Thursday, May 15, 2014

The buzz in the markets

If markets are to be believed, Modi will win 1000 seats of 543, sweep away the fiscal deficit, turn current account deficit into savings account surplus, inject the Rupee with steroids and turn foreign investors Indian. He will bell the Chinese CAT, deny Obama a Visa and solve Kashmir once and for all by making Pakistan the 30th state of India. He will build autobahns from Arunachal to the Gulf of Cambay, turn Sri Lanka into a captive port and dig money out of the hole called Air India. He will discover the cure for AIDS, reverse global warming, prove Goldbach's conjecture, write the unified theory of everything, seed life on mars, find water on the moon and while at it export them some electricity. (overheard at the office today)

(Written on late May 15, before election results started coming in... stored here for the record)

Saturday, May 03, 2014

Ab Ki Baar...

I always had a political opinion but never one this strong. So this time, I articulated it on social media and got into fleshing it out ever more slightly, discussing with the already converted. Recording it here - in my own little diary, a time capsule. To come back to after 5 years for a reality check.

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When you vote tomorrow remember this: 

We live in a country, blighted with an overflowing industry of poverty-wallahs, selling the same snake oil for the last 60 years. They, who can squabble on who gets how much from the pie but not focus on it's size. They, who have wracked the free-market consensus with glib talk of inclusion.

Now, for the first time in Indian history, we have a leader who has the political will to say - 'Pay for power and you will get it 24x7'. The first time, a leader who can say don't accept alms from the government, earn your money and your self-confidence.

For the first time a leader who has the political mileage to say, 'Pehle shauchalaya, phir devalaya'. In a country that primarily shits in the open, that takes some courage. In the politics of perception, there's only one campaign that's risen above cynical segmentation.

Remember that the only alternative is Rahul. Yes, I would prefer a Nehru, a Shastri, a Vajpayee, heck even a Narsimha Rao but they are not on offer. The only alternative is a Rahul or a Mulayam, or a Mayawati led front.

Remember that what sustains riots is poverty. The same poverty which brings starvation, malnourishment and kills many more.

When you press that button tomorrow, remember 2G, coal, the tax terrorism, the TV blackout for passing the Telangana bill, the thousand prime ministers hooting their horns and the one ineffectual rubber stamp on them. Remember that secularism is but a fig-leaf covering all this.

Remember, ab ki baar...


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Nehru ? Really ?

Socialism was all the rage in Nehru's days. He did make some major policy blunders but he also built strong institutions in a fledgling nation, you have to hand him that. It is interesting that we have three contenders - each claiming the legacy of one the original Indian triumvirate. The claimants to Nehru's legacy, seem beyond even an empty caricature. His pride in foreign relations led to permanent ulcers on the body of India, but none of the current leaders seem to be doing any better. So yes, Nehru, reluctantly, hoping for a new and improved post-Soviet, post 1962 version.

Modi does come with a magic wand. (Said with rolling eyes). And 'Devalaya before shauchalaya' is a matter-of-fact statement.

Modi is not a cure-all. In fact, his personality cult is worrying to most on the Indian right. No leader, not Hedgewar, not Golwalkar, not Vajpayee commanded such support beyond the party. But he is the best option amongst the current lot. Compared to current anarchy - this is definitely a move towards the solution. Again, sanitation is something no leader in India can speak about - it's too downmarket. I have seen 'educated' people sniggering when the topic is raised. To keep it before 'the temple', for starters even in speech, is plain amazing.

No Messiah definitely. But such is the poverty of ideas in our political class, that even words sound enticing. No one else, repeat, no one else, is even saying the right things, forget doing those. We will never get Arun Shourie for prime minister, so we make do with what we have. In my brief touchpoints with Gujarat, I have experienced efficiency - hoping for some of that to reflect nationally.

BJP is fascist. We can compromise on growth and money instead of rioting, fear mongering and murder.

If life would be that simple. We are at least as poor as sub-saharan Africa (by number of people). Each percentage point of growth you see lacking, cost lives, costs aspirations. The only way to save these lives is development. The only way to prevent riots is development. When were the last riots in Mumbai or Gujarat for that matter ? I honestly don't know if a section in Gujarat is cowering in fear, but a section in UP and another one in Assam surely is. That's where the snake oil vendors live. They make a mockery of every institution, including this time the IB and the passing of a bill in the LS. Then, they shout the wolf-word of secularism. If we cannot learn, then we deserve what we get !

Modi is a dictator

He may have dictatorial tendencies. Let's hope if he does occupy the top seat, the messiness in Delhi, in political India, will contain it. For now, this won't change my view. No other candidate is better, remember how the Telangana bill was passed or how the CBI is used. There are simply no other options !

