the demands of politics and economics bringing them together, the differences in culture setting them apart. The discourse of three religions that have been in constant conflict in modern times - Islam, Judaism and Hinduism - throws up a synthesis that the modern mind would not imagine.

Through the story of a Jewish merchant and his slave and the Author's quest to decipher their lives, Ghosh shows how history is constructed and how we ourselves never examine the stories that build our interactions and notions of other communities. It is a fascinating journey of discovering little told or remembered stories, the kind that make you think that you too will be a part of history someday. It is a story that makes you realize that most of history is outside the textbooks, hidden in memories and tales

The book is slow, and there are no heroes - much like real life. It is a slow re examination of ingrained notions and its pace is as determined by the reader as by the author.

Sunday, 9 May 2010

Candles in the cake

Age is an interesting thing. We long for it, come to hesitate about it, come to terms with it, and finally fear it. As children we want to grow older so that we may participate in the mysterious and seemingly important world of adults. As we enter adulthood, we begin to feel distaste towards growing old too soon. The realisation strikes as we suddenly no longer desire to be in the shoes of those older to us. Envy of the college and school “kids” while our parents assure us that 25 years is by no means too old! But there comes a point when for a while we come to terms with our age and begin to enjoy it without longing to be younger or longing to be older.

Kundera puts this interestingly in Laughable Loves. “Age weighs heavily on me. But I don’t feel it so much as I see my son grow.”  The character finds the pain of her fading youth outweighed by the joy of watching her son attain manhood. Joy in children, in people apart from us makes the fear of old age and impending death recede till it seems almost unreal. A time when we are thankful for what we are for it makes possible the joy of creation and the joy of watching a child grow and take shape.

Over the last week, I read two books that explored parenthood, albeit briefly, and the idea of aging in their own twisted ways – Sula and Laughable Loves. I find the point that Hannah makes in Sula interesting and enigmatic – We love our children. That does not mean we like them. I wonder how many parents make that distinction. Do they even think in terms of liking their children? Or do they just love them because they are their children?  Is it necessary to distinguish in between liking and loving children? I wonder...
In Laughable Loves, two women explore how motherhood has, in the one case, made her comfortable with her age, and in the other case deprived her of the memory of her youth and forced her to age in mind as well as in body. The one finds joy in watching her son grow, the other has decided to make herself old for her son finds himself unable to love a young mother. Reading this, I realised that I’ve never really thought of my parents as being young or old. In my mind they haven’t aged in the 24 years that I have known them. Yes, my father now has more grey hair than he did when I was a baby but in my mind there is no concept of age where my parents or grandparents are concerned. They seem so constant. I find it as hard to imagine my parents in old age as I find it to imagine their youth.

I wonder how I feel about my own age. Sometimes I think I am still a child in many ways, the passing of the years not having done much. Sometimes, I feel the change. As the youngest in the family, I find it impossible to think of myself as old, but then the number of the candles on the cake increase every year. 

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

The importance of being India

I walked into office yesterday morning knowing fully well that we'd have to change the media schedule of a campaign due to India's brilliant performance in the WT20. Our campaign schedule was drawn up on the reasonable assumption that India would come second in its group, beating Afghanistan and losing to South Africa and thus, occupying position C2. However, India or rather the Indian cricket team decided to delight this cricket crazy nation by winning both matches.

How does this affect an advertising campaign you might ask? Well you see, the schedule for the inter-group matches had been drawn based on the above mentioned reasonable assumption. As a result the team C2 would play it's next three matches (the Super Eight round) in prime time according to IST. However, we thought India coming first in Group C meant that not only will the dates of its matches change but also a shift in the timing of the matches from prime time to later in the night (as per the schedule for team C1). Which in turn meant that we could run our campaign without cricket stealing viewer-ship from other programs in the prime time.

So the morning began, with a flurry of phone calls, to channels, to clients and Star cricket and many others. Changes in schedules, reallocation of spots and many other complicated maneuvers were being considered to ensure that our campaign didn't clash with the matches. Until... a representative from ESPN-Star Sports informed us that the match schedule  had been structure to not change  irrespective of whether India came first or second in Group C; that it would still occupy position C2. After all, how can India play in the anything but prime time when more than 80% of any cricketing event's revenue comes from the Indian sub continent?

