Wednesday, May 31, 2006

The SheetHole of Djinns

Remember Lallu? Well, he's back. Married. Wedded. Land-locked. Looking particularly miserable.

He hasn't spoken yet. At least, he hasn't said anything that hasn't consisted of "Sir, lunch ke liye kya laaoon?" or "Sir, chai banaoon?" That is to say, should I bring lunch? Should I make tea?

Now I'm trying to remember if he was always like this. As befitted his lowly office status, poor fellow, he always used to grovel somewhat, although I only knew him for about two weeks before his time came. He didn't say much then, but he says even less now.

Now, as with idle minds everywhere, several things spring to mine.

Is it the wife? God alone knows if he had even seen her before the whole thing was arranged, and nobody knows but he what his expectations from it were, but is it possible that, well, things got rather noisy on the western front?

The choice of his (albeit few) words are particularly incriminating. Maybe the wife is a dominatrix. (Maybe not. Don't hit me.)

Is it the in-laws? However monstrous this is as a possibility generally, I think, in this case, not. After all, he's come back to Delhi from Rae Bareli, wife in tow. I don't know yet, but I'd be very sorry for him if in-laws came in tow as well. He's an altogether frail and miserable looking chap, and that's a huge load to bear. He shares his small accommodation with a couple of other fellows, who are likely now to be booted out to respect post-wedding privacies and that of a woman generally. If saas and sasur are going be around all the time then there won't be any grandchildren, will there?

Is it the wedding? Overwhelming they can be. Again, unlikely. After all, as with all jutta Indian families, it was the bride's side that cried when it tried to divide the sums that, instead, multiplied.

Is it, ahem, the afterplay? Could be could be. When the age of man cometh, the man must cometh of age. He looks so comprehensively overwhelmed (can you say that?) that methinks this is the reason.

Is it the prospects for the future? Or the lack of them? Hmm. In my humble and utterly uninformed opinion, isn't it a bit too early to be beaten into submission by this? Aren't the first few weeks (if not months) of marriage supposed not to be torturous? I don't know. Pray tell.

Time will tell if you won't. Dada and the Sage haven't had a chance to go at him yet but when they do it will be entertaining, of that I am assured.


So what has office-talk been about, in the two weeks that Lallu hasn't been around? Not much, as you can imagine. Lunch is a desultory affair.

But not yesterday. Yesterday I had to work very hard at trying not to laugh out loud.

A bit of background, first.

Dada has been looking for a new apartment. He's been living in some hole in the wall and feels that it is time, with the elevation in his status and income, to move into a hole in many walls.

Two days ago he came to office looking very pleased with himself. (Funny how this is a recurring theme, isn't it.) He said he had found a rather nice apartment, on the top floor of some building. It had an attached terrace that was virtually a private one, although technically it was available to all occupants of the building. But since the entry was through his apartment, it was restricted to him alone.

Yes, I don't understand either. Did the landlord really expect it to be a common terrace even though people would have to wander through someone else's apartment in order to reach it? This cannot possibly be a satisfactory arrangement generally.

Anyway, Dada looked very satisfied because he had beaten down the rent figure, agreed on a price, agreed to return the next day with a cheque, liked the apartment, liked the building and liked the neighbourhood.

The landlord liked him too, it seems. He (the landlord) even called later that day to confirm. This only added to Dada's smugness. Note: this made him even more unbearable. He spent the whole day crooning Satellite over and over again in a Bengali falsetto. He even discussed air-conditioning and how much he planned to spend on it. The only thing left to fix up was furniture, of which he said he had none.

Everything seemed nice and set. In fact, Dada was so impressed by the landlord's professionalism that it made him say: "I theenk Delhiites are good to do beesness with. Earlier I had gone to look for an apartment in Chittaranjan Park but the Bengalis here are terrible. They all wanted to know eef I had girlfriend, how long she'd stay, eef I would have people over late, what food I planned to eat for laanch. They are so nosy and interfering. Saach a closed society. Thees landlord deedn't ask thousand questions. Also the apartment has separate entrance. So thoughtful."

You just KNOW something is about to happen. You're right. All's Well that ends in Woe.

He went back to the apartment the next day with a cheque. To his shock and horror and to our subsequent amusement, apparently the landlord had already signed the contract with someone else, presumably for a higher rent. Dada was left holding a cheque and looking rather foolish with his mouth open, surrounded by a gaggle of little kids throwing stones at him and laughing, while he cursed them in coarse Bengali. (The last, of course, is conjecture.)

Now if you're a Dilliwallah you take this in your stride, mutter a few deprecations, and march on. But if you're freshly caught from the Bay of Bengal, you're personality-wise a cross between Eeyore and Droopy, it is a hot summer's day and you've wasted 100 bucks on an auto, and you've just been bakra-ed by a Delhi babu, then you come to work PISSED OFF!