The most interesting comment was this is more an anti-Congress wave than a pro-Modi one. In fact, many people (outside the influence of the primarily urban propaganda machinery) do not know his first name. 

Left me speechless !!

Friday, March 28, 2014

Blind Faith

"What worries me about religion is that it teaches people to be satisfied with not understanding." - Richard Dawkins

When talking of faith, I would go a step further than Dawkins - it gives people an empty sense of having understood. This sense when seen in others, seems alternately ridicule worthy 
"How could anyone even think of this? Did God miss giving them brains?", or leads to patronization "If only they were educated..."

In a grand gesture of such paternalistic thought, the Government of Maharashtra has even passed an Act outlawing promotion of blind faith. It seems politicians shall have exclusive rights on taking people for a ride in the name of faith. 

Of Gods and Godmen - An Archaeological Trip

Faith, and I am not talking of religion here, has only one criteria to be rational - it should be your own. This was especially rubbed into me the other day, surprisingly, by a pretty diverse group in age, education, vocation, gender - all united only by a love of archaeology and architecture. We were on a long bus ride towards Kolhapur where we planned to visit the temple of Mahalakshmi and also Khidrapur nearby. Our aim was to understand the development of the Goddess, her link to the utterly dynamic world of early medieval India and also, because we were there, to worship her in private for some wealth. No harm in that.

In the 8 hours long journey, we slept, we photographed, we ate and we discussed, with a sprightly enthusiasm, all the irrelevant topics on this planet. Then someone spoke about the gurus and godmen of India which led to a collective lament on the commercialization of religion: on how five star meditation rooms are run, money is measured, devotees are counted for the dough and how people make a fool of themselves, not just the ordinary trusting lay masses, always eager to be taken on a ride but even the educated, professional and successful elite. I was a willing listener and participant. (I also started thinking of the per user valuation of these enterprises, but that's beside the point).

Finally, these I felt were people with a scientific temper, not ready to believe just because they are told. After all, if Satya Sai Baba gets Vibhuti from the air as a cure, equally good would be getting a Justin Bieber haircut or just listening to Himesh Reshammiya crooning. There's no relation between cause and effect here. Godmen just speak in vague generalities and that makes people fell satisfied. Deepities, to use the words of Dan Dennet, give them the false feeling of insight where all they have heard are a couple of homespun metaphors, without even literary merit. The universe is too big to care about you, grow up. God if she exists, would be busy listening to my long list of prayers at Mahalakshmi anyway, so no use trying to bribe Godmen for a way in. 

I was wallowing in the bubble of these self-congratulatory thoughts, when someone asked another to try Homeopathy. Trust me, I could hear the bubble burst. Munching sugar pills is not going to cure any ills, unless it's an issue of low carb. As soon as I said this, it was one against all. They came in from all directions, starting with the traditional defence of anecdotal evidence, the magic (you cannot call it science) of provings, it being very person dependent, very practitioner dependent, the storied history of over a century, the british royal family and many others believing in it, going all the way to a pharmacologist explaining why lack of homeopathic research is a big pharma conspiracy. All these arguments, except admittedly the big pharma conspiracy, could be used in the favour of Godmen - but I didn't tell them that.

In Homeopathy We Trust

This again, is the wrong set of people I thought and so, tarried forth, taking a survey of all types of folk who were professionals, businessmen, colleagues, friends, reasonable, opinionated, modern, ancient, conservative, liberal and I found for myself a trenchant view in support of homeopathy. The most liberating reply that I could get was from some that they had no view on it. Almost, no one though, knew what homeopathy is and why is it supposed to work. To a middle class urban Indian, homeopathy is one of the many falsely equalized '-pathies', with medical science being called 'allopathy'.

This trust on homeopathy is a bit like believing in astrology without knowing what are stars and planets or like trusting your normal medicines without knowing a whit about biology or pharmacology. So let's get into the background. (You can watch or read Ben Goldacre - I would really recommend the read for basics of evidence based medicine. If you do, skip this and the next section.)

Homeopathy was the brainchild of one Samuel Hanheman from Germany. He woke up one fine day to an epiphany that something which gives you symptoms similar to a disease, when taken in diluted amounts would treat the disease. So 'like cures like' and 'dilution increases potency' of a medicine. 

'Like cures like' : How do you decide what works or the 'remedy' ? It's a process called 'proving'. A bunch of people come together and note the effect of a 'remedy' on them for a couple of days. A homeopath then records this rambling array of 'symptoms'. Your disease is then matched with the list of these symptoms to decided which 'remedy' suits.

