VISIT TO LBSNA in July 2007

23 Nov

On 19 July 2007, I participated in a Panel Discussion at the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy (LBSNA) as part of a training programme for IAS Officers of the 1998 batch from all over the country including promoted officers.

I and another visiting faculty arrived by Jan Shatabdi from Delhi (a 5½ hour journey) and we were met at the Dehradun railway station by a car from the Academy. We got the full treatment with the “Lal Batti” (red light) flashing through all the populated area for the 36 kms to the Academy.

“The Charleville complex is spread over 69 acres and caters to training of fresh entrants as well as customized courses. Glenmire houses the erstwhile National Institute of Administrative Research (NIAR), and now the National Centre for Good Governance and a residential area of LBSNAA. The Indira Bhawan campus offers facilities for in-service training, other specialized courses, programs, workshops and seminars.”


On 20th July I participated in a panel from 9.00 am – 1.00 pm. The topic was, “GOVERNMENT, BUSINESS, AND GLOBALIZATION”. The panel members were Vijay Mahajan, Deep Joshi, Brij Mohan, Sachin Sachdeva, Ajit Mani.

At that time, I was in Bhopal working as the Benefit Montitoring & Evaluation Consultant for the Urban Water Supply & Environment Improvement Programme (UWSEIP), Madhya Pradesh, ADB Loan No. 2046-IND (2006-2009)

Proud and Humbled

6 Jun

[This note is based on a blog I wrote on Wed, 11 Dec 2019 titled, “Humble Bragging, Hubristic Bragging and Sadfishing”. Some of the ideas discussed here also appeared in a widely circulated post addressed to my Yahoo Groups titled, “A Conclave of Humble Braggers” on Sun, 25 Feb 2018]

In the early 1990’s, before the internet came to India (Huh? Was there a time when there was no internet in India?). I was a member of a BBS (Bulletin Board Service) where you posted messages under various categories (Technology, Society, Politics, Movies etc.) and waited for responses from other members.

The late Atul Chitnis, an IT Engineer was the SysOp of this early virtual group. Members of the BBS would use a modem to dial the BBS number, read the messages in the categories of their interest and post rejoinders. More than a year passed before I met members of the BBS at a party. One of the members who frequently crossed swords with me on ideological grounds looked me up and down and said, “I thought you would be much taller and bigger”.

This comment, made several decades before we had videophone connections, made a deep impression on me as I realised how our minds struggle to construct a 3-D image out of the clues in the internet handle (or nickname), coherence of thoughts presented, hint of biases, prejudices and implied premises and conclusions.

I am by no means short or “small”, yet the BBS member was comparing a mental image he had formed on the basis of my arguments with the physical image standing before him.

Technology has released us from physical, spatial and temporal confines. We are now netizens with access to a choice of social media groups.

The first thing I do every morning, probably like most people, is to read my social media messages.

We are consuming content and communicating more frenetically than ever before just because it is possible and we cant bear to ignore the impatient notification pings demanding our attention. We are distracted from our work because of the compulsion to check who is calling. We are getting accustomed to multi-tasking, sacrificing our meticulously cultivated powers of concentration and spreading ourselves thin in our digital social world.

The entire process of understanding ourselves has changed with the digitally enabled social interaction. We now have to develop our self-concepts in a wider social context and modify at least our online behaviour on the basis of the individuals we are linked to. We are told that society and the individual are not separate entities, but facets of the same phenomenon.

Assuming we understand ourselves in the digital space, we are faced with the task of presenting ourselves to a virtual audience.

Influential Sociologist Erving Goffman’s “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life is a 1956 sociology book, in which the author uses the imagery of the theatre to portray the importance of human social interaction – this would eventually become known as Goffman’s ‘dramaturgical analysis’ approach.”

“Though written over half a century ago, ‘The Presentation of Self in Everday Life’ remains one of the most famous and widely taught sociology books, which was listed as the 10th most important sociology book of the twentieth century by the International Sociological Association in 1998.” [].

Just as we consciously present ourselves to others online, people in our network are consciously [or unconsciously] presenting themselves to us.

I never cease to marvel at the high achievers in our circle who are going places, reaching one milestone after the other, all the while keeping us informed.

What I cannot understand is why some of them appear to be almost apologetic about their achievement! If they are, I wonder why!

A connection I cannot ignore even if I tried, says, “It was humbling to receive a welcome email from XYZ”.

Someone else for whom “success looks easy” is reportedly, “… rooted, grounded, humble…”

Yet another worthy says, “Honoured and humbled to receive The PQR Achiever of the Year 2022″…

As if being humbled is not enough, another notable says, “I am Very humbled and grateful to the ABC Institute for recognising POWERDARTS in online sales (my emphasis).

So what is this humility that has to accompany high achievement or recognition… is it the same idea as “modesty” in moments of legitimate public acknowledgement?

I did some research on “humility” online and revised my understanding of the concept:

There is a new generation expression, “Humble Bragger”…

“Humblebrag, also humble brag, humble-brag. noun [countable] a statement in which you pretend to be modest but which you are really using as a way of telling people about your success or achievements.”

“The word humblebrag was coined in 2011 by American comedian Harris Wittels, who set up the corresponding Twitter account and currently compiles a monthly top ten ranking of the most shameless humblebrags.”

“Arguably, the humblebrag is a product of the social media revolution, in which people talk about themselves all the time but the nuances of body language and facial expressions they’d use in the real world have to be substituted by words which convey: ‘I want to tell you about this, but I don’t want you to think I’m showing off.'”

“The term is of course a combination of adjective, ‘humble’, meaning ‘not thinking that you are better than others’ and verb ‘brag’ meaning ‘to talk about your achievements in an annoying way’. With these two opposing perspectives cemented into one word, it could be argued that humblebrag represents a new example of what is formally referred to as an oxymoron. An oxymoron is an expression containing words with opposite meanings, more well-known examples of which include bitter-sweet, deafening silence and organized chaos.”

Dont get me wrong… I love the “honour” part – its only the “humility” part that has me puzzled… What’s wrong with saying it with pride? “Garv se kaho” (Say it with pride!) – “Gauravaththode Prakhyapikkuga” – maybe “Abhimanam” not “Gauravam”

Online Games

It occurred to me that although our technology has changed, we are still playing the same old games which only a few decades ago we played face to face… Not many in the present generation could have heard of Thomas A. Harris, MD, of “I’M OK- YOU’RE OK (1969)” fame. This book was recommended as a “practical guide to transactional analysis as a method for solving problems in life”. The book made the New York Times Best Seller list in 1972 and remained there for almost two years.

An interesting idea from “I’m OK- You’re OK was a “game” from our childhood, which many of us carry into adulthood.

“I believe all games have their origin in the simple childhood game, easily observed in any group of three year-olds: ‘Mine is Better Than Yours’. This game is played to bring a little momentary relief from the awful burden of the NOT OK. It is essential to keep in mind what the I’M NOT OK – YOU’RE OK position means to the three-year-old. I’M NOT OK means: I’m two feet tall, I’m helpless, I’m defenceless, I’m dirty, nothing I do is right, I’m clumsy, and I have no words with which to try to make you understand how it feels. YOU’RE OK means: You are six feet tall, you are powerful, you are always right, you have all the answers, you are smart, you have life or death control over me, and you can hit me and hurt me, and its still OK.” (Chapter 3. The Four Life Positions)

“Grownups indulge in sophisticated variations of the ‘Mine Is Better’ game. Some people achieve temporary relief by accumulating possessions, by living in a bigger, better house than the Joneses, or even revelling in their modesty; I am humbler than you are.” [from I’M OK]

Hubristic Bragging

If we have really achieved something in our work or life, do we really need to brag about it AND feel “humbled”?

It would seem that braggarts need the brassy sound of bragging more than their audience, and using humility as a “counter-arrogance” cloak will deceive only the most naive online readers.

How then, must we celebrate our wins, however small or display authentic pride in our achievements? Authentic pride can be distinguished from hubristic pride by EVIDENCE of skilful achievement and/or impacts of hard-won results.

Hubristic pride is inevitably linked to a sense of deep need for acceptance and frequently accompanied by impulsivity and aggression. Sometimes this behaviour is triggered by a feeling of inferiority and non-acceptance by the primary group. It can of course only isolate the bragger even further.

It is posited that while authentic pride is generated by systematic effort and single-minded goal achievement, hubristic pride seeks recognition in the public eye on the basis of persistent claims of social superiority.

