Tuesday, February 22, 2005

On Death

In the last class of the course on leadership, the professor made us think of epitaphs for ourselves - what the world would say of us if we were to pass away today. All I could think of was...

Here lies Total,
Died in a hotel.

Pretty bleak.

So I tried coming up with a few alternatives.

Here lies Total,
Lived in a hotel.

Subtle difference. Not quite there though.

Here lies Cue,
Choked on his stew.

As you can see, my attempt at changing the name didn't have the desired effect either.

Here lies Cue,
Never had a clue
On what to do
Hope he has an adventure
Off in the wild yonder blue.

This might have been fitting near the end of my college days.

Here lies Gautam,
Who fit in with the crowd
Remembered how he'd fooled them
Hence died, laughing out too loud.

This would go well for the cynical Gautam of years ago, I suppose.

Tried eating stroganoff

(Mushrooms! Blast 'em!)
Something few
Live to tell

The tale of.

Here lies Total
On top of Cue
On top of Gautam.

Fitting considering my aversion to mushrooms and vice versa.

I really like this exercise.
Now, to throw myself to the lions.
Comments? Epitaphs??

Friday, February 18, 2005

Of Winter Monsters

My favourite Calvin strips are the ones with Calvin in bed, fretting over the monsters under the bed and hiding in the closet. (Once I figure out how to post pictures on a blog I'll insert one of those here. Till then, please to imagine one such.) Unlike calvin, I had an elder brother who comforted me (mostly) and protected me from my monsters. But on occasion, I'm glad I got to sleep alone and dream up such wonderful things.

There are vile bats living in my room
Black and hairy, terribly unruly.
I huff and puff and sweep and broom
But it's only Prince that they find groovy.*

Here's a tyrannosaur in the corner
Waiting to jump me in my slumber
If I should turn but for a minute
He'll have me on his breakfast skillet

Now this bedspread springs to life
Adding insult to my strife
With evil intent thick and rife,
Attacks me, sharp as a kitchen knife.

The toothbrush too joins the chorus
And drags along the plastic lotus
The pencilstand takes on the onus
Conductor of the magnum opus.

"Ammaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!". Footsteps. Doorknob. Lights.
Suddenly, nothing. Everyone's acting cute.
Back in their places, even the ghastly passion fruit.
Amma thinks I'm making it up - "Crazy sights",
Hugs and kisses, "Sweet dreams, you naughty brute",
Footsteps. Doorknob. Darkness.
I think she's in on it. God, bless
Me, and get me through these wintry nights.

* For almost all of the last year, there was a small, untroubling bat that lived in a corner of my room. It fed on God-knows-what, mostly my clothes I think, especially anything remotely resembling a butterfly or lizard(that, in combination with Sidin, will account for the loss of all my Goan shirts), and was mostly harmless. Every night at around 3 a.m., it would get hyperactive and start shrieking, restless, and probably hungry I guess. More than the academics, I think it is responsible for the complete annihilation of my sleep cycle. I tried many things to rid myself of it, all in vain, and finally, defeated, and with maybe a tinge of morbid curiosity about rabies, I just carried on with my life, noisy shriek and all. One day, it happened - Prince, with no less a song than Batdance, turned up on the Winamp shuffle, and Cross-my-heart-and-hope-to-die, I swear it, the bat shut up to listen.

It became a daily ritual after that.
3 a.m. Glass-breaking, shrill shriek from the bat.
3 - 3:30 a.m. I ignore the spoilt brat. Defiant shrieking in return.
3:31 a.m. I give in. Vicky Vale. Time for the Batdance.
3:37 a.m. Peace and quiet.

I shifted room at the end of the year, however, and I hear from the current occupant, that the bat left too. Pretty soon, I missed the guy, and I kind of figured he'd left my life. But it's 3 a.m. now and up in the corner, I can hear a shrill shriek. And the little fella's (I hope it's the same guy) is welcome here. Time to root out that favourite number of his. After all, one can always use a little excitement in life, no matter how batty it may be.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Google has finally failed me. In a movie I saw a few hours ago on the leadership lessons of Don Quixote, the filmmaker - James Marsh, Emeritus Professor at Stanford University - speaks the following luminous words and attributes them to what I heard as the work of Ibsen.

