Monday, December 28, 2009

In Transit: Venu Chitale

Circa 1915. These are turbulent times. With the movement for self-rule gathering pace, Lokmanya Tilak had become the uncrowned leader. Tilak professed social as well as political revolution. Many amongst the orthodox upper-caste people in Pune are dead opposed to the newly emerging social structure. In the midst of all this, live the Sarafs, a Chitpavan Brahmin family, in a typical joint family setup in their ancestral wada. Being educated and socially as well as politically conscious, the family is exposed to all that is happening around them. The head of the family, Aaba, is orthodox enough, but not oblivious to the winds of change. He tries to carefully balance the traditional setup, while welcoming the new changes.

The story begins with Dada and Vahini's wedding ceremony. As was common in those days, Dada's mother, Mai, delivered twins, Bal'Baban(son) and Mohana(daughter) a few days after Dada's marriage. But the pregnancy took its toll on her and Mai dies, leaving the few months old twins in Vahini's care. Being the eldest lady of the house, it is now Vahini's duty to carry on all the duties that are required from the lady of the house. Vahini carries on all the duties without any cribbing. Though educated upto university level, she is devoted to her husband and upholds all the traditional values of the family. Aaba has an unscrupulous brother, the Jahagirdar, who has abandoned the family, but comes back to stake his claim in the family matters.

In Transit covers the life of this Chitpavan Brahmin family when the entire social fabric of the country is undergoing a reforming change. It is a story of how this large family manages to live together, despite having extremely conflicting views about politics and society. Aaba, although ambivalent, isn't oblivious to the changes around him. The Jahagirdar wants to protect all the old traditions of the Hindu society and therefore hates the freedom struggle, its leaders and anybody who professes social reform. Dada, the eldest son, prefers to side with the British system of education and sees it as the only road to prosperity. But Dada does believe in social reform, like his father. Daji, is undecided and he neither favours nor hates the freedom movement. Bhayya is strongly influenced by Tilak, and later by Gandhi. Aaba, sensing Bhayya's strong devotion towards the national cause, takes Bhayya under his wings and trains him to follow the path of his choice. Lopamudra, the daughter of the house, sides with her husband, a staunch Gandhian. Bal'Baban becomes a follower of Bhayya, because that is what he did since his young days. All of them are tied together with the bonds of affection towards each other and especially towards Aaba and Vahini.

Vahini is deceptively strong in her convictions. Although she appears to be the obedient daughter-in-law of the house, upholding its traditions, she is alert to the changing winds and realises the steps that should be taken to preserve the well being of the next generation. She is extremely possessive about the childrens' well being and her husband's pride. She is prepared to sell-off the family silver and gold in order to get good education for the children. She is the one, along with Aaba, who are the sole reason for the family to be tied together. Mohana, the youngest daughter of the house, is an interesting character. Although a delicate mindset, she too is strong about her convictions. As the story progresses, you may get emotionally attached to Mohana and her tryst with her destiny.

The novel beautifully captures the effects and influences of the traditional Pune society on the childrens' mindset. The uneasiness felt by Mohana on first hearing a Bombay bride calling her husband by name, the make-up and sleeve-less bodices worn by Bombay girls is captured very nicely. When she realises that she is in love with Madhav, Vahini's brother, her emotions are worth feeling. Even Madhav's restlessness is typical of the mindset of the people of that era. The uneasiness felt by the love birds in the presence of the other, having little Leelavati for company, even during the little courtships that were possible is wonderful to read.

Apart from this micro details, the story is about how the Saraf family manages the transitional period in their lives, shifting from a spacious wada to a small room in Mumbai and then getting back to the wada, sans their riches. The effect of the political struggle on the family, the family's readiness to allow its members to follow their convictions, as long as they are right and its readiness to stand by each other even in the case of crisis and crack-downs, is worth reading. It also highlights the struggle at individual levels, about many things that we take for granted today. E.g., the opening of school for girls. This causes an uproar in the family, when the old orthodox members vehemently oppose sending the girls to school. Today, grooms require that their wife be educated to the best possible extent, but back then, a university educated girl meant that she would cause havoc in the family. Because, she is more likely to resist traditions and more individualistic. All in all, the story is well paced, although some details may bog you down sometimes. The ending, though, is abrupt and the story doesn't culminate properly.

About Venu Chitale: Venu Chitale was a news announcer with BBC during the second world war. She published this novel in 1950, which carries a foreword by Pune University's first Vice Chancellor, M. R. Jaykar and a special mention by her BBC colleague Mulk Raj Anand. She has also published two more novels that I know of, In Cognito(English) and Bablya(Marathi). She is widely recognised as the first woman of Marathi origin to write an English novel. In Transit has been published by Hind Kitabs. I found this book in IIT Bombay's library.
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Wednesday, December 16, 2009

What is common between Al Gore, Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner?

In his world famous and super successful documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore utilises a lot of research and some sensational material that highlights the harm that the present lifestyle of humans can cause to mother Nature. He uses this to encourage and promote lifestyle changes that can atleast slow down, if not prevent, global warming. But, he faces a very steep uphill, because of the kind of opposition he is going to face to induce such lifestyle changes. Lobbyists from the oil industry, who need people to keep consuming oil and petrochemicals, even the automobile and airlines industries and many more people. These industries are easy targets as you can just give some large numbers on the carbon dioxide emissions emitted by them and introduce a guilt in the peoples' minds everytime they travel.