'Dilution increases potency': Dilution in homeopathy is repeated to the extent that there are no molecules left of the original 'remedy' in the water solution. A 30C dilution means there is one molecule in a sphere of water with a diameter as large as the distance between the earth and the sun. Again, the process of dilution is not without it's idiosyncrasies. Each dilution needs to be done after striking the vessel against a hard elastic surface 10 times. One can just imagine a vast factory of robots in a homeopathic factory doing this voodoo, striking beakers against wooden boards for 'potency'. To top it all what you are given is not the dilution, which is in effect water, but the dilution coated on sugar pills. 

There is a lot of claptrap about how homeopathic medicine depends on the memory of water, but if you did study through high school, you can see from the potential implications as to why it can't be true. To the extent of those dilutions, all water has been impacted by me, you and everyone else that ever lived, or did not.

Evidence Based Medicine

The only true way you can recognize any medicine to have curative powers, is if it can pass what are called 'Double Blind Randomized Control Trials' or DBRCT. This essentially means you collect, say 200 people with a disease, randomly give them sugar pills or homeopathic pills and then compare the effects on both groups. If your medicine works, it will be more effective than sugar pills. Let's see the importance of each of the terms in DBRCT:

Double Blind: This implies that both the person dispensing medicines (or the doctor) and the patient do not know who gets the medicine and who gets the sugar pill. If they do, then a bias can be introduced - say by giving more homeopathic medicines to the healthy patients. This would defeat the aim of the trial.

Randomized: Randomization again ensures no bias and should be effective, by using a computerized pseudo - random generator. It cannot go, say, by prescribing alternately sugar pills and medicine, because again, there may be a bias introduced in choosing the alternate patients. Good randomization also ensures patients are not being chosen by other factors like age, sex etc.

Control: Control is to primarily establish all other factors, except the medicine, are the same in both groups. Through randomization and a large enough group, we ensure the only factor which could result in the different effects on disease in both groups is the medicine. The biggest reason for having the control group and giving them actual sugar pills though is the 'placebo' effect, one of the mysteries of the natural world. We get cured partly because we think we are taking medicines. If a medicine can work better than sugar pills, it's not just placebo action.

Homeopathy has not passed any DBRCT trials till date, the few it has are ill-designed ones. This is not to say that all DBRCT trials are well - designed. The big and bad things done by big pharma usually involve manipulating these trials. 

Many times, this also involves a positive publication bias. Do an experiment a 100 times, and you are bound to come out with false positives, those flukes where it shows a good result just one time. But what if you don't publish the 99 negative outcomes and publish the one positive outcome. The net published results show a 100% positive impact of the medicine. To counter this, a trial needs to be replicable - something at which homeopathy fails again. 

Faith Based Medicine

I have tried discussing this with friends, family and with those in the bus on the archaeological trip, but what I got in return were responses which are increasingly hardened. All of us like to believe we are open-minded and ready to change our views with slightest of evidence, but in reality for most, nay all of us, the narrative of life is largely fixed, and a reaction to contrary evidence, more often that not is to ignore it or attack it. We form our beliefs first and our reasons later. Look at any investment banker justifying a deal, and you will understand what I am saying.

Science at it's core is falsifiable and to be intellectually honest, it's proclamations are ever-wavering afraid of a better explanation or more evidence. Homeopathy is nothing of these and so it is faith based medicine. The same faith which is reposed in Godmen.

But wait a minute, you say, you were ill. You tried all medicines and what cured you in the end was homeopathy. How can someone say it does not work ? Well it may work in two ways - one is chance and the other is placebo.

Chance is when homeopathy and your cure were not related. I was down with an allergic cold for a month which no doctor's medicine could cure. End of the month, my mother insisted on taking me to a homeopath. I refused to go but was cured anyway in a couple of days. If I had gone to a homeopath, I would have been cured in two days by 'homeopathic treatment'. This is why you should not rely on anecdotes but on DBRCT trials. Anecdotes have the special ability of choosing exceptional stories and making them seem more relevant. (To digress, anecdotes are what drive the anti-vaccine movement in the US, another disaster in the making.)

The second reason is this mystery called the placebo effect. It seems if we think we are taking a drug, our body actually responds as if it is. No one really understands this, though it has been dissected threadbare in terms of its visual appearance. So, in a way, what really cures you is your mind. If we could classify placebos as working medicine, shamans and other magic cures would be medically certified.

What we really do not know about faith based medicine, is the quantum of impact through the entire ritualistic rigmarole of going to a doctor, getting yourself examined and getting sugar pills versus just taking some sugar pills. Homeopathic practitioners, anecdotal evidence says, are famous for giving time, showing empathy and drilling their patients for the last traces of symptoms. This entire 'ritual' may serve to strengthen the placebo and needs serious study. Why only 'homeopathy', in bits and pieces this may help in deciphering everything that goes by the name of 'alternative medicine'. Heck, for all we know, modern anti-depressants may all be placebo !