The Sage had a blast. Even though we'd all been through the story several times, recounted by Dada in different words and with different degrees of fury, every time he would come into the room the Sage would start the conversation all over again, pretending to be very 'thoughtful' about it.

"Sir, I think Delhi is the worst," he would say. Or "you know, if you go somewhere else, sir, this wouldn't happen." Or, just to get under Dada's skin, "you shouldn't let this affect you sir. This is how the city is. You have to just get used to it."

Each time Dada's spleen would vent at a higher level. Finally: "Thees ees eet, sir. I am going uhway from thees seety. I promised myself I would only stay here two or three ears, but I am going to leave after the summer."

"But why sir? I'm sure you'll find an apartment," the Sage said, vainly suppressing a smile. I on the other hand was mentally rolling all over the floor. (ROFLing, is it?)

"NO!" Dada fell for the bait every single time. "Thees ees not about apartments sir. All Delhiites are theeves. I mean, in Calcutta also people are deeshonest, but Delhi ees a sheethole."

The Sage, strangely, took great pride in this. "Yes yes, sir," he nodded, self-importantly. "It is that."

"Nobody takes a contract seriously. Nobody takes anything seriously. Ees thees how they do beesness always? No wonder Delhi is such a meeserable place. I mean, look at the weather also. And there is no caalture. And the food is so oily and Punjabi." Everything was fair game, in his rage. Leave no stone unturned or weapon unused.

"Eef I can't change the seety, I can change my location. I am going to leave sir. Thees ees a jungle."

A jungle it is. And we're bungling away.

P.S You don't think I should I be affected by all this, do you? I just think it's funny.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

O Re O A-Bhaaga

I went for a jog yesterday. My colony has a perimeter road that is almost like a racetrack and it is almost exactly one kilometre long, so it is perfect.

But that's the only nice thing about the whole episode. The road. That's how bad things were.

On Sunday, a few hours before my mum is to leave for some conference, we are all sitting around in my parents' bedroom and talking about this and that, when suddenly my mum's attention gets drawn to my physical health, or lack thereof...

"You've become so weak and haggard!" she exclaims. I'm a bit taken aback, but I don't have time to react. It is almost as if a couple of months of pent-up irritation and displeasure has finally thrown open the door. When she's like this she's like a pressure-cooker - make a small mistake and you get scalded, make a large one and the whole thing explodes leaving you covered in goo. (On second thoughts, maybe not quite that drastic, but when I'm full of self-pity I'm hard to stop.)

"First of all," she starts (and I resign myself to a long one), "this stupid beard that you've decided to grow makes you look so thin and gaunt. Plus your hair, it is so unkempt. At least brush it regularly! Right now you look like those roadside jhallas."

I struggle to keep up. A look of indignation is slowly replaced by one of argumentativeness, and then by one of quiet suffering. (I'm saving the whiny cringing look that I have made my own for when things get desperate). I look pointedly at my brother, the oldest diversionary technique in the book, but to no avail.

"You've stopped eating properly, you've stopped exercising. And Madhav, you HAVE to stop smoking."

"I don't smoke (all that much) Ma!" I protest, although even to my own ears I sound feeble.

"No. You have to stop entirely. And you drink too much. I'm not bringing you any whisky." At this point I'm like a prize fighter who has lost the prize, flat on his back, out cold on the floor. Not literally though, it wouldn't have helped. My mother would have just walked all over me.

Dad finds it suitable to intervene. I thank him silently for it, until I realise what he is saying.

"Look J he has stolen a cigarette from me. Look in his pocket it is there." And, to top it all, as if that wasn't bad enough already, "Madhav are you on drugs?"


My mother makes all the dramatic gestures of a woman in agony, puts her ear to my chest to examine my heartbeat, examines my lips for tell-tale nicotine marks, but cannot find anything. There is nothing to find! I'm busy thinking of a suitably cutting response to deliver in a trademark flourish, while my mother has meanwhile moved on to examining my arms presumably to see how thin they've gotten.

I'm a fool for not realising what she's really doing. It takes my brother to point it out. "Hahahahahaha she's examining your arms to see if there are needle marks. She's looking to see if you're on drugs hahahahahaha!" He occupies himself with thrashing around on his chair in obvious delight. Indeed my mother seems suspiciously preoccupied with the insides of my elbows.

Hahahaha NOT! That does it. Out comes whiny cringer. "No Ma I'm not on drugs! How can you even THINK such a thing?" And then I spoil the effect with "Oh, and there are other ways to drugs besides injection, you know that right?" Even in my predicament I cannot resist the taste of fresh foot.