Self celebration over significant and noteworthy achievements is neither arrogance nor narcissism. Social media exists precisely for sharing such progress… Say it with pride… say it in your actions, and remember to share your success with others who contributed.

Proud Bragging

The last time I held forth on the subject of bragging, I wrote a few lines which still resonate with me today:

“I like to see myself as a Proud if not Hubristic Bragger, thanks to Erving Goffman. In Kannada I would add, “Enu nachaka illa” (I am unashamed… to say this). Its like a professional actor saying he or she is not ashamed to stand on stage and deliver his lines. In some shows, he might act as a King, in some as a Prophet and in yet others as a Clown or Villain.

“The prospect of standing before a crowd and delivering my rant of the day makes me plan a message, work on it, conscious that I am posting vital information about my mental state and how I think, and the positions I hold on various situations. Readers use their life’s experiences to judge for themselves how the post awakens their own consciousness in a public space.”

Evidence of Public Policy Success

23 Sep

Remember we defined Management as the Art and Science of getting results and the consequent need for a concept of measurement.

I spoke of the four important types of measurement scales:

  • Nominal
  • Ordinal
  • Interval
  • Ratio Scale

We also discussed the “sources of knowledge”

  • Perception: (प्रत्यक्षा) – pratyakṣa, or Direct Experience
  • Inference: (अनुमान) – anumāna, and
  • Word: (शब्द) sabda – (Testimony of past or present reliable experts)

With particular reference to Evaluation Research, we can select the “Evidence” (Pramana or प्रमाण) which literally means “proof” from these sources of knowledge.

We discussed “Facts, Opinions, Beliefs and Prejudice” as the assertions our stakeholders (and even we ourselves) make in most statements we make.

A fact is verifiable (eg. I was born in 1947)
An opinion is a judgment based on facts (eg. “From his previous performance, I dont think he will pass the examination this time either.”

A belief is a conviction based on religious, cultural or moral values. It cannot be disproved or challenged using logic. Identifying and understanding such beliefs is very important in public policy. (eg. Water is a gift of Goddess Cauvery… why should we pay for it?) This was a belief which was a hurdle for House Connections in Mysore city for Water Supply in KUIDP – (ADB Loan No. 1415-IND).

Five Citizens’ Representatives from Mysore were selected for a review of how Cauvery water is pumped to Bangalore in three stages of 500 feet each. Once the water is pumped up to the plateau, it has to be stored, purified and then distributed to the various wards of the city. At the time of the KUIDP, 63% of the households in Mysore were relying on piped water supply. It was granted that the Municipal water supply in Mysore used the gift of Goddess Cauvery, but the City Corporation had to pay crores of rupees each month to pump the water to the various City Wards, filter, purify it and then distribute it. This demonstration formed the core of a social marketing programme for water supply connections.

Prejudice is also an assertion that we have to understand in Public Policy. Dealing with prejudice can be very difficult. A certain Ward in a certain city in KSUDP refused to allow a “Sewage Treatment Plant (STP)” to be constructed because they had not been consulted and because they believed the STP would be a permanent source of foul smell. To complicate matters, an Opposition Political Party leader lived in the selected Ward. The project had to look for another site to build the STP.

Is Time an unchangeable fact?

The reason why I am writing this blog is that a couple of days ago, I came across the review of a book named Time Warped: Unlocking the Mysteries of Time Perception by Claudia Hammond.

Under normal circumstances, especially with the reach of the internet, we believe that time is universal for everyone (in a given time zone). However, Hammond makes the assertion that the time on your watch and the time in your head can move at different speeds. As we grow older with greater responsibilities, worries and preoccupations, time can be perceived to move faster than the time on your clock.

Those who have experimented with Cannabis may agree that time can get “stretched out” and give the perception that you are truly living “the moment”.

In my undergraduate years I read Carlos Castaneda hoping to learn some obscure truths. What I learnt instead was that there are some medicinal plants and mushrooms with hallucinogenic properties which can completely alter your mind and your perception of all your senses in the most unconventional and sometimes frightening way.

The purpose of this foray into the realms of hallucinogens is to convince you that it is very difficult to get a community influenced by what we think are “facts”. It is almost natural for a community to reject a policy proposal by an “outsider” who is perceived as someone who doesn’t understand the ways of the community.

The “Holiday Paradox”:

“The Holiday Paradox is caused by the fact that we view time in our minds in two very different ways — prospectively and retrospectively. Usually these two perspectives match up, but it is in all the circumstances where we remark on the strangeness of time that they don’t.”

“It comes from the disconnect between the experiencing self and the remembering self – a quirk of our brains that selectively chooses what to remember and what to discard.”

“You are most likely to remember the timing of an event if it was distinctive, vivid, personally involving and is a tale you have recounted many times since.” (My family will certify these features of my experiences!)

In the first Certificate Course run by CPPR in July 2021, one of the participants, a young lady teaching economics sounded disappointed that it looked like the course was for social science graduates, not for economists… This (slightly superior sounding) feeling no doubt came from viewing “Economics” as “Micro Economics” and “Macro Economics”. There are so many other applied Economics disciplines like “Welfare Economics”, “Development Economics”, “Agriculture Economics”, “Rural Economics”, “Urban Economics”, “Public Choice Theory” and so on… the list is endless.

Dont think for even one moment that it is sufficient to do a couple of so-called “Focus Groups” prior to introducing a successful policy. Typically communicating the need for and features of a new policy is the job of the politician, but not every politician is skilled and and has the required communication skills. The difficult route is through a “Participant Observer” method although some clients are likely to be reluctant to include such items in the Policy Research budget. For too many administrators, research is just a formality. One Public Sector Marketing Manager in the eighties told me, “Market Research is like the curry leaves used for making sambaar. Once served, the leaves are carefully removed from the plate and discarded.” A Superintending Engineer told me, “You write your poetry and we’ll write our engineering FACTS and CONCLUSIONS.” This is not merely arrogance. It is ignorance and a sign of inadequate multi-disciplinary training and experience.

A Participant Observer method may also convince you that some of the assumptions made by the Policy Makers are false and need to be revised. This can be a very difficult task indeed, but knowing about it can save huge amounts of money in project costs.

Be careful when you assert that something is a FACT.

Is it a Fact, an Opinion, a Belief, or a Prejudice?

In addition to the great four attributes, sometimes an assertion can even be based on a “Desire” and for that reason it deserves a mention.

In 1801, Tsar Paul I of Russia sent a proposal to Napoleon Bonaparte for a joint invasion of Mughal India. The Mughal Empire had been brought to its knees by the raids of Nadir Shah of Persia followed by the raids of the Afghan Chief Ahmed Shah Durrani. The Mughal Treasury had been emptied and weak Mughal rulers had no response to the aggression and bloodshed.

Internally, the only viable replacement for the Mughals were the Marathas, but superior British diplomacy and military power checkmated them with the Treaty of Bassein in 1802. Bassein is the English spelling of Vasai, which the Portuguese called Baçaim.

Fortunately for the East India Company and their allies, Napoleon who had recently been defeated at the Battle of the Nile (1799) decided not to engage his army for the raid on India.

This is an example of a policy which was conceived on the basis of the vanity and avarice (desire) of the Russian Tsar.

“Only a month out and less than halfway to Khiva, relief came in an unexpected way: Tsar Paul was dead and the mission recalled, averting certain disaster for the Cossacks and sparing Russia an embarrassing humiliation.”

STAY SAFE, STAY SANE during the COVID-19 Pandemic

23 Jul

On Monday 20 July 2020, with two days to go for the Bangalore lockdown to be lifted, I caught myself talking to myself.

Not that it was anything new or that it had something to do with the grudgingly agreed self-incarceration imposed by COVID-19.

In my bookshelf, I located the bestseller by Shad Helmstetter PhD, “WHAT TO SAY WHEN YOU TALK TO YOURSELF”. On the fly leaf I saw that I had written my name and inscribed the date 20 July 2008. That was the year I lost my wife Anita to liver cancer. For anyone who finds he or she has started talking to himself or herself, read this book for inspiring self-mastery lines which are stamped on the mind.

I had written about “Staying Alive” and “Staying Sane” in one of my earlier posts. There is no point in staying alive if we have to spend the rest of our lives with an unhinged mind.