In the same vein, Godmen too work, by chance and by helping your psychology. If Satya Sai Baba conjures vibhuti and you believe it can cure you, maybe it does sometimes. If an astrologer predicts you winning and boosts your willpower, so be it. If the 'inspirational speakers', the neo-Godmen of the materialist world, speak of how your confidence can earn you money, then they too may help your mind. 

Faith, even if it cannot move the proverbial mountains, can definitely move minds and the impact physical reality surrounding them. Given your context, vibhuti from Satya Sai Baba may be more useful as a cure, if it has no medicinal value, compared to getting a Justin Bieber haircut or listening to Himesh Reshammiya crooning. 

What is Faith ?

The responses I received from people around me on homeopathy led me to thinking on faith. The term blind faith may mean faith in what you cannot see or faith which is blind to all the counter arguments - which are present, in howsoever a flawed form, for all arguments. When you move beyond the evidence of what you immediately see and experience (called प्रत्यक्ष प्रमाण in Hindi), you enter the arena of faith. You may know a little bit about physics and may believe in an atomic bomb, but it is at the end of the day, a construct of your faith or your belief for you have never yet seen or experienced one yourself (or you would not be reading this post). It is based on hearsay and to the extent you understand the science, on your capability for inference.

So, to take a logical leap of faith here (pun intended), all of our knowledge is essentially a belief. I know this is a big jump but bear with me. With so much of belief all around, we need a framework to test and bring together these beliefs in our mind. To me the framework of the ultimate belief system of all, religion, can work as a framework for all our diverse set of beliefs - from alternate medicine to science. This is the framework of 'philosophy (or theology for want of a better word), mythology and ritual'. 

Philosophy (or theology for want of a better word) represents a deeper insight, something which you may seek to understand but which is not really necessary to understand or practice. For Islam, this would mean the Shahada, for Vedic Hinduism the Shruti, for Buddhism the four essential truths, each with all the associated dense theology. 

'Like cures like', 'dilution increases potency' and the 'memory of water' may be called the philosophy of homeopathy. 

Position of planets in the astronomical sign of your birth impacts your life is the philosophy driving astrology. 

Many don't know the philosophy behind their beliefs, which leaves them so much the poor for it, but also ironically, more pliable to arguments for the beliefs are yet not rooted. If they don't know the philosophy, though difficult, they can still change their mind.

Mythology is what connects in a very coffee - shop argument way, the dense philosophy to everyday life. It's not an accurate mapping exercise, but it captures the essence. The Mahabharata and the Puranic tales bring the Shruti directly to us. This is where anecdotal evidence comes together in a homespun fashion through lively tales and riveting stories which tie our own personal narrative with the narrative of the larger philosophy. 

While we may or may not visit the philosophy of our beliefs, we interact with it daily through our mythology. The anecdotes of people being cured by homeopathy are part of this mythology. The tales of Godmen bringing relief, of Christian saints performing miracles (a compulsory requirement for sainthood) is all a mythology that buttresses our particular belief. Mythology is the vicarious experience that fills the voids of our stories, by the collective experiences of the beliefs we associate with. It provides our minds with enough dots to make a picture. This makes our belief an important part of our identity.

Ritual is when we put our money behind our mouth, practice what we preach and so on. This is the holy grail of practice. Of praying in temples, reciting the namaz five times a day, going on pilgrimages and visiting doctors for medicines when ill. Ritual is what brings our belief alive for us. Where mythology reminds and reinforces, rituals in their myriad form lead us to do what we say.

It is the core repeatable essential of any belief system. Without this a system cannot exist. This is not the dreamy world of philosophy or the semi-real engagement of mythology. This is the touchstone of practice nurtured by mythology. What you keep doing becomes a habit and the essence of your belief, reinforced every time you repeat it.

Science as a Belief System

It is in this context of belief systems, that we can begin to empathize with the thinking of others. Science and rationality are but other variations of a belief system which can be viewed through the lens of philosophy, mythology and ritual.

In the paradigm of science - god is replaced by evidence.

'Everything is to be examined by the touchstones of peer review and proof' is the philosophy of science. We dig into its arcane roots with textbooks and papers to the extent we understand them.

When we hear of the inspiration of Einstein, Raman or Hawking or the story the relative who was cured of cancer or of new communication gadgets, we hear the mythology of science.

When we perform lab experiments, use our mobile phones, or read this blog, we enact the ritual of science.

The Roots of Faith - Mythology and Ritual

We often know our answers and frame our questions accordingly. So it is with belief systems. If there is one thing that shines through, say in political debates, it is that the participants believe firmly in their ideology - there is no search for the truth. We know the answers and all questions shall be twisted to fit our answers. No whys, hows or patient thoughts. While the leadership core may be spinning the philosophies, adopting their mythology and enacting the ritual of the party is the grass route membership. This is where we see the everyday power of mythology and ritual. They, and not the obscure and arcane reasoning, link our roots and our identity with the larger faith.