I really cannot remember what happened in the next half an hour or so. Maybe I passed out. Maybe I was bonked on the head. Maybe the subject changed and I blacked out in relief. I don't know. But what I do know is that at that point I decided to start exercising again. I've always avoided jogging saying that I prefer playing sports as a form of exercise, but the latter is impossible these days. Sports require more than one person and that is a seemingly insurmountable obstacle.

And so, the next evening, I find myself on the road, music in ear, clad in a delightfully short pair of shorts, trotting along.

It starts pleasantly enough. John Fogerty is screaming encouragement in my ears, a couple of pretty girls are out on an evening walk, and it isn't particularly warm or anything.

Doesn't last.

Half a round (HALF A ROUND!) into my jog my heart goes into overdrive, my lungs sound like engines, and my legs feel like they're about to drop off. Fogerty is still yelling on about being an unfortunate offspring so I can't hear anything, but I know my breathing is making a hell of racket by the fact that 150 metres ahead of me people on their walk are turning around to look at which lame pigeon is approaching them with such a clamour.

I managed two rounds though. That's two kilometres. But that's the bad news. The good news is that at the best of times I could only do six. That means I'm only at a third of full functionality, a trivial drop given how I've neglected everything in the last few years.

Of course, it doesn't matter that I came home and virtually passed out without any dinner. Of course it doesn't. What matters is the first step and the next thousand that I took on the journey towards recovery. Soon I'll be running six rounds again.

But then again, this is me I am talking about.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Bosom Pals? Or 'Breast' Friends?

I am in bed at night, watching the Family Guy episode where Peter convinces some people that he is God, when a thought strikes me: Being popular isn't so much about being cool as it is about making other people feel cool.

Deep, eh?

But I am warning you the rest of the post is utterly unrelated. Don't complain to me afterwards. I only mention it here because it is a really cool thought.


Cut back to earlier that day. I am on my way to work. I have to stop by a photo shop, as I am applying for some visas this week and I need a new set of passport sized photos...

"What for you are wanting photoos?" the rather large lady behind the counter smiles ingratiatingly.

I tell her I need them for a visa. I want to say that it is for my profile and the gaudy backgrounds in her studio will add the suitable touches to attract the sort of bride I am looking for, but think better of it. She might asphyxiate me in her ample bosom (and that is not a wholly outlandish idea, as you will find out.)

"Where for you are applying?" Rather too inquisitive, this lady. I wonder what she would possibly gain from this knowledge. I tell her instead that I need a photo with a light background. I later wish I had answered her question, as you shall see.

"Ah," she says, "I know vhot you need." She wanders off into the studio area. I follow her and sit down on the stool. She switches on the various lights and peers at me through the camera.

Then, strangely, she starts shifting her head jerkily. I don't quite know what to make of it.

"Plij move your head to left side light ij shining on your glassej." Pause. Comprehend. Ah. Hey. She wants me to move my head to the left, but she is moving her's to her left. Lateral inversion as opposed to direct copy-me. What an interesting lady.

I immediately regret that thought however, because once she realises that my head is not going to align itself the way she wants, she decides to take matters into her own hands. Literally. She moves towards me as though diffusing through some highly viscous fluid, holds my head, and starts tilting it this way and that.

As though this isn't embarrassing enough, I am also countenanced with the aforementioned remarkably large bosom very, very close to my face. What's worse, the intervening distance is narrowing dangerously.

I can't even thrash about, being locked into a rather vice-like grip. There is nowhere to look either. I can't look left or right because her hands are in the way. I can't look her in the eye because unfortunately all I can see above are chins, all three of them. If I look straight ahead I get an eyeful of expanse. And then she might slap me.

I try to close my eyes, but the mountain is so near Mohammad now that he can sense it. This is probably what kills claustrophobes. It isn't so much the suffocation as the prospect of it.

I could tell you that I mentally detach myself and go floating about in random thoughts oblivious to the state of my physical body but that would be a lie. I am very worried. Had she been even mildly attractive it would have been a different matter, but this would be like being driven head-first into a large, amply stuffed, bifurcated, bean bag that's been sat on a few times.

And then, in the sort of timely coincidence that you find in low-budget movies, she lets go. I am only glad that it is not that low a budget, because then the other ending might have happened and I might not have been here to tell you how I ended. Ek Bundar Photo Studio ke Andar. Taken out to the back and probably violated. Or shot.

Yes so all this happens. But we are not done, are we?

After everything, when I am about to pay, she says, almost as a passing thought, "I am ajking where you are applying becauj diffrent vijaj heb diffrent photoo requiremint. Light beckground - you are wanting Humrican vija no?"

Oh no. A sinking feeling comes over me, starting at the head and moving slowly downwards, so that by the time it reaches my toes they are already a few feet below themselves.