Prisoners, mental health patients and Superintendents of remote plantations or facilities have to learn to live with long periods of isolation.

My first job at the age of 20 involved living in a timber-felling coupe in the Wayanad (then spelt Wynad) for about six months. After spending the whole morning measuring timber logs, I had to walk back to my hut and write up the log species and measurements in my timber stock book. I then had to look up a ready reckoner to calculate the cubic volume of each log. One would imagine I would get the rest of the day off, but no such luck… The timber-laden lorries would start coming down from the coupe in low gear and I had to check the logs that were being taken out. I counted the number of logs while my supervisor checked the identification numbers chiselled into the sawn ends of logs sticking out at the back of the lorry. The logs would then be stamped with a hammer that placed the Forest Department seal near the number.

Back at the hut, I had to check off the dispatched logs and prepare my report to my Superintendent for the next day. This was done in the light of a kerosene lamp which was called “Raandhal” (Malayalam corruption of “Lantern”). I still have that lamp in my flat in Bangalore.

My Superintendent, Derek Neale was a pukka English sahib with a red-blond brush moustache. He came on surprise visits to make sure I hadn’t nipped off on my bike to Calicut or Ooty.

The mood of those days (in 1967)  is captured well by James Taylor’s “Sweet Baby James” with its haunting lyrics:

“There is a young cowboy, he lives on the range
His horse and his cattle are his only companions
He works in the saddle and sleeps in the canyons
Waiting for summer, his pastures to change
And as the moon rises he sits by his fire
Thinking about women and glasses of beer
And closing his eyes as the doggies retire
He sings out a song which is soft but it’s clear
As if maybe someone could hear”

I have listed below some of the activities that have helped me survive four months alone in my apartment in Cooke Town, Bangalore through the pandemic:

1. Strict daily timetable: I get up at 0300 hrs, look at my mail, write and by 0500 hrs get out on a brisk walk of 2.6 km in under 30 minutes. Breakfast by 0900 hrs and at my desk by 0930 hrs. I have a one hour nap in the afternoon after lunch; and after my evening outing and bath, I have a light supper. I go to sleep by 2100 hrs.

2. Eat healthy: I cook my own meals and have an interesting spread of food.

3. Have regular contacts with family and friends: I call Kochi to talk to my wife every evening, and reach my children in New York, Singapore and Melbourne.

4. Revise technical topics you never fully understood during your College or Institute days.

I have revised my Post Graduate level Applied Statistics, especially the concepts and procedures which I had never fully understood. I brushed up my knowledge on Hypothesis Tests and re-applied them to Project Evaluations I had done in Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Sikkim, Haryana and Kerala. I never really understood what the ‘p’ Value was. Now I know how to verify a t-score by providing the degrees of freedom, significance level, and specifying whether the test is one tail or two tail. Its a matter of great contentment to know that a large ‘p’ value (usually > 0.05) indicates weak evidence against the null hypothesis

5. Social Contact – Thanks to mobile phones and WhatsApp, in addition to my family members, I stay in touch with a wide circle of friends.

Every evening I leave my apartment at 1726 hrs and walk to reach the gate of a close friend and neighbour at exactly 1730 hrs. I enjoy their beautiful garden and the beautiful Bangalore weather (most days). At exactly 1830 hrs I get up and walk back to my apartment unless I have to go to one of our neighbourhood vegetable or grocery shops.

I have started a “Supper Club” in my building so I have dinner with a friend once a week alternating our apartments as the venue. On Sundays we go out to breakfast at one of the many restaurants in our area. To keep up (at least my) morale, the dinner table is set with sparkling china, serviettes in quarter plates, fork, knife, spoon and dessert spoon. Food is served at the table in Perspex or china dishes. Not having a butler, I serve the food and clear the plates myself.

6. Keeping myself busy – I spent several hours every day for up to 8 months in 2018 and 2019 writing two novels “The Nawab’s Tears” (PARTRIDGE 2018) and “Return of the Yakshi” (NOTION 2019). Both books are available on Amazon. This experience has given me the discipline to sit and write for hours without getting up. Initially our security guard Kannan would come up and ring my bell to see if I was alive and well. I had to make him understand that I was busy and didn’t wish to be disturbed. 

I continue to write my blogs on my travel and experiences in various far away locations. I have produced some fiction short stories where I have used the details of a particular excursion and blended perfectly credible fiction with it.

7. Focusing on positive thoughts – Despite my best efforts, occasionally – maybe as often as once a week, negative thoughts wash over my consciousness in waves, threatening to reverse all the work I do to stay positively focused.

I rely on regular physical workouts and breathing exercises to get out of these moods.

In the early Eighties, I became a follower of the James Fixx running programme and ran 10 kms every morning in under an hour. That’s how I got to know about the sports medicine research on the production of the quartet of “happy drugs” (Dopamine, Serotonin, Oxytocin, and Endorphins) which are responsible for our happiness and consequently our moods. Absolutely safe, wonderful drugs produced by our own bodies!

Alcohol is the wrong drug because it can only exacerbate an already depressed mood. The resulting state of mind is called, avoir le vin triste (to get miserable after a few drinks) or even, “avoir le vin mauvais” (to get nasty after a few drinks).

I have intelligent and sharp-witted young friends who are not afraid to take me on in intellectual jousting tourneys. That invariably lifts my mood. Just what the doctor ordered! I think I deserve a red ribbon for my skill grade in Hastilude.

8. Setting Priorities – One of the advantages in getting a long break like the COVID Lockdown, is the dawning of the ever clearer realisation that life is not forever.

MS Office has an app called OneNote which I never seriously used. I have now started maintaining a Notebook for each of my main objectives. Pages can be added to the Notebook to further categorise each objective.

For example, I have a notebook for “Travel” which is filled with pages on places I have to visit before I die.

9. Moral Compass – However ‘secular’ (a bad word these days) and rational we might be, most of us have a belief system or part of a belief system that functions in the subconscious background and regulates our behaviour.

Most of our values and beliefs are acquired in our childhood, without the benefit of critical thinking and evaluation.

When we are in trouble our minds go to these belief systems. There are strong emotions attached to our values and belief systems. We find comfort in our belongingness and we draw strength from the words, images and melodies from community rituals.

Leonard Cohen’s surreal lyrics of “So long Marianne” talks of the power of symbols of our faith:

We met when we were almost young
deep in the green lilac park.
You held on to me like I was a crucifix,
as we went kneeling through the dark.

My wife Anita had a crucifix which Bro. James Kimpton of REACHING THE UNREACHED gave her. He told her it was made from the wood of olive trees in the Garden of Gethsemane. In her last days and weeks, Anita clung on to that crucifix as if it would miraculously save her. Alas…

As herd animals, human beings very easily substitute personal identities with group identities. We accept the given group meanings rather than search for meanings using our own reasoning.

If your belief system can be tapped as a source of strength, it can tide you over difficult times.

Ref: Michael Schermer, Jonas Kaplan

10. Abun d’Bashmayo – I have a notebook which contains snippets of religious rituals which have left their impact on me. For example, the Lord’s Prayer in Aramaic is very moving, particularly since my ancestors (mothers side) were scholars of Biblical Languages. In the days before typewriters and printing technology, scribes actually translated from Aramaic, Hebrew, Syriac and Greek, and manually wrote the chapters of the Malayalam Bible. I give below the Aramaic version of the Lord’s Prayer:

Abun d-bashmayo
nithqadash shmokh
tithe malkuthokh
nehwe sebyonokh
aykano d-bashmayo
oph bar`o hab lan
lahmo d-sunqonan
yowmono washbuq lan
hawbayn wahtohayn
aykano doph hnan
shbaqan l-hayobayn
lo ta`lan l-nesyuno
elo paso lan
men bisho metul
d-dylokh hi malkutho
whaylo wteshbuhto
l`olam `olmin

Those who would like to hear a sung version of the Lord’s Prayer in Aramaic can visit-

I must warn you that the young woman with the superb voice can distract from the solemn tones of the prayer… perhaps it ought to have been sung by a Syrian Orthodox monk with a deep, stentorian voice … not by a beautiful woman, with a mezzo soprano voice.

I thank the internet for my continuing education!

11. From Darkness to Light – I was “regularly initiated into Freemasonry on the 8th day of January 2008 AD in the Lodge Bangalore No.15. and was regularly advanced to the second and third degrees”… my certificate goes on to say “that his name has been duly Registered in the Books of the Grand Lodge.”