While we may not know the philosophy or the driving reasons, we are acquainted with and trust the narrative and the practice. We may not know much about the common cold and it's particular medical reasons, but we do believe in going to a doctor and taking a medicine which will cure us. We face a problem however, when another belief system tries to adopt this particular mythology and ritual.

While the core philosophy of homeopathy and medical science is poles apart, their mythology and ritual are the same. You just need to add a few words like quantum, nano, meta, energy fields and such extended faff to guide someone following the 'scientific' mythology into following the 'homeopathic' or 'alternative medicine' mythology. People really do not care about the underlying philosophy. It looks scientific and ties with the scientific narrative or mythology they identify with. The ritual is also almost the same. So in their minds, the '-pathies' of allopathy and homeopathy are comparable.

That this happens so regularly with all kinds of people and in all kinds of situations, makes me a bit aware that I may have beliefs, say political, which would not easily budge. They are pre-decided, not necessarily on evidence. As everywhere, what fits my personal narrative, my mythology and reinforces my ritual would be my truth. It would be very difficult to shake that belief system. This stands true for religion, for Godmen, for homeopathy and I like to think, for rational science.

So be careful, be very careful when you lampoon another's faith. Many a times, you will use the same argument as being perfectly reasonable for your belief. Much like the missionaries teaching the civilizing virgin birth to a tribe following magic. One set of beliefs traded for another.

Disclaimer:
All of this, is of course, coloured by my vision and beliefs.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Reading Updike

I could feel the skin on the back of my hands wrinkle. My breath slowed down and I felt tired - fatigued all over. As I read, my knees turned rheumatoid, memory wobbly and the air seemed thick with the pallor of sickness. I was reading John Updike writing about age.

I had heard about Updike many times. Between book reviews, amazon links, the Best Short Stories of America and other such discriminators of literary virtue, I finally chanced upon a book of his short stories five years ago at a quaint second hand bookstore (incidentally the first book I ever bought abroad), and painfully left it behind, unread, in the aircraft. Hope the book made someone else's day.

Then, in 2012 at a Strand Sale, I came across his last book 'My Fathers' Tears', about age and death, published posthumously. From hard hearted reviews that I read, this book did not impress the literati. It was seen, as a tiring master's last attempt. A master Updike certainly was, with virtuoso skills in constructing his prose.

Like all great literature, Updike's stories convey much more than what he actually wrote. The words are lyrical, roll off your mental tongue easily and build an atmosphere quietly which crawls under your skin while you least notice it. Only when you end a story does the impact punch in, especially in the story I liked best 'The Walk with Elizanne'. It speaks of a 50th high school reunion, where Dave meets Elizanne (his girlfriend of 50 years ago) and with her prompting recalls when they walked home and first kissed. It ends with the most poignant note a story could ever end with.

The book speaks of age which we do not notice passing. One day, you are 18 with a whole range of possibilities ahead of you, 50 years later seems to be a philosophical intangible truth, everyone says it will come but will it really is what you are thinking, till you realize another day, when you find yourself 70, that life has just passed by. What days and moments could not tell you, a collection of years has laid bare. Updike weaves through this realization in his stories - of relationships, imagination, fears and favors and while doing this connects the right points.

The hallmark of every unremarkable life is its recap in indignantly sorrowful misery. What had to happen has already happened. A once fluid future has transformed into a now un-mutating past.  If only time rolls back, if only I have another chance, if only I would have done that what would have been, what could have been.

Your beliefs, ideals, actions mostly do not matter for the stage to which you have reached - success, social status, disease and misfortune are determined by chance and choice.  The chance gets to your guts, almost hurting for it never is and never was just. The choices haunt you forever, for those are where the could-have-beens of life are consigned to the Neverlands of imagination.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

The Enchanted Woods

“I don't believe in things like that - fairies or brownies or magic or anything. It's old-fashioned.'
'Well, we must be jolly old-fashioned then," said Bessie.


- Enid Blyton, The Folk of the Faraway Tree

It was a cold comforting glow, a speck of light blue that sat still. 'Glow-worm' came the helpful explanation from somewhere. It was difficult to stop staring at this 'ineffectual fire'. This speck was the tail end of a fairly large worm, half a finger large but the body was invisible - dissolved by darkness in the mushy blackness all around.

We had just started on the forest trail to Rajmachi with Trek-o-phy, a Mumbai based trekking group. The day before had seen the first showers of the season drenching Mumbai, the Met and private forecasters were still debating if it was monsoon or pre-monsoon. The showers had still to reach Uttarakhand with their devastating impact. Our currently worry was their immediate effect on Rajmachi woods.