She goes on. "I hef place order for four copiej. You nid extra? Honly rupeej fifteen for four extra copiej. All same-day delivery. You ken come and peek it up also."

Oh keep quiet for one minute, lady, this is alarming and I need to think.

First of all, let me just say that you can trust the Americans to take a nice simple matter and complicate it to the point of making you want to break something. All visas needed the same sort of photo until they decided to change the rules. Under the new regulations, for an American visa they say you need a square photo of certain dimension, taken in front of a light background.

As a result all photos you might already have (and I had several, in front of various colours) are now rendered useless, unless you are not applying for an American visa at all.

I am not. Does that help?

No. Other countries have followed suit, but have lost their way halfway. Schengen countries, for example, now want photos with a light background, although the size specification remains the same as before. All highly confusing stuff.

"Ohohohohoho nononono why you are not saying you are needing other type of vija!" she cries. Is that thinly-veiled delight in her voice and on her face or am I just being paranoid? "We will hef to take enuther photoo. Humrican vija sije end other vija sije is diffrent-diffrent."

Okay, I steel myself. I can deal with this. I sort of remember what angle my head was at, and hopefully she won't have to take matters into her own hands again.

But then: "Humrican vija hej vurtical format. For other vija we need orizental photoo."

Oh horrificus. You can just picture it, can't you? Me lying somewhere horizontal with lights reflecting off my glasses and a bean bag bearing down.

I am sorely tempted to run, but I don't.

Instead, after a while I emerge, tired but victorious. More victorious than tired, though. Turns out a horizontal photo involves turning only the camera, not the subject. No chest-related issues this time either.

All this for you, Steve. Be very, very grateful.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Just Another Day At The Office

There's nothing like the idea of impending sex to reduce a man to a quivering wreck.

Well, that's not entirely true. There's also marriage. And when they come together, well, that's a matter for the gods and supermen.

The office assistant (a person, not the stupid Microsoft animation) at the place where I'm doing an internship is about to get married. His wedding is next week and he left for his village this morning. But no matter what lies in store for him ahead he's probably bloody relieved at getting away from here. 

Poor sod. (How do you know know he is a poor sod, you ask? Doesn't matter. I follow an esteemed Indian tradition of cast-iron opinions and soldiering on regardless. Jo bolna hai confidence se bolo. Imagine a suitably dismissive shrug to go alongside.)

Anyway. Let's call this guy Lallu (It is an old Hollywood trick.) If he didn't know what he was getting himself into, he certainly does now.

Dada and the Sage have spent the last week instructing poor old Lallu in the wicked ways of the wedded world.

The Sage is the wise, experienced one. He has been married for a long time now, but not long enough to have forgotten the good old days. His worst hours of the day are those during lunch time, when he has to open his 'tiffin box'. Usual routine: Peek inside, cringe, look longingly at my plate, sigh, resignedly eat tiffin, make faces every now and then. Every day. Of course, I don't make things easier for him at all. My lunch consists of things like butter rotis, shahi paneer, egg curry. Not a royal spread, I concede, but then he gets rajma chaaval or dry rotis and some vegetables or, on a special day, daal with some ghee in it.

He says it is because his wife thinks he is putting on weight. I tell you, food is for wives what you can call a Power Tool. "Oh yeah? Didn't take my side against your mother? Here. Have some kadi and lauki for lunch. We'll see who comes crying home in the evening boy. Your tail will look so pretty between your legs."

But two days ago the Sage comes to office looking as pleased as Sidhu after a particularly contrived joke. We all wonder why, and are still wondering when the contented-fat-cat look on his face (a la Sidhu) remains even as he finds sprout salad in his tiffin.

"Oh no sir," Dada begins, "looks like another hungry day for you sir." I'll come to Dada presently. Suffice it to say right now that he is Bengali. (Important fact: everybody calls everyone else 'sir', as many times in a sentence as can be fitted without losing the point. Makes everyone feel important. Even I am called sir. It is that bad.)

"No sir," he replies. "I ate a huge breakfast."

"What did you have?" Dada sniggers. "Lots and lots of dry porridge and puppaya?" (I'm trying to recreate the Bengali way with words. It is tough.)

"No sir, not today! Today I got aaloo parathas, dahi, and chutney."

"Are wah sir! Kya keesmat booland hai aapki. Your stars are sooper lucky tooday." (Even something like breakfast becomes intimately connected to fate, destiny, and the future. I think the first Hindu to philosophise on these matters must have been fed brinjal for lunch by his wife everyday.) "Wife was feeling peety on you?" There has to have been some catch, you see.

