Diwali … the ‘patriotic’ way.

Diwali is round the corner. Here’s how to celebrate it like the ‘patriot’ that you are:

1) Spend at least Rs.10,000/- on the loudest and most obnoxious crackers available. Thereby making you directly responsible for the exploitation of children who are forced to work 14 hours a day to make those crackers. But hey, who cares? You are contributing to the economy, no?

Better yet, rave and rant against Pakistani film stars acting in Indian movies – and buy Diwali crackers and lamps made in China. Let everyone know how ‘patriotic’ you are.

2) Explode those crackers in the middle of the night and wee hours of the morning. Thereby giving heart attacks to elderly people in your neighborhood. But hey, who cares? They’re old guys on the verge of death anyway, right? You’re doing them a favor, no?

3) Ensure that the air in your neighborhood is filled with toxic gases like sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxide, carbon monoxide and deadly metallic particles like lead, chromium, magnesium, strontium, barium and antimony. Thereby ensuring that asthma
patients (like myself) choke to death and/or end up with lung cancer. But hey, who cares? Diwali is such an auspicious day – and a good time to die, no?

4) Traumatise all forms of non-human life, including pet dogs, cats, migratory birds, cows, horses and every other animal that has the misfortune of being in the vicinity of ‘patriots’ like yourself. Birds and their chicks are burnt alive due to rockets crashing into their nests, dogs go mad with the noise and bite people at random, cows are scared out of their wits and stop feeding their calves. But hey who cares? They’re just animals, no?

5) Ensure that your children burst fireworks without any safety precautions whatsoever. Thereby ensuring that some innocent passerby is permanently blinded by a bomb exploding in his face. But hey, who cares? It’s Diwali, no?

6) Cause at least one road accident, by exploding fireworks in the middle of the road. Even better, explode crackers below a passing car, so that the fuel tank catches fire. And then, you can enjoy some real fireworks, no?

7) Gather all your like-minded friends, have a wild drunken party till 4 am, smash some windows, throw some beer bottles on the road or at someone’s head, intimidate and beat up anyone who dares to complain. Because it is your democratic right to celebrate festivals in any manner you choose, no? Others don’t have democratic rights. Only you do.

8) Take pride in the huge amount of poisonous garbage that you and your kids generate, since that shows your financial status to everyone, no?

Let someone else clean it up. What are you paying taxes for, no?

Let the losers celebrate Diwali in the old-fashioned way – with prayers, reconnecting with our scriptures, seeking blessings from elders, traditional oil-lamps, home-made sweets, reunions with family and friends, quiet traditional meals with loved ones, and all that sort of rot.

You’re a ‘patriot’, my friend! Go ahead, burn money, exploit, pollute, ravage, destroy, get drunk, maim and kill.

Happy Deepavali!

Cheers … Srini.

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A dose of Dosa …

img_20161016_174245It’s a multi-billion dollar industry in India, not to mention the rest of the world. As a functional food, it has no equal. Its health benefits far outweigh the small price you pay for it. It is breakfast, lunch, dinner, evening snack, fast food and health food, all in one. The dosa is, well, the dosa.

Unlike the idli (which isn’t really Indian in origin), the dosa is totally desi. It dates all the way back to 600 AD, and was invented in Tamil Nadu (and not Udupi, as many people believe).

The masala dosa on the other hand, was invented in the 1960’s, at Woodlands Hotel, Udupi, by one Kadandale Krishna Bhat. Potato curry was usually served separately with plain dosas. During a potato crisis in the 1960’s, Krishna Bhat served dosas with a layer of pureed potato curry applied inside the dosa, to save on potatoes. Thus was born the masala dosa.

In its classical form, the dosa is made with parboiled rice and urad dal, ground together in a ratio of 3:1, fermented overnight. As with the idli, the process of fermentation greatly increases the dosa’s nutritive value, making it a super-food. There are several dosa versions without rice, like the ragi dosa, adai, pessaratu (made from moong dal), wheat dosa, cabbage dosa, and what not.