In pitch darkness, our group of fourteen was taking slow careful steps around the beautiful valley from Lonavala. The holiday homes of the rich and famous had been left behind with the dusk, giving way to a dark moonless night in the forest. Night sounds were seeping in. Frogs had started croaking full throated. Here and there, you could hear the sounds of water flowing, last nights showers draining off, punctuated with the prittle-prattle of 28 feet. Bobbing torches were being switched on.

Then, we saw the first yellow twinkle, a shine in a bush nearby: a firefly. Everyone gathered round and soon there was another flash and again another - flying yellow dots were increasingly visible. As the night grew darker, the dots increased in density - glowing in large numbers with stunning periodicity.

The woods it seemed were waking up in another magical land. All tree-tops were lined with magnificently shining cold glows. It seemed the forest was decked up for Diwali (which reminded of Chinese lights and how fireflies look like Chinese lights). At each nook, you could feel you would run into gandharvas dancing, goblins celebrating or leprechauns collecting the golden lights. Vast arrays in trees - thousands strong - would go on blinking relentlessly, unmindful of our fascinated eyes staring with a deep sense of the fantastic. The stars had decided to decorate the earth for a day.

Lights would start at one end and move on to the other. These were also friendly creatures - easily captured in a hand, you could notice the tiny speck between fingers as it crawled out from the palm and tried to walk outwards. They were also either too lazy or naive - you could run after one to catch it. Catching a firefly and releasing it into a blinking mass is the closest to Harry Potter that I have ever actually come. Seeing a lot of them captured in a bottle (with holes for oxygen) is the easily the most fascinating array of live night lights I have seen in a room.

It was hard to believe in the actual reality - that these were fireflies gathering for a humungous mating festival - lasting 2 - 4 weeks. Most of them would die within days - now that the rains were here.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Ruins, Rocks and Stars II

We return to the guest house in anticipation. This is by far the clearest sky we have ever seen. The Bear, the Crow, the Hunter, the Whale, the Scorpion and many others are engaged in a most amazing celestial dance. Hercules and Perseus stood proud while Cassiopeia was sitting haughty on her chair. Hidden everyday of our quotidian lives by the lights of Mumbai, in Kutch the curtain is finally off and we can see the universe. This is the place where you can visualize infinity, touch it and feel it.

Infinity immediately also reminded us of our empty stomachs. We had a wonderful home cooked dinner by the caretaker. He was genuinely pleased to serve - not used to many people everyday. This was by far the least busy place he had been posted to in Gujarat - except in November when people dropped in for long and tiring daytrips from the Rann Festival. His pet dog strolled around with a large thorny collar. This is for protection from wolves, he helpfully explained, they go straight for the neck.

We decided to rest our tired backs. At 2.00 am, I finally realized I could not sleep. Disturbed by all the silence, I stepped out and glanced up, standing in hushed silence. I woke up the the other two also and we stared together in disbelief. There, right up above us was the most awe - inspiring celestial specimen, our galaxy -  the milky way, shades of wafting cotton rising in the night sky starting from the swan and encompassing the archer, Sagittarius. Binoculars could detect here a vast treasure of nebulae, clusters - blobs and patches in the night sky where stars held congress, new ones were forming and old ones flickering  out.

You can see the lightest of stars and this was the way they were visible 4,500 years ago in the land of the Harappans. It seems almost surprising, how long humans took to reach astrology. The ancients experienced divinity daily, night after night in fixed patterns from the shimmering Pleiades, Honeycombs and Butterflies to the gigantic cotton ring of the Milky Way. Linking this to inconsequential human fate was but a tiny leap.

At 4.00 we finally decided this was enough. We woke up later than planned the next day to visit the ancient city. Raojibhai, the ASI appointed local had promised to take us around. Unlike most other ASI caretakers, Raojibhai knew the site like the back of his hand. He could understand common sense archaeology and had worked with R.S. Bisht when the site was being excavated in the 90s. We could also see him showing villagers around.

A brand new plastic signboard directed us to the 'castle' - past two gigantic reservoirs. The Sarasvati was already in it's dying phases when Dholavira was erected. The residents here knew the value of water. Two fresh water streams fed the city and their water was stored all around. To this day, Raojibhai informed us, in the monsoon the streams could feed the city.  





Right now though, the reservoirs were the reserve of the jungle rat - not the grey sewer bandicoots roaming a city but the brown rats of the the Kutchi desert. The archaeological digging was deep and had rendered the soil soft - the rats had easy pickings.

Archaeologists had graded the occupation of Dholavira into various stages, however, even untrained eyes could recognize two - the early city dwellers and the later squatters. 