Whoever you are,
Be with all your heart.
Not piece by piece,
Nor part by part.

I've been Googling for it for the last hour or so in an attempt to read from the source. Sadly, not only is the text of the source not available, I can't seem to find any reference when I add the keyword Ibsen either.

If any of you who read this should know of the source, do let me know.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Arguments of Merit

For an irritated Neville :)

There is a yearning I used to feel (and still do) for equality, for meritocracy, for justice and opportunity – graduation from college, school, finding a job, all of these junctures tested my understanding of these issues. Somewhere along the line, I think I got all these issues mixed up and I'm still trying to unthread the tangle here. Meritocracy is a question of judgement – it implicitly includes a standard, a parameter of judgement – and concerns itself with the issue of procedural justice in passing judgement. Opportunity is more directly a question of equality – it is far more fundamental; before one can quibble over the process of evaluation, one must be given the chance to be evaluated.

So clearly, the question of meritocracy does not, will not arise till the basic conditions of equality of opportunity are satisfied – it’s almost a natural progression. So, is it not natural then that the question of equality of opportunity having been addressed, a society MUST necessarily move on to trying to establish meritocracy?


A Short(?) Aside

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.

- W.B. Yeats: 'The Second Coming'

Those are the immortal words that are printed on the first page of 'Things Fall Apart' - Chinua Achebe's novel on the effects of colonization on one African village, and on one man, Okonkwo, in particular. Achebe writes in English but the novel has a distinctive African voice and one is quickly, easily, drawn into the rich, beautiful world he describes. Achebe’s writing is intoxicating; Okonkwo’s hopes and desires become the reader’s, his urges mirrored in our own and the ultimate tragedy of his life – that he is forsaken by his own people, his beliefs and values shattered – leaves a deep scar on the reader.

Achebe writes with an agenda - to demolish the myth perpetrated by the mass of European literature, and in particular Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, that represented Africa as the 'dark continent' - backward, uncivilized, and savage. And he succeeds brilliantly; Achebe establishes clearly that pre-colonial Africa possessed a rich 'civilization' - the village life he describes is structured and meaningful, with an elaborate socio-political system establishing rules and hierarchies for ascendancy in society. At the end of the novel, one is left with a distinct sense of loss at the wiping out of the civilization he describes and distaste for the unwavering, inevitable sanitizing spread of the powers of European colonization.

There is one particular aspect of the civilization Achebe describes that is relevant to the subject of meritocracy. Consider: Okonkwo, despite or perhaps because of the precedent set by his father, a lazy, debt-ridden dreamer, rises to a position of power and status in the society solely on the basis of his own achievements. Never is he judged for the sins of his father and similarly, never will his own son, be judged on the basis of the deeds of Okonkwo. It is thus clear then that the system is meritocratic. In comparison to the historical caste system in India, the system Achebe describes is highly progressive, modern.

Yet, despite all of this, the civilization falters, stumbles and finally crumbles, with nary a conflict, a small uprising. Achebe never addresses the reasons directly, but there are hints. There is great dissatisfaction within the society – probably because the structures are too rigid and the great inequality in recognition of different qualities. Okonkwo’s own son, a man of few qualities by the standards of the traditional society, converts to Christianity to make a better life for himself. When Okonkwo kills a colonial in disgust at his condescension, he finds no support in his kin for his actions though what he does would be considered heroic in the strict sense of the traditional value systems.

So gradually… no, not gradually, but with vicious speed, savage insensitivity, with furious condescension, the new replaces the old and a world, an ancient and beautiful world, is annihilated.

The answer (to: Why did the African civilization fall without a fight? What led to the dissatisfaction of the people?) seems then not to lie merely in lack of opportunity, or in questions of meritocracy alone.

I used to be all Gung-Ho about meritocracy; but slowly, surely the flip side of the coin seems to reveal itself to me – justice and judgement hinges on the parameters one chooses to use to evaluate someone/something by and this brings to the table the entire gamut of issues of perspective – one man’s meat is another man’s flesh. In addition, meritocracy, or rather procedure, can get boring.

