Sunday, February 19, 2017

Don't believe what people say - IV

An oft-repeated shibboleth is that education is the only way to get rid of India's ills.  The SC recently said that “it is only education which gives a human being the power to discriminate between right and wrong, good and bad”. I don't agree with that conclusion and I have written about it. Education is important but the idea that it is a silver bullet that can solve all the problems of a society is an exaggeration.

The consequential terrorists in most terrorists organizations have received secular modern education and are Internet savvy - they are doctors, engineers, software professionals, etc. Gandhi's assassin was an educated, middle class Brahman who was well-versed in scriptures and in Gandhi's speeches and writings. Every other day one comes across instances of educated people not being able to distinguish between right and wrong, good and bad so it is surprising how the SC came to such a conclusion.It is not necessary to be educated in order to be ethical. In fact a strong case can be made that modern education favours instrumental rationality over ethics.

I once saw a headline about an interview that Virat Kohli gave which stated that he believed that his team would become the best in history which I thought was an over the top statement. But when I saw the full interview, I did not find the actual sentence that the headline stated. The sentence had been made by taking a couple of words from different sentences and pasting them together.

This reminded me of what Ashis Nandy had once said. He had been involved in a controversy a couple of years ago regarding a statement that he had made about Dalit corruption. He said that he had never made the particular statement that was attributed to him. Some words from different sentences that he had said were pasted together to form the sentence that was attributed to him. Some channels kept flashing this statement which soon became the truth.

In the Preface to Animal Farm, George Orwell wrote, 'Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without the need for any official ban.' Giving journalists government awards is one way to make them more sympathetic to the government of the day. Persistent intimidation and violence against writers makes them exercise self-censorship which is worse  than overt censorship. Anything can be swept under the carpet in name of respecting religious sentiments or safeguarding national security.

You can use statistics to lie convincingly. These days documents, photos, audios and videos can be doctored. ( I saw a Malayalam movie called ivide swargamaanu which showed methods of doctoring documents that I had never heard about.) Immense pressure was brought to bear on legislators to reduce the age limit for application of the Juvenile Justice Act in spite of there being evidence questioning the idea. Mob justice will be recommended as a good idea. News channels in their race for TRPs will blow up a small incident into an earth- shattering event. Or they may not give much coverage to some news because of pressure from advertisers.

Some channels  and some social media sites are hyper-nationalistic and call for sedition charges at the drop of a hat. (There is something strange about nationalism. We decry individual selfishness but put group selfishness on a pedestal and call it nationalism.) For some time now, the news channels that I mainly listen to are the public broadcasters - LSTV and RSTV. I find them better than the private channels - more calm debates (except in live transmissions from Parliament), more programs on science and culture and, most importantly, there are no product advertisements.

The only TV program that I know of that looks at how different media outlets slant the coverage of news items is media manthan on RSTV. You learn for example that hardly anyone had heard of Kailash Sathyarthi before he had received the Nobel prize because the area he works in is ignored by the media. There will be meagre coverage of rural India and saturation coverage of a minority thus presenting a false image. Channels will not have the money to send a reporter to cover an anti-dalit atrocity a 100 km from the state capital but will have the money to send a reporter to Perth to cover an India vs UAE World Cup match.

There is a phenomenon called 'private treaties' where certain media companies enter into agreements with listed companies for a stake in them and in return provide media coverage through advertisements, news, reports, editorials etc. A SEBI letter to the Press Council warned that “Private Treaties may lead to commercialization of news reports since the same would be based on the subscription and advertising agreement entered into between the Media group and the company. Biased and imbalanced reporting may lead to inaccurate perceptions of the companies which are the beneficiaries of such private treaties.”

People will be subjected to bruising media trials on the flimsiest of evidence (or no evidence). People are quick to jump to conclusions and indulge in character assassination, especially in social media, as Fareed Zakaria shows in this article. If  some process is followed for determining the guilt of a person and the process takes some time, there will be heated debates about why the the decision should be made quicker.