Moving from Darkness to Light is a central preoccupation in Freemasonry. I found a striking resemblance of this fundamental idea to the Upanishadic hymn, “Asato Ma Sad Gamaya“. This is part of a text {Brihadaranyaka Upanishads (1.3.28)} that was written between 1000 and 700 BCE.

ॐ असतो मा सद्गमय ।
तमसो मा ज्योतिर्गमय ।
मृत्योर्मा अमृतं गमय ।
ॐ शान्तिः शान्तिः शान्तिः ॥
Om Asato Maa Sad-Gamaya |
Tamaso Maa Jyotir-Gamaya |
Mrtyor-Maa Amrtam Gamaya |
Om Shaantih Shaantih Shaantih ||

1: Om, (O Lord) Keep me not in (the Phenomenal World of) Unreality, but make me go towards the Reality (of Eternal Self),
2: Keep me not in (the Ignorant State of) Darkness, but make me go towards the Light (of Spiritual Knowledge),
3: Keep me not in (the World of) Mortality, but make me go towards the World of Immortality (of Self-Realization),
4: Om, Peace, Peace, Peace.

There is a good rendering of this hymn on YouTube, at:

So these are my thoughts after the fourth month of the COVID crisis and whimsical lockdowns.

Stay safe, stay SANE!

1229 hrs on 23 July 2020


26 Mar

This piece has been written at a time when COVID-19 is raging around the world. The people and places mentioned are real. So are my experiences.

I apologise for rambling and losing focus now and then. Partly due to geriatric infirmity and partly due to a hard-wired inquisitive streak.



“On 16 November 2002, an outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) began in China’s Guangdong province, bordering Hong Kong. A farmer in the Shunde district of Foshan County was likely the first case of infection.

“Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS, or SARS-1) is a viral respiratory disease of zoonotic origin that surfaced in the early 2000s caused by the first SARS coronavirus (SARS-CoV, or SARS-CoV-1). In late 2017, Chinese scientists traced the virus through the intermediary of civets to cave-dwelling horseshoe bats in Yunnan province.

“No cases of the first SARS-CoV have been reported worldwide since 2004. However, the related coronavirus—SARS-CoV-2—is the cause of the ongoing 2019–20 coronavirus pandemic.”

REF: Severe acute respiratory syndrome From Wikipedia


In June 2003, at the height of the SARS virus pandemic, I travelled from Bangalore to Colombo.

At the Immigration desk there was a placard saying, “Do you have clammy skin, low grade fever, headache and respiratory problems? Report to the Medical Desk to get a free checkup.”

I was definitely ill, but I’d have been damned if I had to be bundled off home. So I marched through the immigration with the arrogance and studied casualness of Sean Connery in the role of Peachey Carnehan slipping through the British India border checkpost into Afghanistan.

The flight to Colombo took just 90 minutes. I found my seat and promptly fell asleep. The Air-Hostess decided not to disturb me and I missed my refreshments.

At Colombo there was no screening of incoming passengers. I passed through and after picking up my checked-in baggage, changed some US dollars and booked a pre-paid taxi. (It cost SL Rs. 1200 to my Hotel on Galle Road.) At that time the exchange rate was SL Rs.167 for Indian ₹100.

My client had booked a room at Renuka City Hotel, a business hotel, about 14 km (due North) from the Colombo International Airport in Ratmalana. I got into the front seat of the taxi, leaned back and relaxed.

The next thing I knew was that I had apparently arrived at my destination and the driver was tapping me on my shoulder and trying to wake me up. I opened my eyes and gazed sightlessly as I recovered my wits. This driver could have taken me anywhere and dumped me on the pavement after taking all my valuables. I just wouldnt have known!

I got out of the car and walked into the hotel, followed by a uniformed porter carrying my suitcase.

I was signed into my room and I must have gone out like a light!


The next morning I went to the hotel restaurant for breakfast and found that they had “Cornflakes, Eggs, Bread, Butter, Jam”… hahaha… This is the original alien food that the British introduced to upwardly mobile Indians… There was no taste on my palate and nothing could have put me off more than bread, butter and jam. I decided I would go out and see if I can get a more exciting breakfast which would sear the linings of my mouth!

I crossed Galle road and walked to the Hotel Hijra, a small kaka restaurant at the corner of Mile Post Avenue. I ordered paratha and a spicy meat curry… wah! My mouth still waters. And it cost just SL Rs.140/-. I also still remember the low grown tea – strong liquor, bright colour and fresh taste to offset the absence of any remarkable flavour. Probably from Uva, I thought… this tea reminded me of low grown teas from Kumbazha, Koney and Cheruvally, all “Low Country” plantations of my first employer, Malayalam Plantations.

I was in Sri Lanka on behalf of an engineering firm which was pitching for an ADB project in Reforms and Regulation in the Urban Water Supply sector.


We eventually didn’t get the project. I got an opportunity to push myself beyond reasonable levels with a previously unknown virus short-ciruiting my nervous system.

I got home safely to Bangalore two days later.



Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (MERS-CoV) was first reported in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 2012.

I travelled to Port Louis in Mauritius on 20 May 2014 and returned to Bangalore on 28 May 2014, both trips via Dubai.

Picking up viruses was nothing new to me as an assiduous and indefatigable traveller. I used to boast that I collected “Designer Viruses” during my travels to remote corners of India and Bangladesh.


Port Louis was a dream city where I consulted for the biggest company in Mauritius named Harel Mallac & Co. This company was founded in 1789 by Charles-Pierre Harel, from Saint-Malo, Brittany, France. I was treated like a VIP at immigration and a uniformed chauffeur met me outside Arrivals. He drove me to a smart business hotel named Voila! in Bagatelle, which is 38 kms from the airport.

The high point of my visit to Port Louis was an unexpected meeting with a high ranking (32nd Degree) Freemason of the “Grande Loge de France”, which follows the Scottish Rite.


I left Port Louis on 28th May 2014 for Dubai where I had a four hour layover. It was while I was wandering around Dubai airport that I began to feel uncomfortable with a scratchy feeling in my throat and a stuffy nose. Very soon, I had a bad headache and an uncontrollable frequent need to cough!

My heart fell as I realised I could be infected by MERS (Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome), the Camel virus first idenified in Saudi Arabia.

My Dubai-Bangalore flight was a three hours thirty minutes journey. Sitting next to me was a petite teenager who winced every time I coughed.

Out of sheer distress, I asked the steward for a glass of hot water. He said he had no hot water but could give me a glass of Scotch. I suppressed my sudden exuberance and said, “Make that a double!” After coughing and sneezing for a few minutes, I dropped off to sleep and woke up half an hour before landing in Bangalore.

It was early morning and with great difficulty I hailed an airport taxi from my mobile, threw my baggage into the trunk of the car and hopped in. Once home, I got out feeling good that I didnt have to pay cash…the payment was deducted from my MERU TAXI Wallet.

I took the lift to my apartment and crawled in, making sure I dragged my baggage in behind me.

I took the stairs up to my bedroom, considered taking a bath, then thought better of the impulse and flopped into bed.

I looked in the mirror and found myself muttering the lyrics of Stanley Holloway’s monologue, “My Word You Do Look Queer“.

My word you do look queer!
Your cheeks are all sunk and your colour’s all gone,
Your neck’s very scraggy, still you’re getting on.
How old are you now? About fifty, that’s true.
Your father died that age, your mother did too.

My head was throbbing, I wasn’t hungry and there was a sharp pain behind both my eyes.

I entered a clearly altered state of consciousness where colours and sounds were enhanced. This experience was similar to an experience I underwent in 1987 in a village near Baripada, Mayurbhanj district of Orissa. A tribal man gave me some fragrant but bitter exudate gum which I ingested. He told me I will meet his “Bongo” and I shouldnt be afraid. “Bongo” is the name given to tribal deities and spirits.

The minutes of my life seemed to be stretched interminably as the traditional medicine [drug] took effect.

I was undergoing a psychedelic experience similar to what I experienced in Mayurbhanj. It seemed that life would go on forever and I would be surrounded by bright lights and pleasant sounds.


So if I had been exposed to MERS infection, could the symptoms have shown up so soon?

“The median incubation period for secondary cases associated with limited human-to-human transmission is approximately 5 days (range 2-14 days). In MERS-CoV patients, the median time from illness onset to hospitalization is approximately 4 days. In critically ill patients, the median time from onset to intensive care unit (ICU) admission is approximately 5 days, and median time from onset to death is approximately 12 days.”