The Sage can't contain his obvious glee. "No no sir, my wife is not at home. She has gone to her parents' house. It is my mother. She made me parathas for breakfast today." So that is it. It is, after all, a mother vs. daughter-in-law test match. Kyonki bahu bhi toh ek din saas banegi. What in the old days classified as a timeless test. Spectators yawn and go home and the only interest is to the players and the odd groundsman who runs the risk of being hit on the head by an especially big six. And the umpires, God bless their souls.

"Wah re wah re wah sir! How were they?"

"Oh sir! When she brought out the chutney and the smell came wafting in, mmmmmmmmmmm...."

"But why deed you get sprouts for laanch then, sir?"

"... followed by hot aaloo parathas with ghee..."

"Why deedn't you breeng some for laanch as well, sir?"

"...and cold dahi to eat afterwards. I ate four hot par..."

"But whot happens when your wife finds out, sir?"

"...athas... Huh? No she will not find out." He can't hide the momentary panic, though. "No, yes, yeah, no there's no way she will find out." He casts around for something to distract him. Presumably, from the look on his face, those half-digested parathas in his stomach are gibbering in terror and trying to rush upwards en masse.

He sees Lallu chuckling on the side. "Tu kyon hans raha hai abey? Why are you laughing? You wait and see what happens to you after you get married. It will wipe that stupid grin off your face."

And that is how we arrive. It happens in a typically circuitous way everyday, but we get there eventually. Sooner or later either Dada or the Sage manages to swing the topic over to Lallu and his forthcoming martyrdom.

Dada is not married, but being a particularly cheerful Bong, he knows how to extract the worst possible way of looking at a situation and convince you, all matter-of-factly, that it is inevitable. Note the rather well-timed bursting of the Sage's bubble above.

On this occasion Dada is quick to point out to Lallu all the things that can possibly go wrong. Not just with the wedding but with the festivities afterwards, if you know what I mean. "Whot happens, Lallu, eef you find your flag can only fly at haalf-maast?" Or, better still, "whot eef your wife theenks you are aagly?"

Lallu claims to be only 21. It is possible. He has a moustache, but it looks more like a plant that has not been watered for a few days. It acts as a sort of barometer for his mood.

Right now it looks positively droopy. Presumably the thought has occurred to him as well. He doesn't answer.

"So you live in Rae Bareli?" I venture. "Will Sonia Gandhi come to attend your wedding?"

"No sir, why will she come? Elections have already happened." The lad has a point.

"So what are you going to wear on your wedding day, Lallu?" the Sage asks. Hmm, potentially super-embarrassing. We listen intently.

"Shirt-pant, sir," Lallu replies.

"Half-pant?!" Dada exclaims, incredulously. He is even better at mishearing than I claim to be. (Important Fact No. 2: Half-pant is Indian slang for shorts. Makes perfect literal sense, but it is rather a strange name if you think about it. Not as strange as jean-jacket though. Denim, in case you are wondering.)

We all pause for a minute and contemplate the idea of Lallu walking in to his wedding hall dressed in shorts with some flowers around his neck. The Sage snickers.

"No no sir," Lallu mumbles, embarrassed. "Shirt-pant."

The Sage has finished lunch. He gets up. "Well, Lallu," he whispers to him conspiratorially. "Make sure your underwear isn't too tight. You need blood to flow properly. Otherwise That-Which-Is-In-Your-Pants-And-Must-Not-Be-Named will cause you trouble. You don't want your wife to get the wrong ideas, do you?" He leaves.

Lallu looks sick. "Must have happened to him. That is why he is saying like this."

The Sage is out of earshot, but Dada's war-cry of a laugh is not a very good digestive. Nor are the unsavoury images in my head.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Scylla And Charybdis Revisited: India's Political Dilemma

Ever since the Congress's utterly unforeseen win in the 2004 general elections in India, there has been a form of debate, shelved for a while, that has reemerged. On the basis of a number of criteria: ideology, appeal, credibility, performance, and so on, is the Congress or the BJP better suited to rule India?

Like I said this isn't a new question, and nor is there any shortage of answers. But in recent years (especially since 2004) there are a couple of factors that might influence the decision. In the best tradition of speaking on things I know little about, I will have a go at this one, although it is certain that I will have left things out.

The first applies from the last fifteen years or so. At the centre, we are now almost certain to have coalition governments for a long time to come. The BJP and the Congress are the largest single parties, but neither have the overall clout necessary to make it on their own. Nor, in an increasingly divided polity, is this likely to come to pass in the foreseeable future. Once the post-Independence gloss was removed from the Congress, most notably by Indira Gandhi's declaration of Emergency, the all-India appeal of the Congress has been largely eroded. On the other hand, even the taming of the BJP's rabid fundamentalism has not enhanced its national appeal beyond a certain limit - that achieved in 1999.