In Umberto Eco's novel, The Name of the Rose, there is a trial scene in which the Inquisitor contrives to find  a person guilty of heresy. The narrator of the story, a monk named Adso, asks his mentor, another monk named William, 'What terrifies you most in purity?' William replies, 'Haste'. To my mind, 'purity' refers not just to religious certitude. It refers to any social situation where a person thinks he is 100% correct. It is good to have at least a smidgen of doubt that it could be wrong. As a Zen maxim says, 'Great doubt: great awakening; little doubt: little awakening: no doubt: no awakening.' In Doubt:A History, there is a quote by one Pierre Charron about doubt:
It alone can provide true repose and security of our spirits. Have all the greatest and most noble philosophers and wise men who have preferred doubt been in a state of anxiety and suffering? But they say: to doubt, to consider both points of view, to put off a decision, is this not painful? I reply, it is indeed for fools, but not for wise men. It is painful for people who cannot stand freedom, for those who are presumptuous, puritan, passionate and who, obstinately attached to their opinion, arrogantly condemn all others...Such people, in truth, know nothing. They do not even know what it is to know something.
There sometimes is talk of reforming the Rajya Sabha or doing away with it altogether in order to quicken the making of laws. This is a typically blinkered view from some sections of the educated, impatient middle class (and noisy NRIs). It is said that 'the will of the people' should be taken into account. Every party  that has come to power in India has got less than half the number of votes. The government of the day will not have representation from many states. Listening to 'the will of the people' that is talked about would mean ignoring  the will of the majority of people.

Members of the Lok Sabha  represent their constituencies while members of the Rajya Sabha represent their states. State issues often get raised in the Rajya Sabha and giving states a voice is important in a federal structure. 1/3 of RS members change every two years depending on the results of state elections so it gives a more current snapshot of public opinion than LS. The delay in the Rajya Sabha prevents hasty decisions being taken by a party which has a brute majority in the LS.  This often results in more moderate laws which reduces the alienation in many sections of the population than would have been the case otherwise.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Don't believe what people say - III

Apparently, one reason why some students of JNU were suspended was because they had a puja of Mahishasur instead of Durga. This is ridiculous. By that criterion, I can also be dubbed an anti-national since I am not a  fan of any gods, goddesses or godlets. I remember reading that those who talk the most about Indian culture know the least about it. In Doubt: A History, Jennifer Hecht says that the Cervakas in 7th century BC were the earliest example of radical doubt in the human record. Some of their views may be more extreme than those of the New Atheists.

(I have not been reading any literature criticizing religion for about 3 years now- except the book Doubt: A History. I decided to take the Issac Asimov route: 'I don't have the evidence to prove that God doesn't exist, but I so strongly suspect he doesn't that I don't want to waste my time'. I also saw a note of caution by Gandhi who now seems wiser than anybody who has studied in a business school - 'I am prepared to maintain that humbugs in worldly matters are far worse than the humbugs in religion.')

I learnt later that there are tribes that worship Mahishasur. There is an attempt to push one version of Hinduism modeled on the Semitic religions and having the gods and and rituals of the upper castes. In the process, the folk religions of Scheduled Castes, tribals and other disadvantaged sections of society are ignored. (This process is by no means happening only in the last couple of years.)  The religion of Hinduism can more properly be viewed as a collection of Hindu religions.

In his essays, A.K. Ramanujan indicates why there is no simple formula for 'unity' and 'diversity' in the Indian subcontinent. He says that "India doesn't have one past but many pasts. There are many different traditions like Brahmanism, bhakti traditions, Buddhism, Jainism, tantra, tribal traditions and folklore, modernity as well as Islam and and Christianity all of which have porous borders. 'They look like single entities, like neat little tents, only from a distance.' (A study shows that about 11% of the communities in India cannot be clearly identified as belonging to any of the conventionally defined religious groups.)

The attempt to force one version of Hinduism was seen in forcing a ban on 300 Ramayanas, A.K. Ramanujan's essay which gives an idea of the various versions of the Ramayana in existence. In Folktales from India, Ramanujan writes about the tales, 'Figures of power like kings, the law, Brahmans and gurus, gods and goddesses...are all shown to be stupid, easily outwitted and all too flawed.' In instances where a ban is sought, it is said that the sentiments of Hindus is hurt. The question is: which Hindus?