While I am not debating about who is the biggest villain and the best target to knock off first, let us look at how Al Gore has made his documentary. Let us accept that the only research that Gore has done is to collect data that highlights the causes of global warming. This has been done through published literature and talking to experts who have worked in this area for a long time. Gore has himself not performed any of the studies that have been used to build his documentary. Thus, Gore relies on and believes in the studies of the experts.

In their book Superfreakonomics, Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner argue that while Al Gore's campaign is definitely good, it entails a lot of cost as it involves inducing behavioural changes in the humans. Instead, they suggest an alternate route that is cheaper and yet effective. Economists always attach a cost with any activity. But, what is forgotten, or deliberately avoided, is the fact that while we pay each other for the goods and services obtained, how do we pay back the nature, who is the source of all things living and nonliving? Nature doesn't accept currency. What it is currently accepting, is the burden of waste and emissions created by unmindful human activity.

In the chapter on Global Warming, Levitt and Dubner highlight some innovative(?) solutions that people are working on to reduce global warming. For most of their chapter, they rely on work done by a company called Intellectual Ventures (IV). IV is a company that is "building a portfolio of patents and creating an Invention Capital." It has also recently started its own research labs, where they try to find cost effective solutions to various existing problems. In this lab, IV researchers found out that injecting sulphur dioxide into the stratosphere from strategic locations, global warming can be avoided. This has been based on atmospheric studies that followed the volcanic eruption of Mount Pinatubo in 1991. These studies found that the eruption caused discharge millions of tons of sulphur dioxide in the atmosphere, which resulted in lower temperatures all around the world. Now, these studies and conclusions are drawn by scientists who are from prestigious institutes like MIT, Stanford, CalTech, etc. Levitt and Dubner have reported major parts of their conversation with the IV scientists.

But, what IV doesn't mention is that in 1992-93, the Ozone hole over Antarctica also reached an unprecedented size. This is merely six to eight months after the volcano exploded. Ofcourse, this may be because the amount of sulphur discharged in a short period of 1-2 days was unprecedented and staggering. And IV doesn't intend to release such amounts. Detailed arguments to oppose this strategy can lead to an independent posting on the blog.

Now, coming to the title of the post. So, what is common between Al Gore, Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner. They rely on the information presented by "experts" who may not have an unbiased view about their ideas. They place belief in the experts and report their views without seeming to question them too much. However, each of their experts does have an agenda in propagating his/her ideas. Getting more funding, generating profit through sale of tools and ideas are some such motives. In their first book Freakonomics, Levitt and Dubner mention how information asymmetry leads to a bias in making decisions and forming views. Information asymmetry is when one party has access to certain information that it can use to its advantage, when the other party doesn't have any access to it. In this case, both parties, Gore and Levitt & Dubner are victims of information asymmetry.
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Friday, December 04, 2009

Mani's Lunch Home

The arrival of Arun, Dwaipayan and Hari in our lab has brought in some fresh air and enthusiasm to enjoy life outside the lab. They share my desire to go around the city into its streets and enjoy its flavour. After a long time, I got to go out and enjoy with them. With Hari and Arun being new to the city, explaining some of the nuances of the city's ways is interesting. It has also helped me a lot in brushing my (little in quantity) facts of the city. In the course of our discussions of the city, I introduced Hari to Matunga. And he loved the area like anything. Being from Gurvayoor and having studied in Tamil Nadu, Hari felt as if he had come to his hometown when he walked on Matunga's streets. In due course, we went to Ramashraya and A. Rama Nayak Udipi restaurant to savour the South Indian delicacies.

I had also heard about Mani's Lunch Home in Matunga, but had never been there. When I searched on the web, I came to know that it is the first and oldest authentic Aiyer restaurant in Mumbai. Of course, it had to be in Matunga. They have come up with branches later, but began in Matunga. And, on one fine Saturday, Hari persuaded all of us to go to Mani's to savour the authentic Aiyer food. And we had a meal of our life. Served on a plantain leaf, in traditional Aiyer style, the food consists of the typical South Indian menu of dry vegetable, curry vegetable, pickle, papad, curd, butter-milk, sambhar, rasam and rice. And it goes without saying, that you can devour in as much quantity as you can. As it is a very busy restaurant, the food served is always hot. The chapatis are served fresh off the pan. The sambhar and rasam have a typical Aiyer taste to it. They source the rice from South India itself. The kind of rice used in the restaurant is not native to Maharashtra. But, it is a nice variety and the rice is well cooked and has a soft, spongy feeling to it.

Having Hari with us, gave us a language advantage. Hari used all his knowledge of Tamil language to get us an express seat and good service. Otherwise, the service standard in Mani's is not as good as Rama Nayak. Of course, we were first timers in the restaurant and patrons must be getting better treatment. But then, they also have to focus on converting first timers into patrons. That they cannot do only by serving good food. Sometimes you are kept waiting for the next serving of vegetables and sometimes you are deluged with the waiters wanting to serve you.

But overall, Mani's was a satisfying experience. We ate so much that it would have been very nice to have an acquaintance in Matunga. We somehow managed to get back to IIT. That to we took a rickshaw from Kanjur to the hostel. And in the hostel, we slept soundly for more than an hour. The evening saw us having very less dinner, as we were still savouring the tastes of Mani's.
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