Furthermore, in economics terms, people are increasingly becoming aware of their preferences, and the more sharply defined these preferences become the less likely people are to vote for parties that differ by more than a little bit. Regional parties, with a far more specific agenda, have a growing appeal that stops as soon as the community border ends.

This brings in the question of alliances - not just do you have to decide between the Congress or the BJP as flagship, but also between the numerous political allies that each have, and that contribute towards the overall majority required to form a government. In other words, picking a captain isn't going to be good enough, especially when the captain picks the rest of the team and if your middle order batsmen might be likely to run each other out.

The other complicating issue is that now, for once, we have directly comparable measures of performance to base our judgements on. Especially if you look at the period after 1999, both parties have had an opportunity to govern, albeit through a coalition. What, then, has each of them done, for which sections of the society, what have they left out, how successful has each of them been? And, on the basis of all this, which would you prefer?

Even without these added aspects, the question is hardly a simple one. What you see isn't usually what you get, and that really complicates matters. After all, political parties pronouncing policies probably prefer prolonging power and the practice of populism to proving political purpose and possibly prompting public persecution... I run the danger of losing the thread.

Take the Congress, for example. One of its biggest appeals as a party to vote for is precisely what it is beginning to lack these days: an all-India appeal. Having been largely marginalised in key states like West Bengal or Uttar Pradesh, either by the BJP or by regional parties with a more specific ideology, the Congress does not find it easy to win back the seats it has lost in this fashion. In fact, the slide from the mid-1990s was so pronounced that, as mentioned earlier, their win in 2004 was as much a shock to them as it was to anyone else, including the BJP.

How did they win, then? The Congress firmly believes, and is backed up by several newspapers and news channels, that it was the poor that voted them back into power. Sick of the BJP's India Shining campaign, in which they felt uninvolved and ignored, the poor of the country displayed their power and got rid of the offenders. Behold, therefore, the Congress: Champion of the Poor and Guardian of the Masses. This view was further reinforced by their obvious choice of ally at the centre - the CPI(M), star figure amongst the Left, and dominant in West Bengal and Kerala, especially at the state level.

So, with a Congress party convinced of the nature and strength of its votebank, and a Left that targets the same votebank but for different reasons and with a different ideology, there were no surprises when the UPA (United Progressive Alliance, as the coalition at the centre is called) announced its Common Minimum Programme, a set of points that broadly outline the areas that the government will focus on. More attention will henceforth be given to the poor.

However, did the Congress (and the media) get its analysis right? Was it, as they said it was, the poor that voted them back to power or was it something else as well? After all, if you simply look at the number of seats they won, or the number that the BJP lost, it isn't clear that the poor displayed any sharp preferences, let alone changing them. Could it have been, instead, the choice of regional allies, announced by both parties before the elections, that upturned things so?

What I am saying is that in the states that the BJP lost heavily and the Congress gained, the respective allies that each party had suffered much the same fate. Causality here could run either way; it could have been the smaller incumbent regional party that the people were fed up with, and since the bigger parties had declared their alliances already, the discontent spread to the seats they contested as well. On the basis of superficial evidence, at least, this seems more likely, but I am hardly an authority on the subject, am I?

The choice of allies matters, certainly, but only on the eve of elections. The superficial difference, in this case, between the BJP and the Congress is that the BJP, through its years in power, put its efforts into addressing the growing middle class of the country while the Congress targets the poor. There are subsidiary questions, such as which bits of society do each of them exclude? How effective are they in their efforts? Is such a difference in 'target audience' justified? In fact, is this difference in focus even true? I leave those for you to ponder.

Where the Congress and BJP show a certain similarity in opinions is in foreign policy. In fact, India's foreign policy has displayed quite a lot of continuity in the past so-many years, especially in the years just before and after The Nuclear Test Match with Pakistan in 1998. Also, despite the Left's dogged resistance, the Congress has not entirely reversed the trend in the economy towards the private sector. They haven't promoted it quite so much, but they haven't reversed it. Whether they should or not, also, I leave to you to decide. India's economy continues to open itself up to the world, another area of continuity in policy.

These are similarities. But, and I am sure this occurred to you already, there is another area of fundamental difference between the two parties. In fact, so much so that I will ask you to excuse the pun. I mean, of course, the issue of religion and the approach towards the minorities.

Before the BJP came to power, they were to be feared and reviled by moderates everywhere. With an explicit connection with the rather Hindu fundamentalist RSS (the national volunteers' association) and VHP (world Hindu council), they were never shy of expressing their desire to again see India as a Hindu state, with often frightening consequences (stated and implied) for minorities in India.

And where I say minorities I mean, in effect, Muslims. I don't even have to tell you about Ram Janmabhoomi (the birthplace of Rama) and the Babri Masjid that, unfortunately, found the need to exist, for a number of years, on the same spot. Came December 6, 1992, and then there was one.