The gods of Hinduism are not the remote incomprehensible gods common in most other religions. And like in Indian epics, there is something of a demon in a god and something of a god in a demon. Thus gods and demons are not wholly good or wholly bad; they are only relatively good and relatively bad. Onam, the main festival of Kerala (some people may know it better as India’s Somalia!), is celebrated in the memory of a demon-king whose reign was supposed to be just and prosperous till he was finally deceived by a pious Brahmin. So a demon-king has the last laugh in God’s own country!

There was an attempt by the BJP to call Onam Vaman Jayanti, Vaman being the dwarf avatar of Vishnu who deceived the demon-king. (The Indian category 'asuras' is not exactly coincident with the Western category 'demons' although it is generally translated into English as such.) It was another attempt to make the non-conforming bits of Hinduism conform to one dominant narrative.

In a video, an audience member says that it would be a good idea to make Sanskrit compulsory in schools - the student would then be able to read the  ancient Sanskrit literature for themselves and find out how distorted is the view of Indian culture being currently propagated. He adds tongue in cheek that it will also enable them to read some good erotic poetry! In a couple of essays in Bonfire of Creeds, Ashis Nandy says:
Since about the middle of the nineteenth century...there has been deep embarrassment and discontent with the lived experience of Hinduism...For nearly a hundred and fifty years, we have seen a concerted, systematic effort to eliminate these god and goddesses from Indian life or tame them and make them behave...these reformers wanted Indians to get rid of their superfluous deities and either live in a fully secular sanitized world in which rationalized and scientific truth would prevail or, alternatively, set up a regular monotheistic God, as 'proper' Muslims and Christians have done.
Those given to this modern version of religion find all other spiritual experience low-brow, corrupted and, thus, meaningless, uncontrollable and fearsome. That fear of religion of the uncontrollable kind (to which the majority of Indians of all faiths give their allegiance) is part of the fear of the vernacular, the democratic and the plural. It is the fear that the majority of Indians are religious in a way that is not centrally controllable and does not constitute a 'proper' religion in contemporary times.
As a slight digression , there is  an interesting story (probably apocryphal) that Ashis Nandy tells about the depth of devotion to Ram of the politically vocal Rambhakths. During his only visit to an RSS shakha, Gandhi saw the portraits of some of the famous martial heroes of Hindutva like Shivaji and Rana Pratap on the walls. Being a devotee of Ram, Gandhi asked why no portrait of Ram had been put up as well. The  RSS leader who was accompanying him around said, ‘No, that we cannot do. Ram is too effeminate to serve our purpose.’

Friday, January 20, 2017

Don't believe what people say - II

Note: For some reason, I am unable to indent the paragraphs in italic which are extracted from a book.

Those who sing praises of new technologies making censorship impossible forget that they can also be used by established powers to spread their own propaganda. The dissenting opinion can get drowned in this swirl of misinformation spread by the existing powers. Jefferson said, 'Every government deteriorates when left to the rulers of the people alone.' Gandhi along with Thoreau believed that ‘that government is best which governs the least’. Gandhi had said that he anticipated having to continue his program of satyagraha for social justice even after India had attained independence.

A trial balloon is sometimes floated of the idea that the central and state elections should be synchronized. The reason given is that this would give elected leaders and officials more time to implement their  policies. This is not a good idea nor is it possible under the present Constitution.  It seems to me that ordinary people will be able to lead more peaceful lives if highly educated and powerful people are not given a free hand. They are often too clever by half and labour under the delusion that text book scenarios closely mirror real life. The smart, powerful people at the top often take decisions which, as Taleb points out in Antifragile, have small, visible benefits but have side effects that are potentially severe and invisible. Having to face the people frequently during elections keeps them in check.  As Ashis Nandy says, 'Intelligence and knowledge are poor - even, dangerous - substitutes for intellect and wisdom.'

It is better to have strong States and a weak Centre than to have weak States and a strong Centre. Nassim Nicholas Taleb demonstrates convincingly in Antifragile that the first system is more stable while appearing disorderly and the second system is more fragile in the long run while giving the illusion of stability. The first system has a lot of disturbances none of which are consequential while the second system has few disturbances but those that take place have big consequences. The most insidious aspect of the second system is that the long period of calm before the storm lulls people into complacency. Preferring the second system is like, in the words of Taleb, 'saying that nuclear bombs are better because they explode less often'.