Ah... the sigh of relief at the emancipation from a few hours of torturous number juggling and millions of phone calls. And yes, a shake of my head in wonderment at the importance of being India in the world of Cricket.

Loaded Dice

I was reading an Economist article yesterday about the Greek economic debacle. After looking at the declining investor confidence in Greek bonds and the likely repercussions of the IMF rescue package, the article went on to talk about the generally dismal state of Euro-zone economies and the impending crisis that may strike Spain and Portugal. There was an interesting statistic at the end of that article – the average Euro-zone public debt is 68% of GDP. That of the US of A is 70%. Still it is only Europe that is in crisis and not America. 

In its conclusion, the article also gives a brief answer to the reason for this discrimination between Europe and America – the world’s reserve currency is the US dollar. In effect, what this means is that the rest of the world cannot allow America to be in crisis for very long. It is in the interest of the global economy to ensure that America is always bailed out on soft terms, at least for now.

At the time of the 2008 Crisis, there was a lot of debate on the larger, global implications of the kind of global financial system that has been created over the years. One of the arguments, that has existed for a while, and came to the fore in the immediate aftermath of the 2008 crisis runs thus (and here I am paraphrasing from several sources): One of the primary reasons that we are a skewed global economy is that we do not have an objective international currency that penalises excess debt and credit both. We have created a system whereby, one side (in this case America) is always rewarded, regardless of debt or credit and the other side is always punished simply because, the international currency is the American Dollar. All economies hold their surpluses in dollar terms thus, making it in everyone’s self interest to ensure at the well being of the dollar by hook or by crook.  This has led to the creation of a financial system that is benchmarked on nothing, whose value is based on biased speculation and not the fundamental value of the resource.

Yesterday’s Economist article brought this to the fore again, albeit in a very subtle manner. And to me it is unjust indeed that some countries should suffer and others not simply because the dice has been loaded since the beginning. I wonder if any generation, in the near or far future, will have the courage to dismantle this unequal system and create a level playing field. 

Sunday, 2 May 2010

358 years of Inspiration

It could have well been a thriller, the pace at which the story moves. By the end of it, you are definitely holding your breath, wondering whether Andrew Wiles will succeed in achieving his childhood dreams. And if there is something other than the Last Lecture, that makes a case for following your dreams and passions, it is Fermat's Last Theorem by Simon Singh.

It isn't the kind of book you would expect for something written about a mathematical theorem and the solving of it. For most of us, we left behind the dreary world of maths and its incomprehensibly abstract theorems in school. Okay, I'll correct that, most Indians I assume pursued a part of it into engineering. But we certainly left it behind at that. Simon Singh's Fermat's Last Theorem brings forth not the dreariness of a maths question in an exam but the thrill of puzzle solving. The absolute elation at having gotten in that last piece of the jigsaw puzzle after painstakingly working through the edges to the center.

He tells the story of the world's longest unsolved puzzle (Fermat's Last Theorem remain unproved for a whopping 358 years) instead of presenting the mathematical proof. He builds the anguish that has surrounded the mathematical community and the edginess of not being able to sleep with an unsolved question in the head with the panache of a mystery author. What contributes to the pace of the book is the fact that it is low on jargon and high on history, low on technology and high on personalities. Simon Singh guides the reader through the entire fascinating history of mathematics starting with Pythogoras. He demonstrates what must have inspired geniuses like Pierre de Fermat and Andrew Wiles by giving the reader a first hand glimpse of what they read and what they saw. Through many an anecdote, he sketches a vivid portrait of the beauty and perfection that the discipline of mathematics aspires to and the passion that drives most mathematicians.

For me, the most elating discovery was that the utterly incomprehensible (to me) and abstract edifice of mathematics (I dreaded the subject in school and barely cleared it, I must confess) is built upon only 8 simple axioms that even I can comprehend! It brought me closer to understanding the beauty of maths that draws many minds to it. After much time, I've read a book that has made me want to recommend it to everyone I know. And yes, as an after thought, it is ironic that it is a book on mathematics, and I am sure my mom will be elated about the same!