However, BJP's years in power displayed a few things. One, in power they seemed more responsible in what they said, less radical, and more-or-less centrist in policy. That facade, of course, came crashing down in 2002 and the Gujarat riots. The BJP's refusal to remove the offending chief minister Modi from power further heightened suspicions that reverting to fundamentalism might not be too far away. In the years since, though, they have displayed conflicting signals. Once out of power they have gone back to Rath Yatras and populist religious sentiments, but they have also shown a growing reluctance to accept the RSS's diktat. The latter might be more political in motivation, but who ever said that politics does not shape ideology?

I go out on a limb when I say this, and feel free to criticise, but events such as Godhra are not symptomatic of the larger picture. What we hear is the violence, but there is, for the most part, peace everywhere (I'm talking Hindu-Muslim of course). In no way was what happened in Gujarat pardonable, and the BJP was justifiably castigated for its failure to act. But, contrary to doomsayers, I don't think we are on the verge of civil war or genocide. Public opinion against what happened in Gujarat, however ineffectual it turned out against the political machinery, makes it difficult to see a similar thing happening again. To be sure, fights between Hindus and Muslims will continue to arise, and they will be bloody and violent, especially in a land where some people wear their religion on their sleeve, but it does not indicate a degeneration into communalism. We cannot usually estimate how many people are swayed by the RSS's fear mongering, but it is reasonably safe to say that this amount is falling.

And what about the Congress, in this respect? Certainly, the Congress displays no favouritism towards Hindus. In fact, the Congress is explicitly secular. They claim to represent all sections of society. But do they?

In terms of actions, at least, the Congress has shown itself to be massively hypocritical in this respect. Having (correctly or otherwise) identified Muslims as the strongest potential votebank both for state and centre politics, they go out of their way to woo the Muslim vote. Of course, it helps that Muslims in India are largely poor and there is therefore an overlap, but the Congress, in deed, is hardly secular. This shows up in a refusal to act in cases which involved a Muslim, and where denouncing him or her might offend Muslims in general. You know, I am sure, the famous case of the Muslim woman who was raped by her father-in-law, when clerics decided that now she must lived with him (even though she still wanted to live with her husband). The Congress did nothing. What they should have done, if anything, I leave to you to decide, but again it is probably safe to say that had the same thing happened in a Hindu family, things might have been different. Of course, the case might not have received the same publicity either. When you stop seeing a case on merit and start looking for possible political gains, especially when the action needed is contrary to your espoused ideology, you do run the risk of being labelled a hypocrite.

In short, the BJP displays a frightening agenda but moderates it while in power, while the Congress displays a commendably secular agenda but lets it down substantially in effect.

There are other things, too. The Congress has committed itself to a dynasty, with Sonia Gandhi running the whole show from behind the scenes. Local party powers compete with each other to curry favour with her. Remember, whatever you think of her performance, that her only qualification is whom she was married to, and whose son he was, and in turn whose daughter she was.

Rahul Gandhi, her son, is already being worshipped and venerated wherever he goes. With the Congress in power, the country is not too far away from being effectively a monarchy, and will continue to run that risk for some years to come. What this might imply is that younger Congress leaders, who might already know that they stand no chance to lead while Rahul Gandhi is in politics, might choose to leave and seek their fortunes elsewhere. Possible. If you can rule just because of who you are, and where merit is secondary and authority absolute, then you are not sending out the right signals. The younger echelons of the BJP, the death of Pramod Mahajan notwithstanding, displays somewhat more diversity and more equal prospects, although there is as much infighting there as anywhere else - note Uma Bharti's dramatic expulsion and formation of her own version of a BJP.

All in all, it is not perhaps possible to arrive at an objective ranking of the two parties, especially while we remain differentially affected by who is in power. As individuals we will vote for whom we think will do a better job for, specifically, us.

The larger question, then is of trade-offs. The risk of religious violence, the risk of political hypocrisy, the risk of continuing public sector inefficiencies, the risk of market stifling, the risk of ignoring the poor, the risk of ignoring the middle class, the risk of ignoring the risk - weigh them all.

Weigh the gains, to each section of society and the country as a whole. Some people will lose out while others will gain. From a nation's point of view, from an egalitarian point of view.

As individuals, especially as Indians, our opinions might be biased. But as a nation, an outside, or even as God, which of the two evils is the lesser? Should we instead vote for one of those smaller parties?

Or should we not vote at all?

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

How To 'Mantle An Atomic Bomb

Every news service you care to examine is filled with reports on Iran's nuclear programme. You know, for example, that they have successfully enriched uranium (though not yet to a weapons-grade).