The traditional dosa is a powerhouse of nutrition. The normal dosa has only 80 calories. It has significant amounts of vitamin B, vitamin C, carbohydrates, protein and almost no fat (provided it is not fried in ghee). Instant dosa mixes are simply not as good. And hotel dosas are generally not safe. Instead, make them at home, with parboiled rice and urad dal. Add some home-made potato curry, or better yet, add a lightly spiced paneer or soya curry, and you have one terrific low-cal, high-protein meal.

There are almost as many dosa variants as there are cooks in India. Onion dosa, banana uttappa, pineapple uttappam, set dosa, benne dosa, neer dosa, and some weird ones like Amitabh dosa (six feet long. I’ve eaten one such), Punjabi dosa, and Schezuan dosa and chop suey dosa (of all the things!). They’re all great, of course.

My personal favorite: Kheema dosa – traditional dosa stuffed with chicken kheema. Superb stuff. (My mom would be scandalised!).

Cheers … Srini.

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Dasha Hara … once again!


Once again, the festival of Nine Nights comes by, and once again I find myself in the home of the Ravindranath family, to enjoy their spectacular Golu display.

For those of my readers who are unfamiliar with this festival, herewith some Dushera fundas:

In the Indian scriptures, the nine nights of Navaratri, correctly called Maha Navaratri, are dedicated to Shakti, the fundamental force that drives all of Creation. In the scriptures, Shakti is given the form of a woman, The Cosmic Mother.

At the beginning of Time, She created Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh, the three divine entities that are responsible for maintaining Creation. Hence, She is also called Adi Shakti, the Primary Force.

The nine nights of Navaratri are dedicated to Navadurga, the goddess Shakti manifested as Durga, in nine different forms.

veenaravidasara2016-1According to the Puranas, Durga was created to slay Mahishasura, a powerful demon who had a boon from Brahma that he could not be slain by a man or an asura or a God. He thought that women were too weak to fight him, and omitted to add women to that list.

Mahishasura was the original MCP! And he paid a big price for his arrogance. Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh put their energies together and brought forth Durga, a woman of immense power.

It took Her nine nights and ten days, but at the end of a fearsome battle, Durga slew Mahishasura. Mahanavaratri is celebrated to commemorate this mighty battle between good and evil.

Mahanavaratri is so called because there are four other Navaratris during the year. Mahanavaratri or Sharad Navaratri is considered the most important of them all, and is held during the first nine days of the bright half (Shukla paksha) of the month of Ashwin, which corresponds to early October to mid-November in the Gregorian calendar. The festival marks the end of the monsoon season and the beginning of winter. From Navaratri onwards, we can expect clear blue skies.

Srirangam, near Trichy.

Srirangam, near Trichy. The first of the 108 Divya Deshams.

On the ninth day of  Mahanavaratri, Saraswati, goddess of knowledge, is worshipped. In the Gurukulas of ancient India, students began their studies on this day. Music classes start on this day, and we worship our books and other sources of knowledge – that would include laptops and iPads nowadays!

Khseerabdi Shayana - Vishnu resting on the Ocean of Milk.

Khseerabdi Shayana – Vishnu resting on the Ocean of Milk.

On the ninth day, some people also hold Ayudha Puja, and worship their weapons, implements and tools of trade. In the Mahabharata, Arjuna reveals his identity to Prince Uttarakumar on this day and collect his weapons that he had hidden in a Shami tree, before doing battle with the Kauravas.

The tenth day, Vijayadashami, is the day on which Durga slew Mahishasura and became known as Mahishasuramardini.

Vijayadashami also commemorates the death of Raavana at the hands of Rama. In the Ramayana, Rama worships Durga on this day, and seeks her blessing to slay the ten-headed Ravana.

This is why the festival is also called Dasha Hara, the cutting of Ravana’s ten heads, or Dusshera.

Mahisha’s capital was Mahishasura Uru, now known as Maisuru or Mysore. Durga is known as Chamundeswari in this part of India and is the reigning diety of Mysore. The Chamundeswari temple at Mysore is almost a thousand years old. Dusshera is a really big festival in Mysore.

veenaravidasara2016-07385For those of us who hail from Bombay, Navaratri is all about Garba and Dandiya Raas. Garba derives its name from ‘garbha’ meaning pregnant. It symbolises the cycle of life. Traditional Garba is performed only by women and does not use any sticks. Dandiyaa, on the other hand, is based on the events of Krishna’s early life in Brindavan. Somewhere in the past, these two dance forms converged.