He brought to my attention the political system in Switzerland which is today the world's most stable democratic system offering a maximum of participation to citizens. It is a Confederation of 26 cantons which can exercise a lot of freedom so, for eg., there are 26 different systems of education. A majority of the electorate reaffirms this basic principle of Swiss politics consistently by rejecting centralist laws and accepting Federalist laws in referendums. The government is a team consisting of seven members with equal rights. There is no full-time president; the representational functions of a president are taken over by one (or all) of the government members. Being member of parliament is not a full-time job so they are closer to everyday life of their electorate.

Frequent referendums have a stabilizing influence on parliament, government, economy and society. Referendums increase the willingness to compromise (otherwise a party defeated in parliament will call for obstructive referendums). As extreme laws will mercilessly be blocked by the electorate in referendums, parties are less inclined to radical changes in laws. The resulting system must appear to be rather strange to foreigners, but though it is very complicated it does work astonishingly well and even more perfectly than in many other industrialized countries. The system doesn't seem to have the suffocating tendencies of a militarized nation-state which seems to be the model of choice in the modern world. Perhaps there is no other system in operation today that is closer to Gandhi's ideal of 'enlightened anarchy'. (It is to be noted that the best example of a democracy -  Switzerland makes a lot less noise than two much more flawed democracies - US and India.)

The Washington Post had an article about the psychology of believing news reports, even when they’ve been retracted. It suggests that if false information is presented early, it is more likely to be believed, while subsequent attempts to correct the information may, in fact, strengthen the false impression. Negating a statement seems just to emphasizes the initial point. The additional correction seems to get lost amid the noise. It is like asking you not to think of a black bear: the only thing you can then think of is a black bear.

Denials inherently require repeating the bad information, which may be one reason they can paradoxically reinforce it. We probably tend to think information is more likely to be true the more we hear it. This means that whoever makes the first assertion about something has a large advantage over everyone who denies it later. Goebbels knew the concept of the Big Lie, 'The English follow the principle that when one lies, one should lie big, and stick to it. They keep up their lies, even at the risk of looking ridiculous.' As George Marshall says in Don't Even Think About It (an interesting book on the psychological reactions to climate change):

People will maintain their belief in an engaging story even if they are told that it is a fiction. In one psychology experiment, people were invited to read stories that, they were clearly warned, were false. Later on, when they were given a general knowledge quiz, this incorrect information then reappeared in people's answers. They had internalized this information so effectively that some people could not remember that it had come from the stories they had first heard a few hours earlier.

For twenty-five years, psychologists have been repeating variations of another story-telling experiment. Participants are told the story of a warehouse fire in the style of live, rolling news coverage. First they hear of toxic smoke, then explosions, and then they are told that it may have been caused by gas cylinders and oil paints that were negligently stored in a closet.

The final story is so complete that many people resolutely refuse to accept any further variation that might weaken it. If they are subsequently told that there was no gas or paint in the closet, the repetition of the phrase leads some people to become even more convinced that gas and paint were responsible. Only if they are supplied with an even more compelling replacement story - for example, that arson materials were found in the closet - will they abandon the original version.

You will think that people will soon see through falsehoods but it often is not the case. Psychologists refer to 'cognitive ease'- something familiar, eg. a sentence that has been heard before, will be processed fluently by the brain without wasting more effort on a closer look. In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman says that even if part of a sentence sounds familiar, the whole sentence appears true. He gives an example: people who often heard the phrase 'the body temperature of  a chicken' were more likely to  regard as true the statement 'the body temperature of a chicken is 144 deg.', or some such arbitrary number. The familirity of one phrase makes the whole statement sound true because of the sense of cognitive ease.

PS: The Backfire Effect – When your deepest convictions are challenged by contradictory evidence, your beliefs get stronger.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Don't believe what people say - I

post-truth (adjective) - Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief

When I had gone to NIT, Trichy for the reunion, a friend told me that I had once told him, 'Don't believe what people say. Check the books.' Apparently this advice was given to me by a school teacher. I couldn't recall anything about the episode so I don't recall in what context I made the statement. Whoever that schoolteacher was, he or she had given me a useful piece of advice. In The Demon-Haunted World, Carl Sagan writes, "Part of the duty of citizenship is not to be intimidated into conformity. I wish that the oath of citizenship taken by recent immigrants, and the pledge that students routinely recite, include something like 'I promise to question everything my leaders tell me'".