The MERS virus was “detected in a faecal sample taken from an Egyptian tomb bat, collected close to the home of the first known MERS victim.”

Scientists think that the virus passes from the Egyptian tomb bat to the dromedary camel and then to humans.

“Jonathan Ball, a virologist from the University of Nottingham, said: “We have long suspected that bats are likely to be the original source of MERS. They’ve been around for millions of years and have picked up a lot of viruses on the way – bats are a source of lots of human virus infections, like Ebola, henipahvirus, rabies and Sars.”

I went to sleep and didnt wake up till evening the next day. I am lucky I woke up and lived to tell this story!

My wife Susanne and my daughter Anjali think I made up the story about getting infected with MERS just for dramatic effect. There was no making up the pain and disorientation I went through. The drama was real, believe me!


We dont know so much about the COVID-19 corono virus. I am staying put in my apartment and “investing in myself” by revising Applied Statistics, preparing myself for the assignment for which I was contracted just before the Lockdown. I am also using the opportunity to do some creative writing… another investment in myself!

Humble Bragging, Hubristic Bragging and Sadfishing

11 Dec

The year was 1984 and I was busy searching through two of my songbooks for lyrics that could be adapted for a pasquinade I could deliver at a class farewell for GKV, an influential and hugely popular OB instructor. Alright, GKV is the initials of Gopal K.Valecha and OB is the acronym for Organisational Behaviour.

Just when I began to despair that I wouldnt get anything suitable to modify for my spoof song, my eyes hovered over the lyrics of “Psychotherapy” by Melanie Safka. “Yes”, I thought, “I could modify these lines to create a jingle that classmates in the Post Graduate Programme could remember for decades after we progressed from the huddle of grim grey concrete buildings in Bannerghatta, Bangalore.”

My ballpen hovered over a dog-eared scribbling pad and it took only a few minutes for the transformation of Melanie’s song into a parody to be sung to the same tune.

I had to return to the second verse which required to be polished up.

At IIM I thought the others to me were all superior
And this complex made me drearier and drearier and drearier
Till GKV assured me that I really was inferior
As the id goes marching on…

Yes, that would do, I thought as I put finishing touches to the lyrics and got ready to go down to the mess for lunch.

At the Institute, competing with IIT and REC toppers presented what seemed to be insurmountable odds. I had joined for the MBA Programme after working for 11 years. I was 36 years old, while the average age of the class was about 25. The youngest batchmate had just crossed 20 years of age. I was the same age as some of our professors. I wondered how my classmates viewed me and what impression they formed of me.


The Social Self and Looking Glass Self

It was December 2019 and it was turning cold in Bangalore. As I walked down Lewis Road in Cooke Town towards my friend’s house, I quickly reviewed some of the other influential OB concepts that made an impact on me.

Ninteenth Century Sociologist George Herbert Mead’s “Theory of the Social Self” and Charles Horton Cooley’s “Looking Glass Self”.

I pulled out my mobile and looked up “Looking Glass Self” (1906) on Google. “…our reflection of how we think we appear to others”…

Influential Sociologist Erving Goffman had worked on “The Presentation of Self in Every Day Life” (1956). His dramaturgical analysis assumes that we consider ourselves to be on stage as we present ourselves to society (our audience of the moment).

Society has grown out of its physical, spatial confines and we are now netizens with access to a kaleidoscopic selection of digital groups.

The first thing I do every morning, probably like most people in my circle is to look at messages in my smartphone.

We are communicating more frenetically than ever before just because it is possible and we cant bear to ignore the impatient pings demanding our attention. We are distracted from our work because its so easy to check who is calling. We are getting accustomed to multi-tasking at the cost of our concentration and spreading ourselves thin in our digital social world.

The entire process of understanding ourselves has changed with the digitally enabled social interaction. We now have to develop our self-concepts in a wider social context and modify at least our online behaviour on the basis of the individuals we are linked to. We are told that society and the individual are not separate entities, but two sides of the same phenomenon.


Many Facebook and WhatsApp addicts measure their self-worth on the number of “likes” they get. For a couple of years conversations in online groups were dominated by liberals who commented on changes taking place at the national and regional space. Then suddenly, there were swift reproofs questioning the nationalism of the individuals who had posted these liberal comments. A new aggression crept into online discussions and the vocabulary changed to accommodate the new social reality.

In at least one of my online groups (IIMB 1983-85), I got called, “Libtard”, “Sickular”, “Left Intellectual”, “JNU Sympathiser”, and “Evangelical”. My insistence that policies must be acceptable to all stakeholders which meant debate and modification of hardline stances was jeered at. I had to review my own position in the light of how my social group viewed me. The easiest option was to withdraw from the group and not be active in conversations, although that would have meant ceding space to my attackers.

In an online Fight or Flight situation, we have to assess whether there is a real threat to our survival as netizens and whether our physiologies are producing the hormones and neurotransmitters to gird us for resistance. Its all a matter of what we consider to be sacred and unviolable in our lives. I am glad to say I stood my ground and continued saying what I had always said and am now closer than ever to the batchmates who were critical of my leanings.

Humble Bragging

In almost every group there is the “Humble Bragger” who is in fact a high achiever. He or she feels diffident about saying something that might be perceived as immodest. He or she is likely to announce a significant achievement as, “I am humbled by the honour conferred on me by the Society for…”. The embarrassment caused by blowing one’s own trumpet is directly proportional to ones sense of immodesty and self-effacement. This is sad, especially when there has been a significant achievement, in which case an online group is a primary group before which it is perfectly legitimate to share the experience. If there has been a real accomplishment, why should it be swept under the carpet?! Authentic pride which is carefully articulated with a sense of self-control can be satisfying and inspiring for the whole tribalistic group.

Hubristic Bragging

Hubristic pride is inevitably linked to a sense of impulsivity and aggression. Sometimes this behaviour is triggered by a feeling of inferiority and non-acceptance by the primary group. It can of course only isolate the bragger even further.

It is posited that while authentic pride is generated by systematic effort and single-minded goal achievement, hubristic pride seeks recognition in the public eye on the basis of persistent claims of social superiority.


This term was coined in early 2019 by writer Rebecca Reid, Digital Editor of Grazia, author of “Perfect Liars” and “Truth Hurts”.

Sadfishing is the act of fishing for online sympathy. Frequently this is engineered by intensifying the drama of a personal situation to create engagement on social media.

Most of us would be familiar with individuals in our groups who desperately and shamelessly seek online sympathy. Sometimes this behaviour is conflated with vin triste, which literally means “wine sad” in French. It is the melancholic state that sometimes accompanies hard drinking.

I knew someone who was going through a divorce and was seeing a significant other. It was easy to conclude that his sadfishing posts had been composed under the influence of alcohol. The self-pity and the comfort-seeking expeditions were rather disturbing. It was quite common for him to dramatise the legal and social complications of his divorce and life situation. He would post details of the new woman in his life and details of where he had met her and when, without probably realising that he was posting evidence that could be used against him in a divorce court into hundreds of computers.

Another online friend had a heart attack which required a procedure to place a stent in a blocked artery. His sadfishing posts bemoaned the threat to his life and the fact that he was facing this crisis alone. “I have nobody” was a frequent lament. It was embarrassing to respond to these posts because I had never met the man in real life or in ‘meat space’ to use digital jargon. An embarrassed silence is an understandable response to sadfishing, although this can be seen as rejection and isolation by the person who posted that message.

Proud Bragging

I like to see myself as a Proud if not Hubristic Bragger, thanks to Erving Goffman. In Kannada I would add, “Enu nachaka illa” (I am unashamed… to say this). Its like a professional actor saying he or she is not ashamed to stand on the stage and deliver his lines. In some shows, he might act as a King, in some as a Prophet and in yet others as a Villain.

The prospect of standing before a crowd and delivering my rant of the day makes me plan a message, work on it, conscious that I am posting vital information about my mental state and how I think, and the positions I hold on various situations. Readers use their life’s experiences to judge for themselves how the post represents me in a public space.