For me, Dusshera is about traditional golu, a stepped display of dolls and miniatures. My mother’s collection of earthen dolls is fifty years old. My sister and her friends would make cute little landscapes and other decorations for golu.

So once again this year, here I am at the home of the Ravindranath family at Basavanagudi, Bangalore. Since two decades, this unique family has been putting up a remarkable Golu display in their home.

Open to the public at no charge whatsoever, this amazing exhibition comprises well over FOUR THOUSAND dolls and miniatures.

Parama Padam - the supreme abode of Vishnu

Parama Padam – the supreme abode of Vishnu

The golu display here is built upon a particular theme each year. This year, the theme is based on the 108 Divya Deshams.

The Divya Deshams (Divine temples) are 108 temples dedicated to Vishnu, that were specifically described by the twelve Azhvars in the Divya Prabandha, a collection of 4000 ancient Tamil verses that worship Vishnu. The Azhvars (pronounced approximately as ‘alwaars’) were twelve poet-saints who devoted their entire lives to the worship of Vishnu and the propagation of Vaishnavism in south India. There is considerable controversy about the exact time period, but it is generally agreed that they lived at least a thousand years ago or so.

The twelve Azhvars

The twelve Azhvars

The Azhvars came from all castes and all walks of life. Only three of them were Brahmins and one of them was a woman.

I’ve seen some impressive Golu collections in my time, but this one is in a different class. Piece by piece, doll by doll, each of which was made to order by master craftsmen across south India, this amazing collection has taken over two decades to put together. And, it has cost this modest, middle-class family a small fortune. Some of the larger dolls cost Rs. 20,000/- each.

This display is open to the public at no charge whatsoever. And yet, there are some unscrupulous people who charge ignorant tourists a lot of money on the pretext of taking them to see this free golu display.

Parasites like these make my blood boil. I had the same experience at Mahabalipuram, where I was fleeced by a self-styled “expert”.

Caveat emptor, people. Caveat emptor.

Many golu displays are not open to the public. But those that are open to the public, are always free. There is no need to cough up money to a third party who poses as a cultural “expert”. Locate the place on the internet, contact the concerned family, and just go.  Some families do not permit photography and some do. It is better to ask beforehand.

You will be expected to remove your footwear and mute your cellphone. The host will be glad to explain the display to you, making it completely unnecessary to hire any “expert” from outside.

The Ravindranath family

The Ravindranath family

Remember to profusely thank the host. Golu displays take a lot of time and effort to assemble. The Ravindranath family takes three months to assemble their mind-boggling Golu collection.

Theist or not, take pride in our country’s rich cultural heritage.  My atheism doesn’t come in the way of my appreciation of my country’s culture and traditions.

Happy Dasha Hara, everyone.

Cheers … Srini.

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Industrialise or perish …

During the construction of the KRS Dam in Mysore in 1924, the chief engineer had a peculiar habit. They used candles for lighting in those days. Every evening at 7 pm, the chief engineer would extinguish his candles, pull out another set of candles from his suitcase and light those instead.

His mystified assistant asked him why he did this every evening. And the chief engineer replied, “Upto 7 pm, I do official work, for which I use the candles supplied by the government. After 7 pm, I do my personal work, for which I use my personal candles. I will never use government candles for my personal work.”

That was Bharat Ratna Sir Mokshagundam Visvesvarayya, the first global-level engineer produced by our country. Today is his 156th birthday. This day is celebrated as Engineers Day in India.

Sir MV as he was popularly known, was an engineering genius, a statesman, scholar, former Diwan of Mysore and a man of exceptional integrity. Here in Bangalore, MV is known as the Father of modern Karnataka.

MV was born in Muddenahalli, a small village about 80 km from Bangalore. After obtaining his BA from Central College Bangalore, he did his civil engineering from the College of Science at Pune. His first job was at the Public Works Department at Bombay. From there he went on to work with the Indian Irrigation Commission. He designed complex irrigation systems in Maharashtra and Gujarat (then known as Bombay Presidency) and automatic floodgates for the Khadakvasla dam at Pune, for the first time in India. After that, Sir MV designed and implemented one mega-project after another across India.