I became aware of the distortions that can happen when information is transmitted by word of mouth when a school-teacher made us play a variant of the game 'Chinese whispers'. She asked some people to go out of the room. She then dictated to one person in the classroom a small incident consisting of 4-5 sentences. She asked him to take as long as he wanted to memorize every aspect of the story. When he felt ready, she took back the piece of paper on which the story was written and asked him to relate it to a student she called from outside the room.

A few mistakes crept into the retelling. The same procedure was followed again - the person was asked to listen to the story till he was sure that he had got all the facts right and then he was asked to relate it to another person she called  from outside the classroom. A few more mistakes crept into the retelling. By the time a few such iterations  were completed, the story had completely changed from the original version. 

If someone says that he is very confident that a certain outcome will happen or if he says that he can remember some incident as if 'it happened yesterday', it is better to be skeptical. Historical figures are fitted into rigid compartments and used as political footballs by various parties. In these days of SMS, Twitter, WhatsApp etc, false information gets repeated so often that they soon acquire the ring of truth. In propaganda, what matters is not what people think but what people can be made to think. The information explosion mostly increases the hay making it more difficult to find the needle. 

In Gandhi before India, Ramachandra Guha mentions the work he did for writing the book. He consulted the Collected Works of Gandhi which has 100 volumes of which the first 12 relate to his days in Kathiawar, London, Bombay and South Africa and run to 5000 pages in print. He visited the archives that held the private papers of Gandhi's contemporaries, examined the letters to and from Gandhi by the people who had worked with him as also the published and unpublished works of his four children.

He also studied the perceptions of those who opposed Gandhi like the officials of the British Empire, reading the letters, telegrams, reports and dispatches in national and provincial archives in India, England and South Africa. He also read Jinnah, Tagore and others who had opposed him on various issues. He read contemporary newspapers like Kathiawar Times, Natal Mercury, Johannesburg Star, The Times of London and The New York Times to know what was written about him at the time.

He studied 10,000 pages of microfilms of records from Natal Government House which give an idea of the lives of Indians in SA and of the role played therein by Gandhi. He read the 500 odd issues of Indian Opinion, the newspaper started by Gandhi in SA as well as copies of African Chronicle, the newspaper of Gandhi's rival. He also read many books and pamphlets printed at the time to get an idea of how Gandhi's views were understood at the time.

All the sources are listed in the notes for each chapter so that any interested person can the check the veracity of the information in the book. With so much work having gone into writing the book, the information contained therein has a high degree of reliability. Of course, any material that is written by a human being and not by a machine will have some personal biases. (There is no such thing as an unbiased opinion. If the biases are in the same direction as yours, the material will be called unbiased, otherwise it will be called biased.) Reading a well researched book is the next best thing to reading the original sources which most of us cannot do.

I heard the actor Kamal Hasan say that in his younger days, he used to be unimpressed with Gandhi like many of his friends. He then decided to do his own exploration of Gandhi out of curiosity and gradually developed great respect for him. This prompted me to do some reading since my knowledge about Gandhi was quite sketchy and the  more I read (and listen to YouTube lectures, eg. this lecture series by Vinay Lal) the more impressed I am with him. Despite his faults, ambiguities and eccentricities (you don't have to take everything he said seriously), he is far bigger than what his skeletal histories or simplistic slogans like those in the Swatch Bharat campaign will tell you. Such slogans are just meant to corral his subversive legacy into bland, easily manageable soundbites.

Among the leaders of the national movement, Gandhi was the one who had the courage to think differently and take the road less travelled. Being aware of the  power of conformity in humans, I was  astonished at how relaxed and comfortable he was in being totally different in appearance and thought from those around him.  Rajagopalachari made the pertinent point that while others were thinking of the short-term, Gandhi thought of the long-term. His critique of colonialism, violence, history,  modernity, masculinity and the nation-state are thought provoking. He was thinking about issues that others were grappling with decades later.