In the early 1990’s, before the internet came to India (Huh? Was there a time when there was no internet in India?). I was a member of a BBS (Bulletin Board Service) where you posted messages under various categories (Technology, Society, Politics, Movies etc.). The late Atul Chitnis, an IT Engineer was the SysOp of this group. Members of the BBS would read the messages in the categories of their interest and post responses. It took more than a year before I met members of the BBS at a party. One of the members who frequently crossed swords with me on ideological grounds looked me up and down and said, “I thought you would be much taller and bigger”. He explained that he was referring to my online image which was of a person occupying a lot of prime space.

This experience gave me an insight into how we are perceived online regardless of the skill with which we try to position ourselves. There are a few people who confer extraordinary (positive) tributes on me, like my friend Geeta Gopal Athreya whom I have known since 1964. There must be some substance in such accolades, which have survived intact over 55 years, which is almost a life-time. On the other hand I have more than one friend on my IIMB Group who call my writing “Tharoorish“. The tide has however turned and I am no longer called all the “Anti-National” sobriquets given to me by one or two of my IIMB batchmates. I am quite happy to accept the label of “Tharoorish” as a compliment, even if it may not have been intended as such.

Freud’s mystic world of meaning needn’t have us mystified
Its really very simple what the psyche tries to hide
Our fate is a phallic symbol, as long as it is wide
As the id goes marching on…

Thoughts on the eve of Diwali – October 2019

26 Oct

Another year has gone by and tomorrow, 27 Oct 2019, India will celebrate Diwali.

In Hindustan (Hindi speaking states of India), Diwali is celebrated as the day when Lord Ram returned to Ayodhya with his wife, brother and Hanuman after killing Ravana.

In some areas in North India, Diwali is celebrated as the day when the Pandavas returned to their kingdom in Hastinapur, along with their wife Draupadi and mother Kunti.

Diwali is also celebrated as the day on which, Goddess Lakshmi emerged from the sea of milk. The night of Diwali is celebrated with colors to celebrate the marriage of Lord Vishnu to Lakshmi.

In Eastern India, Diwali celebrations remind us of the victory of Kali over demons.

About 50 years ago, in Kerala and Tamilnadu there was virtually no celebration of Deepavali (not Diwali). However, some communities in the Deccan Plateau, located South of the Vindhyas, in the area between the Malabar Coast and the Coromandel Coast, celebrate Diwali as the day on which Lord Krishna triumphed over Narakasura.

Kerala splurges on the Onam festival at which time it is believed that King Mahabali visits his people. The most important festival of Tamilnadu is Pongal, although they have a festival of lights known as “Karthigai Deepam” which falls during the month of Karthigai (Nov-Dec). Lamps are lit to celebrate the day when the moon aligns with the Karthigai constellation. It is also believed to be the day on which Lord Shiva appeared in Thiruvannamalai hills and to commemorate this event, a huge fire is lit atop the hill.

Due to high economic growth and low population growth in the South Indian States, there has been a steady flow of North Indian migrant labour arriving in the South Indian States in search of jobs since the 1980’s. This explains the celebration of Diwali in some districts in South India at present.

For some communities in Kerala and Tamilnad, Deepavali is celebrated as the day Lord Krishna defeated Narakasura.

For the Sikhs, Diwali is celebrated in memory of the day when Guru Har Gobind was freed along with fifty two rajas from the Gwalior Fort. This celebration coincides with the Hindu festival of Diwali, although the Sikhs call the day, “Bandi Chhorh Divas” (day of release of detainees).

On Diwali day, usually in October-November, the Sikhs have a one-day celebration in their Gurdwaras. Illuminations with Deewé (earthen oil lamps) decorate and light up the Gurdwaras and homes.

For Jains, Diwali is the day when Mahavira attained nirvana.


After the death of Aurangazeb in 1707, the mighty Mughal Empire began to break up and regional rulers consolidated their power even as central control began to crumble. The violent raid of Nadir Shah in 1739 in which thousands of innocent citizens of Delhi were slaughtered was probably the death blow to the Mughal Empire. Accumulated Mughal treasure of centuries including the famous Peacock Throne of Shah Jahan was carried away by Nadir Shah.

The East India Company which had come to Delhi as petitioners to the Great Mughal now began to assert its power, enforced by a trained army and navy. Technology in the form of firearms and gunpowder enhanced and consolidated their power.

After the Mutiny in the Bengal Army in 1857, the East India Company shed the pretense of being vassals of the Mughal Emperor and gradually morphed into the British Indian Empire, after sending the last Mughal into exile in Burma (Myanmar).

At the time of Indian Independence in 1947, in addition to the areas directly ruled by the British, there were some 565 Princely States which were allowed limited powers although they were under the oversight of Political Officers called, “Residents”.

So we have the “India that is Bharat” which was handed over to an Indian Government which legislated the partition of the country into India and Pakistan (which had territories in the North West and the North East called East Pakistan.)

There is an appearance of similarity in religion, culture and language in this patchwork state, which on closer inspection reveal significant differences.

The way Diwali is celebrated all over India is a good reminder that despite our different beliefs and practices, there is an overall unity and good natured co-existence. Pax Indica is disturbed when we mistake unity for uniformity. Real skill lies in managing the diversity, not using brute force to produce ethnic, religious, cultural and political clones in the country.


Diwali “celebrates a move from darkness to light. It is the ultimate triumph of good over evil.” (

A well known prayer frequently used in Indian schools and during spiritual functions in India is a Shanti Mantra from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishads (1.3.28):

असतोमा सद्गमय ।
तमसोमा ज्योतिर् गमय ।
मृत्योर्मामृतं गमय ॥
ॐ शान्ति शान्ति शान्तिः ।।

asato mā sadgamaya
tamasomā jyotir gamaya
mrityormāamritam gamaya
Oṁ śhānti śhānti śhāntiḥ

From ignorance, lead me to truth;
From darkness, lead me to light;
From death, lead me to immortality
Om peace, peace, peace

Daylight and darkness provide a basis for the natural rhythm of our lives. They also symbolise the binaries of knowledge and ignorance, chaos and order, and life and death.

In other religions too, moving from darkness to light; from ignorance to knowledge is a recurring theme.

There are frequent references in the Bible to darkness and light. In John 8:12, Jesus is identified with light:

Then Jesus again spoke to them, saying, ‘I am the Light of the world; he who follows Me will not walk in the darkness, but will have the Light of life‘”.

Pre-Christian Gods like Mithra and Helios were both Sun Gods who represented light which dispels darkness. Mithra was an Indo-Iranian God while Helios was a Greek God. Sunday is believed to have been made the day of worship for Christians because Emperor Constantine of Rome (AD 306–337) wanted to superimpose Christianity over Mithraism with minimum changes in worship rituals.

The Koran says, “Allah is the Guardian of the believers — He brings them out of darkness and into light. As for the disbelievers, their guardians are false gods who lead them out of light and into darkness. It is they who will be the residents of the Fire. They will be there forever.” {Chapter (2) sūrat l-baqarah (The Cow) Verse (2:257)}

Enlightenment is a central concept of Buddhism. The word “Bodhi“, a Sanskrit and Pali word that means “awakening,” is often translated as “enlightenment.” For the devout Buddhist, enlightenment means finding the truth about life and achieving Nirvana which releases him or her from the endless cycle of rebirth.

This year, as we celebrate Diwali, let us re-dedicate our lives to continuing our journey from darkness to light. Let us consciously reject the powers of darkness that seek to envelop us and take us back to the void where life began.


Musings on a Lazy Sunday – 6 Oct 2019

8 Oct

In the year 2001, I got one of my most prestigious assignments with the Asian Development Bank (TA 3485-IND) named, “Participatory Poverty Assessment for all 14 districts of Kerala”. I got a life-time opportunity to travel to the farthest corners of my home state, in search of poor communities. I carried a letter of introduction from the Secretary, State Planning Board, the Kerala Government department to which I was attached. I had six months to travel, interview communities, eat local food, find an excuse to buy an expensive camera with extra lenses and make plans for writing a novel on poverty and a violent reaction to it.

In the midst of my regular field work, I was constantly on the lookout for sources of the undying spirit and pride of hardworking Malayalees all over the world.

One of my visits took me to Kumaranelloor, about 50 kms north of Thrissur and 15 kms south of Kuttipuram, which lies on the northern bank of Bharathapuzha.

Just as the river Periyar dominates the culture of Travancore & Cochin, the Bharathapuzha [river] dominates the culture of the Malabar. These two are Kerala’s longest rivers (Periyar 244 kms and Bharathapuzha 209 kms).