The early city dwellers lived in an amazingly planned city with a central authority. The 'king' would have been living on a raised platform - with a grand entrance - enough to awe any oncoming traders and the general citizenry around. The 'bailey' and 'middle town' housed probably the aristocracy and noblemen. Here, gems were fired, pots were made, grain stored and bazaars held whose precise right angled streets survive even today. These city dwellers dug wells, trained water to their large stone - carved tanks at which experts still wonder, executed a sewerage system unparalleled for years to come, made truck loads of steatite beads, fired carnelian, agate and all sorts of precious stones and were experts in stone buildings living amongst mud brick building contemporaries.

Then somewhere around 3,500 years ago these people disappeared, quite suddenly if we consider archaeological timespans. Why and how is still a matter of speculation that troubles archaeologists to this day. Some blame the environment, others a the fall in trade and still others point to unsuspecting immigrants. Some dinosaurs, fit to be under archaeological study themselves, blame invading Aryan armies.

The second phase of squatters could perhaps make sense of the ruins that lay around them, the way we do today. They were of limited means - using the earlier wells and tanks, building round huts on top of the 'citadel' ruins, transforming early drain covers to welcome mats and letting their sewerage out what was once the main entrance. The signs of early occupation and the conveniences of traditional life - water, dry land, sufficient stone would have attracted them in the first place and had given a second lease of life, though a fumbling and heart-broken one, to this ancient land.

On one of the steps of the citadel's entrances, taking us to a large rectangular 'stadium', we came across a large tin shed filled with rubble. Around it could be seen the signs of earthquake. One of the pillars was tilted. We stopped by the tin-shed and called out to Raojibhai who had walked ahead by now. He looked back, smiled and told us a story of astounding bureaucracy. When the site was being excavated in the 60s, the archaeologists found a specimen without comparison in the history of the subcontinent. We could almost imagine the conversation:

"Wow! Let's take this to Delhi !'

"And how do you exactly plan to do that ?"

"Load this on a truck.."

"And if the truck driver gets too drunk or too smart..."

"I get the drift.. we can't risk that!!"

"Yup"

"So if we don't take it to Delhi. What do we do ? We can't just leave it lying here. It's too precious for that."

"Lets just cover it with plastic, lots of mud, stones and build a shed around it."

So there, in that shed lay the largest inscription of the Indus-Sarawati Civilization we had ever seen. Three metres and 10 characters long, it was carved in gypsum on wood and had served as a large signpost over the stadium visible from all 'middle-town' and even the 'lower town', while the wood had decayed over time, the gypsum characters remained embedded in the ground.


Source: The Dholavira Signboard

I and Sohil walked around the site a bit while Frenil captured random Kutchi birds in his camera. The archaeologists in their zest had created another class division infested replica on the ground. Brick houses for senior archaeologists and mud-huts for the students - all unused since 2005, when the last season of excavations had happened.

The site museum was surprisingly well kept, with artifacts, pictures and also a polished ancient wood fossil - around 180 - 140 million years ago when this fossil was tree, Dinosaurs still roamed in India, the Himalayas were yet to be born, Madagascar was a small boat trip away and the Deccan traps with their giant volcanoes had yet to rock peninsular India.

Overwhelmed, we left Dholavira and headed to Bhuj, on to the next leg of our journey. On the way back to Rapar, we passed the Little Rann Sanctuary and with a large car and clicking cameras, disturbed a family of Neelgai resting peacefully, that ran away kicking dust into the air.

Ruins, Rocks and Stars I

(Warning: Lots of rambling ahead of a trip in May 2012)

We could see a weakly swirling mass of dust in the foreground with bits of paper and plastic. "That's a twister", pointed out Frenil and with it started our trip. A trip to explore one of the hidden gems in India's western corner - the great ruins at Dholavira, located between the large white salt flats of the Rann.

After three failed attempts at planning the trip and being muscled out of the tatkal reservations, we finally managed to snare the last three sleepers in a bus to Bhachau. Our morning was spent in Ahmedabad, the city of 24x7 eateries and the Siddi Sayyid's Jali. The Siddi's are African communities in India, mostly slaves brought in by monarchs - a digression for another day.

Ahmedabad is curiously small and surprisingly clean for a Mumbaikar. The Sabarmati riverfront, forever under construction, is emerging beautifully. Camel carts dot the sides of the bridge.  Narendra Modi posters are ubiquitous. On a side note, purely from posters, his personality cult seems far behind those of our competing UP leaders.