Consider: McKinsey & Co. has probably THE most rigorous selection procedure of all the companies coming to campus for placements. They put the candidates through a rigorous set of case studies and interviews built to highlight different characteristics they wish to evaluate. There is no question that it’s as fair as it gets – but my friend Peau posits that even here there are problems. Essentially, he raises the question of whether one can train oneself to ace the test even without possessing the actual qualities; can one fool the test? The answer seems to rest on whether the candidates know in advance what the procedure tries to test. If so, not only can one fool the test, but provided the carrot is large enough – a job with McKinsey, entrance into an IIT – everyone is encouraged and taught to follow the same patterns of thought. In short, it kills diversity in thought – and that, is very very very boooooooooooring.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Fitting In - The Six Sigma Way

On Dec. 23 last, I finally made the switch from the mess facilities on campus to the customizable (more on this later) services of Jai Singh - 9825633613 (as advertised on the notice board)'s South Indian dabba.

My prior experience of Mr. Singh's Dabba had been limited to a meal shared with Pareau, Sidin and fa-T over a year ago. Which means I ended up with approximately a bite and a half of idly and one teaspoon of sambhar mixed with two pinches of tenga* chutney. Those of you who know Pareau, or Sidin, or fa-T will hopefully sympathize. In time, however, I got to hearing more and more about Mr. Singh and this dabba. Mostly enthusiastic reviews; but once I heard Sudduochio Mumbai-bred Ramakrishnan (He of the "Hakka-noodles is good for the stomach" fame) recommend it as good stuff, I decided it would probably be in my better interest to stick with the mess a while longer. Eventually, however, neither the sheer weight and number of recommendations nor the disturbingly high levels of hair and oil, or possibly just hair-oil, in the mess food could be ignored - my tayir-saadham raised stomach groaned and grumbled and ached, very literally, for a change. In one fell swoop, I cut the umbilical to my nourisher of old.

Naturally, I had doubts regarding the abilities of a man named Jai Singh to provide an authentic steaming pongal or an aromatic pooshnika kootu. These worries were partially tided over once I realized that Jai Singh was indeed none other than an enterprising Jayasinghe, with ancestral links to our Sri Lankan neighbours. But as things would have it, JS's grinder had broken down only a week before I signed on and thus I waited patiently, longingly, day after day after yearning day for that first elusive bite of anything with a remote semblance to Amma's rasam. In the meantime, I subsisted on a daily, stifling, unvarying routine of: Lunch - 5 rotis, one curry (either beans or brinjal or some other veggie that one frequently observes mangling Calvin to death in his cartoons), one large serving of rice and one large cup of a substance somewhere between dal and sambhar, tilted slightly to the dal side on most days. Dinner - much the same as lunch. To make matters worse, JS is hardly the equal of the Bombay Tiffinwallahs in service - customization means sticking to custom to him and many a time I've been left waiting in the lurch for lunch or dinner, stomach grumbling, having to scrounge out a last-minute meal at the mess or order out.

Despite all of these shortcomings, I've thoroughly loved my experience with JS and his dabba over the last five weeks. I have little in way of explanation. The austerity and simplicity of the meal and presentation - it arrives either in a steel case (the kind most Madrasi school-children used to carry around in my time) or in a sheer unpretentious, plastic insulating box - have a large part to play I think. On occasion when I've shared my dabba, I'm transported back to lunch break in my school in Bangalore, with arms and legs and elbows and knees engaged in dynamic criss-crossing pattern, in a desperate attempt to land Ajitabh's cheese sandwich or Dhivakar's vaddam while protecting my own fried rice. Scooping out a handful of rice (I own neither spoon nor fork) has the scintillating effect of putting me in direct touch with the shared lives of a thousand other dabba-eaters around the country - Prabhadevi office-goers, Nariman Point bankers, Law Garden babus, Navi Mumbai construction workers, and of course 40 fellow students here. There is some very personal quality about a dabba that reminds me that I belong somewhere. That I fit in.

Till next time... my brinjal curry is here.