Opting for early retirement at the age of 48, MV continued to work as a consulting engineer. At the request of the Nizam of Hyderabad, MV designed a unique system of tanks to contain the devastating annual floods in Hyderabad. The famous Tank Bund that connects the twin cities of Hyderabad and Secunderabad is MV’s brainchild. Soon after, in 1908, MV was appointed as the Chief Engineer of Mysore and later the Diwan of Mysore, till 1919. The first thing that MV did after he became the Diwan was to invite all his relatives for dinner. At the end of that dinner, MV told them never to approach him for any personal favors!

During his tenure, Mysore flourished, as he implemented irrigation works, power projects, factories, public institutions and engineering colleges throughout the kingdom. His greatest achievement was the Krishnarajasagar Dam at Mysore. The dam was one the largest in the world at that time.

In 1915, he was knighted by the British, and after independence, during the tenure of Jawaharlal Nehru as Prime Minister, Sir MV received India’s highest civilian honor, the Bharat Ratna in 1955.

In acknowledgement, MV wrote to Nehru, “If you feel that by giving me this title, I will praise your government, you will be disappointed.”

That was the man he was.

In turn, Nehru wrote back that the award was given to Sir MV for his services, and not to silence him!

MV had a simple and clear policy – Industrialise or Perish. That policy frequently put him at odds with Mahatma Gandhi, although he had a good personal relationship with him. In fact, MV openly opposed Gandhi’s non-co-operation movement in 1921. And he went even further. In a letter to Gandhi on the eve of the first Round Table Conference in London in 1930, Sir MV advised him to wear proper clothes! MV was an immaculate dresser himself, always seen in well-tailored suits and a characteristic Mysore peta on his head.

MV led a spartan life. He was a strict vegetarian and teetotaller. His fondness for Nanjangud bananas was well known. Unfortunately, that variety is almost extinct in Karnataka now.

MV died in Bangalore in 1962 at the age of 102 and was cremated at Muddenahalli, his birthplace. Muddenahalli is now being developed as a premier academic hub in South India.

“It is better to serve like steel, than rust and wither away like iron”. … Sir M Visvesvarayya, Sept 15, 1860 – April 14, 1962.

Cheers … Srini.

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A matter of Faith … or is it confirmation bias?

quotes-about-listening-to-music-20150208083448-54d71fa8c43bbIs faith a psychiatric disorder? Sometimes, I’m inclined to think so.

In my country, there are more places of worship than schools, more godmen than scientists, more ashrams than hospitals. In my country, stone idols drink milk, dead men are brought back to life, multi-million dollar research centers are first consecrated by a priest on an auspicious date and at auspicious hour before any scientist lays a step inside.

I ply my trade exclusively in academic research institutes. All my customers are scientists. Almost all of them have religious icons on their desks, pictures of godmen on their walls.

I’m no stranger to famous godmen myself. I’ve seen them up close, watched them perform their ‘miracles’, produce gold watches and holy ash from nowhere, drive their devotees into a religious frenzy. I’ve seen people getting ‘possessed’. I’ve seen idols drink milk. I’ve seen people drive spikes into their backs, nails into their palms, walk across flaming coals. I’ve seen a godman’s photographs generate nectar and holy ash.

When I ask devout people why they believe what they believe and why they do what they do, the answer is the same – Faith.

Faith is their raison d’etre.

They will not give up their faith. In the face of overwhelming evidence against their godman, they will still cling on to him. Show them a video that clearly shows their godman producing holy ash from a tube hidden in his sleeve, they will denounce the video as a fake. Show them another video of their godman gambolling around with a naked woman, they will claim it is just his way of testing your faith. Explain to them that the “nectar” pouring out of the godman’s photograph is merely the product of a simple chemical reaction and show them how it can be done, they will yell at you and call you an agent of Satan.

The phenomenon has been extensively studied by psychologists. There’s a scientific term for it. It’s called persistence of belief. Or confirmation bias.