Around 50 - 100 kms outside the city, our horizon starved senses could feel a singeing 360 degree view. We were on wide plains. Though the Rann had yet to start, it was sending us feelers. On both sides were large salt pans, fed by small creeks, arms of the sea that burrowed landwards. This was where most of India's kitchens sourced their taste. Far afield were the outlines of almost endless windmills churning in tireless beauty. Wagons upon wagons of rail were carrying containers and coal. A signboard indicated their provenance as Kandla  and Mundra Port. Our bus left us on the gates of Bhachau - and trundled onward to Bhuj. Our cab, a Vertio, or a Logan if you prefer original names, had been chasing the bus for half an hour. We saw the twister as we got into the Logan.

Our chatty driver filled us up on facts: we were going around 140 kms beyond into the heart of Kutch, which gets its names from 'Kachhbo' - Gujarati for tortoise. If you look at the map, Kutch looks like an inverted tortoise shell. Driving through a gate that welcomed us to the Harappan heartland of Dholavira (Dholavira -  122 km), you could sense an eerie quiet. Few vehicles passed us by. After Leh (which I have seen) and the Northeast (which I have not), perhaps Dholavira is one of the few roads to nowhereland in India. The last outpost Rapar, where the BSF camps, is still 76 kms away. Here you can stock on a limited paraphernalia of modern life. We got a cup of tea and a day's stock of fruits - just in case. 


The small island is Kadir Bet and around it is the sea / white salt flats (Courtesy Google Maps)



The salt flats up close

The Rann is a vast salty desert, India's very own Uyuni. Some call this the mouth of the Saraswati. This river, like a dying parent, over the last 6000 to 4000 years, partitioned its water to the Indus and the Yamuna. The sea claimed what the river abandoned and the delta turned into a desert. In the Rann, every monsoon, the sea, full of salt, brims onto the flats and with water, migrate birds - by the thousand. Flamingoes, pelicans, egrets and bird-watchers of all variety flock the place. In summers, the water starts drying and leaves in its wake miles of crystallized salt. This sublime whiteness is bordered by small pickled fish. It's so salty that the fish and insects do not decompose. Hordes of bird feathers lying on the shore stand testament to their avian owners.This year, it rained hard and it rained long. In April, the Rann was yet drying with parts of it becoming giant mirror.


Pickled fish of the Rann
Dholavira is located in an island, the ‘Bet’, between this salty madness. Around you, signs of hinterland abound. Old men are herding goats in the traditional dresses and old women, many-a-times wonderfully tattooed all over, cross your path. The younger men dispense with the dresses and the women with the tattoos. We overtake bullock carts pulled by frighteningly large and hefty bulls with intimidating horns. One look and you understand why many cultures, including perhaps the Harappans, thought of bulls as the ultimate alpha males. The bigger houses in the scattered villages or hamlets are made of stone, the smaller ones are circular huts, essentially unchanged for thousands of years.

We reach the government guest house Toran, surprisingly well maintained but completely empty. The guest book tells us we are the second group of vistors to dare venture here in the sweltering April heat. November to February are busy months - remember the bird watchers? Around the complex we see the modern ruins of a great plan to turn this place into a tourism hub. Remains of a fountain, an amphitheater, an earmarked area for a handicrafts bazaar lie abandoned. The hotel, however, has tasteful rooms modeled on traditional round kutch huts and has, with some measure of irony, thatched roofs.

With some time on hand, we try taking the car to the nearby Park and fail miserably. On the advise of the site caretaker, we hire a local jeep used on farmland. While the jeep was about to start, a small boy, around 6 - 7 years old, a bundle of energy with green eyes and shining teeth jumped in. He was going the same way and was visibly excited on getting a ride. Sohil spoke with him along the way. This boy was delivering tea, food and a strong stick to his brother who lived an almost permanently pastoral life. The stick was to keep away wild animals (wolves?). He would return in the morning with goat milk. These here, I thought, were some of the last pastoral communities of the world. 

Also visible with the agro - pastoral life was abject poverty. Having seen and heard a little bit of the Indian countryside, I found the level of poverty here to be, if we search for a word, more endurable. In the middle of nowhereland, it had access to an excellent motorable road, a school to the 7th class and 24 hour electricity connections - if you could pay for it. This was definitely not the state I had seen  in Bengal about an year ago. While returning by car, others started discussing in kutchi. The topic was of rising farm wages, not so high prices for produce, lazy labour and so on and so forth. They were chatting on progress and one thing of concern was education - grassroots aspiration and capitalism asserting itself ! As an interesting aside, you sense them converting a lot 'S's into 'H's, like 'Samjho' was 'Hamjho' - a fragment perhaps of a Central Asian ancestry (remember Sindhu = Hindu). 

As we returned, the slimmest of all moons was setting in twilight. Orion, the hunter was visible on the western  sky. 

We return to the guest house in anticipation. This is by far the clearest sky we have ever seen....