He often magnified his faults and minimized his achievements which is the exact opposite of what is popular today. It is a commentary on our times that the giants of yesterday are sought to be painted as pygmies while the pygmies of today are projected as giants.(Look at résumés: you will think that geniuses are more common than house-flies. Modi and Rahul Gandhi have never made any mistakes: they seem to have been born perfect.) I am sure that if he was alive now, he would be called ‘anti-national’ for a number of reasons. For eg. David Hardiman writes about Gandhi's nationalism in Gandhi in His Time and Ours:

Gandhi's nationalism was...broad and catholic. He hardly regarded India as a nation in a narrow sense; rather it was a civilization with its own particular qualities.  He did not condemn Europe in any blanket fashion - in contrast to those demagogic nationalists who whip up support by preying on popular ethnic and racial antagonisms. Too often, the critique of the latter of Europe and 'eurocentricity' is deployed to condemn anything which they dislike in the modern world - eg. human rights, women's assertion, democracy, socialism, secularism and religious toleration - while modern technologies of organization and disciplinary control which are of use to them - eg. the authoritarian state,  new forms of surveillance, policing, torture and armaments - are all absolved from being eurocentric or anti national...He was not interested in chauvinistic nationalism - he aspired to a universalism that soared above narrow political goals.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Still more nursing episodes - II

The nurses who come here are from Kerala and Tamil Nadu both of which have hot climates. (It is said that Chennai has 3 climates - hot, hotter and hottest.) They start shivering at a dip in temperature  at a time when I will be sweating. This will put me in a dilemma. I will want to continue putting the fan at full speed or consider switching on the A/c but this would make the nurse uncomfortable.

If I keep sweating, the bedsheets on which I am sleeping will get damp and I am afraid that it could eventually lead to my developing bed sores. I have heard that they are quite painful and this thought prevents me from humoring the nurses.


Sometimes, a physiotherapist who is not familiar with the intricacies of communicating with me will ask me something like, 'In which movie is this song?' and wait. Then the nurse will say' 'How can he tell you the answer? You have to tell the names of various movies and he will blink for the correct answer if he knows it.' A few days later  the same nurse will get frustrated trying to understand something that I had indicated. Finally she will exclaim,  'Why don't you say clearly so that I can understand?' She would seem to have forgotten what she had told the physiotherapist.

Some  nurses will tell guests, 'Even if he has some pain, he will say that he has no pain.' This is not strictly true. My response will depend on who is asking me the question. If it is Jaya, then I will specify where exactly the pain is, its intensity, etc. and discuss how to remedy it. With others, I will generally say that there is no pain. This is because I will not be able to tell them anything about the location or intensity of the pain. This might prompt them to investigate a bit which may make  matters worse.

The nurse would also be prompted to make this observation due to my responses during physiotherapy. Some pain is to be expected during some of the exercises because of the stretching of certain muscles. If such pain is not there, it would mean that the exercise is not being effective. When physiotherapists ask me about pain, they would mean whether I was feeling any pain other than the normal stretch pain in which case they have to find out why the new pain has come. The nurses find it strange that I often say that there I don't feel any pain when it would be obvious from my expressions that there is some pain. I would  actually be indicating to the physiotherapist that I am not feeling any abnormal pain.


Sometimes  a nurse will try to do something that I don't want to be done. For example, she may try to adjust the pillow under my head which would be in the correct position. I will keep blinking several times and also keep nodding my head  to indicate that it is fine. But the nurse will continue to adjust the pillow and keep asking me about other things. Finally I will use a pre-set signal to indicate that she should call Jaya.

When Jaya comes, I will explain to her what the problem was. She will tell the nurse that I was indicating to her that the pillow was in correct position and that she need not do anything. The nurse will say, 'That's all? You should have told me. You could have blinked!' But that is what I had been doing! A strained grimace is the best that I will be able to manage in such circumstances.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Still more nursing episodes - I

Some nurses had the strange habit of complaining to me about things that I had nothing to do with. For eg., if there was too much or too little spice in some dish or perhaps they wanted a different type of glove , they used to crib to me about it. The first few times, I called Jaya and told her to ask the nurse what the problem was. At these times the nurse would say that she didn't have any issues and everything was perfectly fine.When this happened a few times, I started ignoring their cribs to me.