A professional colleague insisted I should accompany him to the home of his wife’s parents and have a traditional meal. I joyfully agreed and was delighted to meet Prof. K.Vijayakumar who at that time was Head of the Department of History at the Government Sanskrit College in Pattambi.

He was sufficiently impressed with my curiosity about the culture of Malabar to give me a copy of his book, “Kalaripayatt – The Power and Beauty of Keralam”. Vijayakumar is a specialist in “Medieval Warfare in Kerala”.

This book is a treatise on Kalaripayatt, the martial art of Kerala. Although my Malayalam is just good enough to pass Kerala’s literacy test, I manfully read the whole book and made detailed notes.

I made references to this book in both my novels, “The Nawab’s Tears” (2018) and the “Return of the Yakshi” (2019).

The sandy banks of the Bharathapuzha river was traditionally the stage for the Mamankam festival which was held once in twelve years. The popular belief was that on the first day of the Mamankam, Goddess Ganga descended into Bharathapuzha and hallowed the river waters.

The Mamankam celebrations were held under the oversight of the Thirunavaya Temple which is on the northern bank of the Bharathapuzha. The contests included debates, intellectual contests, cultural activities, rituals and martial art performances.

The Thirunavaya temple is one of the 108 Tiruppathis (Most Holy Temples) in the country. Eleven of these are in Kerala and Thirunavaya is one of them.

The Mamankam celebrations were discontinued towards the end of the Eighteenth century. The memories of feudal Malabar still exist and contribute to the pride and glory of the Malabar region.

My college friend P.K.Moideenkutty loved to boast that the waters of the Bharathapuzha flowed in his veins.

One of the assertions in K. Vijayakumar’s book that made an impression on me concerned the difference between the concepts of Deception (Adavu) and Treachery (Chathi). Deception is an important item in the bag of techniques of the Kalari exponent. Treachery, including taking advantage of a fallen or wounded opponent is against the Code of the Warrior. The cult of “Chaver Pada” or suicide fighters was developed among the Kalari-trained soldiers. Their honour would never allow them to turn around and retreat. They would fight to the last breath.

After a lifetime of living with the certainty that deception is mistruth, the Way of the Warrior presented a challenge to my basic values.

We have here a basic conflict between two opposing philosophical views.

On the one hand, we have the moral position that we must live by principles, and our actions should not be judged by the results but by whether or not they were in conformance with the performance of our duty.

An opposing, utilitarian view holds that our actions are right if they benefit the majority of people as a result of our telling the truth or lying.

With a national motto like सत्यमेव जयते (Satyam-eva jayate) Truth alone triumphs”, we can hardly push “truth” out of sight as inconvenient! This motto is a part of a mantra from the ancient Indian scripture Mundaka Upanishad.

Quid est veritas?” (What is the truth?) is Pontius Pilate’s question to Jesus after which he declares to the Jews gathered there, “I find in him no fault [at all] (John 18:37-38, KJV).”

That brought me to the subject of writing fiction, which raises relevant questions about truth and mistruth.

Frequently when reading a novel, which has been declared to be ‘fiction’ with the statutory disclaimer that the characters, situations and events are all fictitious, I wonder how it is possible to write something so completely fictitious…

An interesting quote suggests, “I know that every word of the conversations between the men, every action, is invented, made up, to be precise, lies. And yet after finishing the story I was emailing fellow writers saying buy this book, read this story, it oozes with ‘it’, it resonates, it lingers, it makes you feel, it makes you sense a fundamental truth, let’s you see.” (Alex Keegan, The Art of Telling Lies).

Thomas Babington Macaulay observed, somewhat cynically, I think, that “The object of oratory alone is not truth, but persuasion”.

We are all familiar with the power of oratory and how it can sway herds of sheep who dont worry about truth or logic or reasoning. Do we worry that influential orators may be telling lies to the masses?

Historical fiction presents its own challenges because it requires hop-step-and-jump between known ‘facts’ (with all their inherent prejudices and propagandistic content) and creative sub-plots. Fictitious characters and conversations may not be essential for creating dramatic effects or for racking up the tension; but may nevertheless be important to make the story sound authentic and help the reader to understand the environment within which the story unravels.

This element of story telling, known as ‘exposition’ is essential for explaining situations and providing the building blocks that will be used to lay a strong foundation, and for the desired superstructure of the story. Sometimes a flashback is used to add depth to a character or a situation. Readers understand that a character is the product of his or her history and flashbacks help to build the cause-effect connection.

A fiction writer can use his creative license to cook up up the perfect glue to hold the story together. Apart from descriptions of visuals, sounds, smells, and natural phenomena, description of what a character feels can help build a strong connect with the reader.

Exposition should not become a distraction and break the continuity of the story plot. This is where zooming into the past and getting back to the present time becomes an art of superfast time travel, saying a lot with a few words.

Fiction helps authors to exhume the truth about ‘facts’ (“true facts”???) and their feelings with regard to them. In daily life we tend to cover up facts to avoid confronting the pain of our failure, our hurt or our betrayal. Story telling can bring out the bare facts forcing us to stand up to the truth. This means that stories help us re-write our life’s stories through our characters and examine a “what-if?” situation. In this sense, fiction writing brings us face to face with the truth as only we can present it.

On Friday, 2 December 2016, I wrote a love story titled “Lal Salaam, Captain Shree” which told the story of a romantically involved extremist couple who came under police fire. The couple had to part ways and years later the man got an unexpected communication from Captain Shree. This story was published on FaceBook.

That evening, I got a message from a very lively lady friend to ask, “So why didnt you marry Captain Shree?”

I was disoriented for a few seconds until I realised that my friend thought that my FB story was true and about me. I had a hard time convincing her that it was pure fiction.

I admitted to her that like Lord Tennyson’s Ulysses said:

I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’
Gleams that untravell’d world whose margin fades
For ever and forever when I move.”

Fiction writing helps to reshape humdrum stories by creatively ‘touching them up’ with a gripping process and a dramatic climax. Banish boredom, welcome to the world of mesmerising plots and surprise endings.

You can create villains based on people whom you have observed being cruel and brutal to others. You can transform a plain looking housewife into a beautiful princess. That is the power of creative story telling.

I am sure Ian Fleming came across a real-life Korean bodyguard who inspired the silent but menacing character of “Odd-Job” in the James Bond novel, GOLDFINGER.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created his famous character Sherlock Holmes based on Joseph Bell, a surgeon at the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh. “Like Holmes, Bell was noted for drawing broad conclusions from minute observations.”

Where does the truth end and where does deception begin?

In this age of “Alternate Facts” and “Fake News” do we cling to the “truth” or go along with the masses and accept what they believe as the truth?

Like a Bird on a Wire

7 Aug

[This is a creative piece written to entertain my readers and all characters other than Ajoy and I, appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. Two images of Leonard Cohen attached to this post are from a public internet source]

19:27 06-08-2019

One of the epiphanic moments of my recent visit to New York took place when I went to see the Leonard Cohen Exhibition (“A Crack in Everything”) at the Jewish Museum at Fifth Ave. and 92nd St. This museum is located “in the former Felix M. Warburg House, along the Museum Mile in the Upper East Side of Manhattan, New York City”.

My son Ajoy had thoughtfully booked tickets to the exhibition on 9 June 2019.

I shouldn’t take it for granted that everyone reading this has heard of Leonard Cohen (1934-2016). I was introduced to his music shortly after I left college in 1967. The first Cohen song that made an impression on me was what might arguably be his best known song, “Suzanne”. This number was released on a 1967 album, “Songs of Leonard Cohen”.

Leonard Cohen was a Canadian poet, songwriter and singer whose music is sometimes surreal and mystical. The listener cannot be blamed for filtering Cohen’s musical phrases through the plug-in of his or her life’s experiences. Since experiences appear to undergo subtle changes each time we examine them, the takeaway is different each time.

The exhibition was billed as: “Leonard Cohen: A Crack in Everything is the first exhibition entirely devoted to the imagination and legacy of the influential singer/songwriter, man of letters, and global icon from Montréal, Canada.

“The exhibition includes commissioned works by a range of international artists who have been inspired by Cohen’s style and recurring themes in his work, a video projection showcasing Cohen’s own drawings, and an innovative multimedia gallery where visitors can hear covers of Cohen’s songs by musicians such as Lou Doillon; Feist; Moby; and The National with Sufjan Stevens, Ragnar Kjartansson, and Richard Reed Parry, among others.”