People will interpret data based on their own individual beliefs. If they are presented with evidence contrary to their beliefs, they will either disregard it outright or twist their interpretation of that evidence to fit in with their beliefs. That is why fake godmen consistently get away with all kinds of crap. They have a deep understanding of how confirmation bias works. Most of all, they know that confirmation bias is contagious. In particular, parents can and do, pass on their confirmation bias to their children.

I lost my only child solely because of confirmation bias. Haven’t seen her in fifteen years. She has been made to believe that I am the embodiment of evil, because I stood against her mother’s godman. And mind you, the godman she worships died in 1918. Such is the power and contagion of confirmation bias that more than a hundred years after his death, his cult still continues to grow.

Harsh experience has taught me to keep my evidence and my scientific arguments to myself. There is just no point in trying to explain to people that blind belief in a godman does not constitute religion, and that talking against an obviously fraudulent godman is not blasphemy.

I have tried to explain this to my ‘rationalist’ friends. You know, those well-meaning but hopelessly misguided souls who rant against godmen, religion, spirituality, superstitions and the like. They firmly believe their ranting will result in a fundamental change in our society and bring forth a new generation of enlightened humans who believe only in science. No matter what, they will not let go of that belief.

In other words, these “rationalists” suffer from confirmation bias.

I am fiercely proud of my country, the depth of her culture, the greatness of her philosophy, the vastness of her scriptures, her achievements in science, her ancient sagacity, her capacity to assimilate alien cultures and enrich them while doing so.

However, nowhere in her scriptures does she say that we should not use our common sense. Krishna in the Gita talks at length about ‘muda bhakti’, i.e. foolish, mindless devotion. You may read the Gita if you wish to. And whether you accept Krishna’s divinity is your choice. But there is no denying that the wisdom Krishna imparts in the Gita is practical and down-to-earth. If you take the trouble, you will discover that much of the knowledge in our ancient scriptures, like the Upanishads for example, is practical in nature. Contrary to what you may think, skepticism was encouraged in ancient India, debate was preferred over discourse, and evidence was considered a pre-requisite to belief.

Thanks once again to confirmation basis, we have been made to believe instead that our culture is based on ritualism and our scriptures are ‘mumbo-jumbo’ – this being the term favored by ‘rationalists’ and ‘free-thinkers’ (who are neither rational, nor free nor thinkers).

So. How do we deal with confirmation bias? We don’t. Because we can’t. Devotee or cultist or rationalist or free-thinker. Doesn’t matter. There is no real cure for confirmation bias.

Just as you cannot convince a devotee that he is wrong in his beliefs, you cannot convince a ‘rationalist’ that he is wrong as well. In both cases, they will disregard any evidence you present. It may seem incongruous, but frequently ‘rationalists’ base their arguments on flawed evidence. And just like their superstitious counterparts, they will not accept any evidence that their evidence is flawed. Ironic, isn’t it?

Therefore, don’t bother. Just steer clear of both sides. Keep your evidence to yourself, smile and go about your life. If you are not too burdened with scruples, you can use confirmation bias to your advantage, in your business and in your social life.

There is a very good reason why first impressions always count. That reason is interview-first-impression-300x300confirmation bias. If you want to win over a client or a lover, then be very very careful about the first impression they form of you. If they form a favorable first impression of you, then confirmation bias will usually compel them to hold on to that image over the course of the relationship, even if you bungle things later on. And vice versa. If someone forms a bad first impression of you, there is little you can do to correct it later on.

Do your homework then, before that first meeting.

And don’t fall into the trap of confirmation bias yourself. Learn to look at both sides of the coin. Realise that even scientific evidence can be and usually is, heavily biased. Understand that even renowned award-winning scientists have frequently been shown to be wrong – but rarely accept that fact.

If you do an internet search for the ill-effects of alcohol, for example, you will be presented with tons of research papers that conclusively prove that booze is bad for you. Do a search for the health benefits of alcohol, and behold, you will be presented with an equal amount of evidence that proves that booze is actually good for you.

You will have to use your own judgement. Personally, I think a little faith may not be bad for you. Too much of it, on the other hand, is not a good idea. How much is too much, is for you to figure out.

As for me and my estranged daughter who believes I am the embodiment of evil, well, I am sure that one day she will come looking for me.

I have faith.

Cheers … Srini.

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