One nurse was briefed by the agency about the patient she had to look after before she came here, as per their usual practise. She was told that she had to look after a male patient who was bed ridden and couldn't speak. She assumed that her patient was an old man who was on his death-bed. She had looked after many such patients and assumed that she will have a short stay before she moved on. When she came home, my father-in-law opened the door and she was nonplussed - here was the bed-ridden old man she had assumed was her patient welcoming her in!

She didn't know what to say. She came to my room where Jaya introduced her to me. So this was the patient - but he was much younger and didn't look like croaking in a few days! She kept quiet, went to the balcony and then to the kitchen and stood for a few minutes. From her demeanour, it seemed to Jaya and me that she will not stay for long. But as it has turned out, she is still here after 10 months. Her plan of an early exit has not worked out.


In a previous post, I had written about the strangeness of failing to notice the nurse giving me feeding. This sort of thing happens frequently. For instance, I was recently watching a film starring the Malayalam superstar Mohanlal (my favourite actor among the older stars). I was so absorbed in watching the fiery dialogue that I didn't notice the time.I suddenly realized that it was well past the feeding time and reminded the nurse about it. She told me that she had already given it and I didn't have a clue!

Nowadays, I am often reluctant to remind the nurse about feeding if I suddenly remember it. I will not be able to make up my mind about whether the nurse has forgotten the time or whether I failed to notice feeding being given. Knowing that I missed noticing the gorilla, I am prepared to accept the latter explanation.


Some nurses are impatient especially when it comes to my passing urine. A few seconds after keeping the can, they will ask me if I have passed urine. There is some connection between emotions and the bladder muscles because when I feel some psychological pressure from the nurse, I will not be able to pass urine even if I feel pressure in the bladder. This also happens when my attention is diverted  by the nurse when she asks me some question or when I pay attention to something on TV. After the urine flow has started, if the nurse asks me whether I have finished passing urine or if there is slight movement of the can, the flow immediately stops.

This situation is similar to that of a baby. If you disturb a baby even slightly when it is passing urine, the flow immediately stops. This reflex diminishes as the baby grows older and gains more control over the functioning of its bladder. Following my stroke, my bladder control seems to have reverted to the situation of a baby. When an impatient nurse comes, I wait till the last possible moment before calling the nurse. I will hope that this will ensure that the urine flow will begin as soon as she keeps the can but sometimes, even then the urine flow will take some time to start because I will feel the psychological pressure.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Cannon fodder

Asura by Anand Neelakantan is a novel based on the Ramayana from Ravana's point of view. In it, Ravana has an illegitimate son called Athikaya who he dislikes and with whom he has a testy relationship. But Athikaya strikes up a good friendship with Ravana's favourite son, Meghnada (also called Indrajit). Athikaya had been brought up by a poor man called Bhadra who turns up off and on in Ravana's life. In the final war with Rama's army, both Meghanada and Athikaya are killed by Lakshmana through deceit.

The war dead were placed on chariots and were drawn through the street towards the palace. Ravana sat tearfully with Meghanada's head on his lap. Everybody was crying for Prince Meghanada. Bhadra thought, 'My son is dead and these people were turning this into a spectacle.' He couldn't spot his adopted son's body anywhere. He finally saw the palace gates closing and two pyres being prepared one having Meghanada and the other having the unmistakable bulk of Athikaya.

He managed to push his way into the palace and begged Ravana to give him his son's body. Ravana refused but his wife Mandodari made him relent and  finally he snapped at Bhadra, 'Take him. Had he not been my Meghanada's friend, not even a dog would have cared about his death.' Hearing this, Bhadra thought:
Yes,I know, my king, not even a dog cares for the death of young men like my son, who died for you.The round medals you give away, the petty jobs you offer to the kin of those who die for you, the paltry compensations which you throw from your brimming coffers, are nothing but bones, to entice more dogs to die for you. Let me take my little dog from you. He has served his purpose. You showed young men how glorious it was to die for such abstract causes as the motherland and racial pride. You honoured him, and fooled the public, in arranging such a big procession for the dead. Everyone is happy that our country has not forgotten the young who laid down lives for their motherland. Everyone who has been a martyr will be remembered - until the next meal.  Great show, my king. Now more young men will come to die, enticed by your bones, two minutes of glory and a stone memorial by the street corner which real dogs will piss on. My son has served your purpose, now let me take him to his mother.  
I did not say any of this. If I had had the courage, then many like me would have had the courage to echo it, and there would not have been any Ravanas and Ramas left.
I get a similar feeling when I see live telecasts of honouring military causalities or of impassioned pleas for building war memorials. This obsession with war matters (present mainly in the educated middle classes) seems to have grown in recent years. You will sometimes hear concerns being expressed about the budget deficit, how costs should be 'rationalised', better targeting of subsidies, reduction of the budgets for various departments etc.