Thomas A.Harris MD of “I’m Ok, Youre Ok” fame comments on neurosurgeon Dr. Wilder Penfield’s experiments with how the human brain functions in cognition (1951). He found that by touching the temporal cortex of the patient’s brain with a galvanic probe, transmitting a weak electric current, the patient could recall past incidents or buried memories in a vivid psychical experience. Penfield was trying to understand how the brain uses its 12 billion cells and which unknown number of these cells store memories that can be played back under clinical conditions.

The multimedia exhibition at the Jewish Museum acted as a musical galvanic probe which activated some memories which had been buried for ages.

When I heard “Suzanne” at the Jewish Museum as part of a multi-media experience, the image of a brilliant young lady friend named Malaha flashed through my mind.

Well, my friend Malaha was suffering from deep depression and I knew she was on Lithium treatment. One evening I got a phone call from her to say that she would like to visit me. Normally this would not have been considered unusual, but it was pretty late in the evening.

Somewhat doubtfully I agreed and then she dropped the bomb… I would like to stay the night at your flat… When I began to tell her why that might not be a good idea, she told me she was halfway to my place when she had this urge to throw herself out of the autorickshaw in which she was travelling. So she stopped the ride and went to a shop to telephone me. “I couldnt think of anyone else to call”, she said. “I have nobody…”

I told her she could come, not heeding all the warning signals that flashed through my mind. This was an emergency and I was being called on to help a very dear friend in need. Sometimes we dont have to do anything more than just be there for people in our lives.

She arrived at about 1900 hrs and I was shocked at how her normally beautiful eyes had sunk in and had dark circles around them. She looked furtively at me, silently asking many questions.

She was looking for the slightest sign of rejection or disgust as a trigger for self-flaggelation or even worse, serious self-harm.

Malaha sat for a little while without talking much. I organised some soup and toast for her. She then said goodnight, went to the guest room and crashed out!

I was sure that the Suzanne picturised in the eponymous song was unwell and under treatment. Cohen was using this bizarre situation to help examine his own life and feelings..

Now Suzanne takes your hand
And she leads you to the river
She is wearing rags and feathers
From Salvation Army counters
And the sun pours down like honey
On our lady of the harbor
And she shows you where to look
Among the garbage and the flowers
There are heroes in the seaweed
There are children in the morning
They are leaning out for love
And they will lean that way forever
While Suzanne holds the mirror

A critic comments on Cohen’s “Suzanne” in the following words:

“The water symbolizes feelings and subconscious,so it’s associated with Suzanne (=someone you dismiss as “crazy” with your rational intellect)and Jesus (because faith is not a rational thing,but only “drowning men could see him”,that could mean “only those who are in distress”,but also “only those who dive deep into the subconscius mind)…it’s kind of Jungian: it’s a song about Anima,I guess. About the feminine part who nurtures (“feeds you tea…”) and is deeply associated with water and water-like objects (like the mirror)…”

The key line in this verse is, “While Suzanne holds the mirror”… All such experiences are opportunities for us to examine our own lives and be grateful for the grace by which we didnt spill over the edge.

Malaha slept till 1400 hrs the next afternoon and left, thanking me for taking her in at a bad moment in her life.

After she left, I plugged in my Walkman and played a Cohen tape. With some trial and error I located the other great Leonard Cohen song which I think is helpful to describe the contemplative response to a powerful psychic experience:

Like a bird on a wire
Like a drunk in a midnight choir
I have tried in my way to be free…

Cohen’s words are persuasive when he asks for forgiveness…

And if I, if I have been unkind
I just hope you will let it go by
And if I, if I have been untrue
I hope you know it was never to you…


Remember the Alamo

9 Jul


Its astonishing how our childhood impressions and experiences remain with us and influence our decisions and choices decades later.

I was a boy of ten in 1957 and studying at the Delhi Public School. Almost the entire school was conducted under tents as the permanent buildings had not come up yet. I sat on the same bench as K.M. Chandrasekhar, who rose to the position of the 29th Cabinet Secretary of the Republic of India. When I last met him in Trivandrum, he was the Vice-Chairman of the Kerala State Planning Board.

I lived in New Delhi with a very distinguished uncle at 121 Kakanagar, which I suppose was a residential colony for senior Government officials.

Upstairs, in 122 Kakanagar lived an Air Force Officer and his two children. He was a widower. His son Ranjan was slightly older and his daughter Bina was younger than I.

One day, maybe in November when it was getting cold in Delhi, Ranjan and I were hunting for lost golf balls in the Golf Links across the road from Kakanagar.

Ranjan was thoughtful and suggested that we go to Connaught Circus to see a new film. I was delighted and asked only two questions. “What’s the name of the film?” and “How will we go there?”

The film was “DAVY CROCKETT, King of the Wild Frontier”. I now see that it was a 1955 Walt Disney Production starring Fess Parker as Davy Crockett and Buddy Ebsen.

“We will go on my bicycle. We can ride double” said Ranjan. Wonderful, I thought although I had to get permission from my uncle and aunt who were my local guardians.

I asked my uncle for permission to go and his first reaction was, “No, you can’t go riding double on a bicycle to Connaught Circus”. I looked at my aunt, who I knew could change the decision in my favour… She looked doubtful, even a little worried because she took the responsibility of taking care of me in Delhi very seriously. She looked at me and her eyes darted at her husband, preoccupied with a sarkari file. “If its a Walt Disney film, let him go, Daddy”, she pronounced judgment and so it was that I got pocket money to go to Connaught Circus, see a morning show, have an ice cream and come back to Kaka Nagar.

And that was how I first heard of the saga of Davy Crockett at the Alamo.

What stuck in my memory was the song with the refrain, “Davy, Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier”. See:

I loved Davy Crockett’s frontiersman hat made from the pelt of a raccoon with the tail hanging at the back.


20 June 2019 – San Antonio, Texas. (All names are disguised although the events are true, subject to minor creative interpretation).

“Would you like to visit a friend of ours? He is from Kottayam and knows your father. He has asked us to bring you over. He has been in San Antonio for about forty years” my hostess asked.

“I would be happy to meet him before I leave San Antonio, but today I want to do something else”, I said.

“What’s that?” asked my ebullient hostess.

“I want to go to see the Alamo” I said.

“Sure we can run you down…” says she.

“Oh no! I want to go on my own and spend the whole day there”, I said very firmly.

“There’s nothing there”… my hostess said, “What will you do all day there?”

“Her husband, my host, who had his head inside the folds of the SAN ANTONIO TIMES turned slowly and looked at me over the rims of his glasses.

“How will you go? This is Texas, not London or New York. Here public transport is not as convenient.”

I won the argument and got dropped at the Medical Centre Transit Station. I got a “Whole Day Pass” for three dollars and found a bus going downtown. The Alamo Plaza was about 18 kms away. It took about 45 minutes to get there.

I had forgotten what the Alamo looked like in the movie but had done quite a bit of research.

My beautiful friend Dawn Latham says she likes my ‘potted history’ which is a specific part of a larger history. I wont go into the history of the Defense of the Alamo, which led to the slogan, “Remember the Alamo”, and became a rallying cry for the independence of Texas from Mexico.

Most of the Texas territory belonged to the Spanish Empire in the 17th century. Mexico won its independence in 1821.

The Mexican dictator General Santa Anna sent his troops to put down a rebellion by settlers north of the Rio Grande, who wanted independence from Mexico. One of the centers of resistance to Mexico was at the Mission at the Alamo in San Antonio.

On 6 Mar 1836, Santa Anna’s troops wiped out all the defenders of the Alamo and he ordered that their bodies should be burned. It is estimated that “between 182 and 257 Texans died, while most historians of the Alamo agree that around 600 Mexicans were killed or wounded.”

In addition to Davy Crockett, the heroes of the Alamo included James Bowie (after whom the famous Bowie knife is named), and William B.Travis, Co-Commander in charge of the garrison.

The Independence of Texas was taken forward by other leaders like Sam Houston and Stephen Fuller Austin. Austin is known as the “Father of Texas”, and is acknowledged as the founder of Texas.

My photographs of the Alamo Plaza will fill in the gaps.

There will be other posts that describe the Riverside Walk, Lunch at an “Irish Pub” and getting back by the same No.100 Bus to Medical Centre Transit Station. There is a separate adventure story of my visit to El Paso on the Mexican border.