But nobody says how it works. Understandable, because although it ain't no rocket science, it be quantum physics. So, after a very wee bit of hesitation, I will now attempt my own exposition on the theory behind the bomb.

Disclaimer: This is nuclear physics for real dummies. I undertake no responsibility for any consequences faced by fakers. Anyway...

It all starts with a delightful nursery rhyme.

Ring a ring o'protons
A pocketful of neutrons
A fission, a fusion
We all fall dead.

We've forever been looking for new sources of energy. After all, burning things or dropping them from a height to push other things will not do. At least, not forever.

The most probable such source of limitless energy was found to be the interior of an atom - itself a rather strange concept that took scientists (and us ordinary humans) several years to wrap their mind around.

Once scientists found that an atom does indeed have an interior, they began to play games with it. Much as a child who discovers a strange insect asleep on the grass proceeds to throw various sized stones at it to see if, and how, it will move, our dear mature scientists began to throw particles at each other to see what happens.

They managed to create various subatomic particles (antineutrinos, positrons, muons, pions, the list goes on, refer elsewhere for details) that remained in existence for not more than a few trillionths of a second and therefore served no purpose except one. Trying to put a mathematical framework to physics had left gaps in the theory that either meant that it was wrong, or that some particles were missing. The creation of many of these particles filled those gaps, and to an extent justified the theory. All pretty confusing stuff.

But I digress.

One super chap, whose name I cannot remember, found that pounding a uranium nucleus with a neutron released a mega load of energy, some smaller nuclei, as well as a few more neutrons. Fission, in other words.

And it didn't take too much for another smart fellow to realise that these emitted neutrons could be used to bombard still more uranium nuclei. A chain reaction, in short, and self-sustaining.

Okay, immediately two problems arise. One, if it is self-sustaining, how the hell do you control this thing? Two, well, I'll come to that.

Control. What form would a control take? Something that will absorb a certain proportion of emitted neutrons thus preventing them from colliding with uranium nuclei and causing fission?

What a good idea.

The most popular control rods, as they are called, are made of elements such as boron, cadmium, and hafnium. With a sufficient number and size of them, the frequency of collisions between uranium nuclei and neutrons can be controlled. Also, if you reduce the energy content of the neutron that is emitted, it will lack the energy required to break a uranium nucleus, even if it collides with one. Read on.

The other problem is that of purity of uranium.

Uranium exists in two forms in nature, one with three more neutrons in the nucleus than the other. One is Uranium-235, the other is Uranium-238. Ol' 235 is the one that readily spews neutrons on being hit by others, most notably because it has an odd number of neutrons and some of them feel left out and prefer to go flying about causing indescribable damage.

238, on the other hand, is more stable. What it means is that the neutron that collides with it needs a lot more energy to cause it to break down. This is fine when you start the reaction, but soon the neutrons that are flying around (themselves emitted by uranium nuclei) no longer have the necessary energy to break it down.

The whole reaction dies out, much like the water flow from a pipe when you turn off the tap. Minus, perhaps, the gurgling sounds.

So ideally what scientists want is pure 235 to do their thing with. Problem, because 238 is far, far more common. How, then, to separate the two? That is the problem of uranium enrichment, which refers to the process of increasing the concentration of 235 in a mixture of uranium.
Naturally, the more the proportion of 235, the better the chain reaction.

So, basically, if you have a certain level of concentration of Uranium-235 in a nicely packaged box, and if for some reason you forget to put in some control rods before you let loose the neutrons, you blow up Hiroshima. To destroy Nagasaki you have to do fancy things to plutonium, another radioactive element.

The most popular method of uranium enrichment uses a centrifuge. Those same devices that everybody is wondering how Iran acquired, which China gave to Pakistan, which, if advanced enough, can produce weapons-grade uranium, and which, when basic enough, you get to break test-tubes in during chemistry lab.

Basically when you spin quantities of uranium around in the centrifuge at unbelievable speeds you find that the heavier 238 atoms get pushed outwards faster than the lighter 235 ones. And voila, you have achieved separation. There are other ways, including diffusion, but they ain't so hot.

The problem, then, is that nobody except Iran knows how advanced their centrifuges are. They've built one advanced enough to purify uranium somewhat, but not yet, or so hopes the US, enough to build a bomb with. It is but a matter of time, however, one feels.

Moreover, uranium deposits are not common. Those countries that have them have formed the Nuclear Suppliers' Group, and control the supply of uranium to countries. It is for that uranium that we have been dining with the US.

Fusion, of course, refers to the merging of two separate nuclei to produce a larger one. These reactions are typically exothermic, giving off huge amounts of heat, and are therefore self-sustaining. No control mechanism has been found for them, or so we believe.

I wonder if this post makes me wanted on the US non-proliferation list...