What you can be quite sure of is that the expenditure on defense will not be reduced. On the contrary, whatever increase is there will be deemed unsatisfactory.  Imagine the defense budget being reduced - there will be howls of protest. Sacrilege! Anti-national! How can you ask the defenders of the nation to make monetary sacrifices? As Ashis Nandy says in Bonfire of Creeds, one has to be ‘skeptical of state-sponsored anxieties about national security , especially when this concept of security is invoked to demand sacrifices from social sectors least able to make them’. He writes in another essay in the same book:
The ranks of the army and the police in all countries come from the relatively poor, powerless or low status sectors of society. Almost invariably, imperfect societies arrive at a system under which the lower rungs of the army and police are some of the few channels of mobility open to the plebians. That is, the prize of a better life is dangled before the deprived socio-economic groups to encourage them to willingly socialize themselves into a violent, empty lifestyle. In the process, a machine of oppression is built; it not only has its open targets but also its dehumanized cogs. These cogs only seemingly opt for what Herbert Marcuse calls 'voluntary servitude': mostly they have no escape.
He says that in America, in the case of the Vietnam war, the highly placed were able to dodge the draft thus ensuring that the men who went to fight were the socially underprivileged, people who were already being abused by the system. Many of them developed a pathological over-concern with avenging the suffering of their colleagues by stereotyping the Vietnamese or by becoming aggressive nationalists. So the war was effectively 'a story of one set of victims setting upon another, on behalf of a reified, impersonal system of violence'. In an analysis of the Gulf war of 1991, George Lakoff writes:
When President Bush argues that going to war would "serve our vital national interests", he is using a metaphor that hides exactly whose interests would be served and whose would not. For example, poor people, especially blacks, are represented in the military in disproportionately large numbers, and in a war the lower classes and those ethnic groups will suffer proportionally more casualties and have their lives disrupted more. Thus war is less in the interest of ethnic minorities and the lower classes than the white upper classes.
Also hidden are the interests of the military itself. It is against the military's interest to have its budget cut, or to diminish its own influence in any way. War justifies the military's importance and its budgetary needs. 
Those most wedded to folk theories of a strong nation-state seem to be the most insecure and keep seeing conspiracies everywhere. The JNU incident illustrates this condition: some people shouted anti-India slogans and one was given the impression that something serious had happened that threatened the country's peace and security. These people have their counterparts in Pakistan as shown by the arrest in Pakistan of a person who had hoisted an Indian flag because he was a fan of Kohli. As Ashis Nandy said in another context in Bonfire of Creeds, it is like 'the manner in which village lunatics are pursued by stone throwing teenagers while greater lunatics are allowed to become national leaders or war heroes'.

The US is not the epitome of virtue in all spheres but it showed more maturity in handling the case of a footballer when he chose to kneel rather than stand during the national anthem, saying, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,”  He said that he will continue his protest until there is “significant change”. Obama observed that the footballer “cares about some real, legitimate issues”

“Sometimes [protest is] messy and controversial and it gets people angry and frustrated,” Obama said. “But I’d rather have young people that are engaged with the argument and trying to think through how they can be part of our democratic process than people that are just sitting on the sidelines and not paying attention at all.” Prof. Apoorv Anand makes a similar point in the beginning of this talk in Hindi.

PS: Not all army officers are obsessed with the idea of a strong nation-state as shown by this talk by Former Navy Chief Admiral Ramdas. (The talk is a mix of Hindi and English.)