From Brexit to We the People to First Principles

Watching the election results roll in from across the pond the other evening I saw a funny tweet that read:
“The problem with government of the people, by the people, and for the people, is the people”.
The thing with a joke like that is, that it is funny at first glance but is also profound. Those are the best jokes in my opinion, ones that make you think. I shared this tweet with a friend that lives on the other side of the world; one of the newest of new worlds discovered down under. The theme of new worlds and new systems will become clearer as we move further along in the post. My friend of course picked up on the profundity side of that joke and we got on one of our lengthy text based conversations. He suggested (as he has several times in the past) some “mechanical tweaks”, as he calls them, to make the current system more balanced and equitable. And to be clear, the tweaks he has suggested in the past are not the usual uninformed ones that inherently eat away or otherwise undermine one of the major promises of democracy: that of universal suffrage and right to choose one’s own government regardless of any other qualifications one may or may not possess. His ideas are not ones such as placing college degree requirements to run for office or a minimum score on a test before being allowed to cast a vote. Such ideas seriously undermine democracy’s primary founding principles in my opinion, as I stated earlier. His tweaks are more well thought out and usually beyond my intellectual ability to comprehend.

There are several pundits who believe the original Brexit referendum in June 2016 was a gauge of the popular sentiment among voters and was thus a harbinger of Trump 2016 later that year this side of the Atlantic. If that is the case then the thumping the Labor Party received paints a grim picture for those wanting Trump to be a one term president. That is, to the extent that anyone can extrapolate such a result over here, because any such projection based on anecdotal evidence such as this  is inherently fraught with the inconsistencies and unreliability that almost always accompanies such a methodology. As the great chess grand master turned crusader against communism and socialism, Garry Kasparov tweeted:

“I hope the Democrats hear the message from the UK this time. Avoiding the biggest issue with wild promises of controversial changes when people want sanity & stability is the way to get four more years of Trump.”

The apparent lesson here being that the Democrats would do well to nominate someone more to the center left like Mayor Pete, Joe Biden or  a long shot Amy Klobuchar of MN rather than far left Warren. Lifelong Labor voters bit the bullet and voted Tory in this election because the dislike of Jeremy Corbyn far outweighed the dislike of the assclown Boris Johnson. Corbyn who wanted to go full on commie socialist with a 50% tax rate, abolish all private schools and nationalize most services, among other things. Ironically the SNP did very well in the elections and Scottish Independence is now a very real possibility. Ironic because a party receiving an overwhelming majority, a party that champions the “One-Nation Conservatism” of Benjamin Disraeli, which over the years has been interpreted to mean “uniting the kingdom” will result in breaking up of said kingdom. As Garry Kasparov also tweeted, in a lighter vein:

“It looks like a crushing defeat for Corbyn, but now with Brexit all but guaranteed, perhaps the old communist is finally fulfilling the Comintern’s mandate to bring down the British empire!”

All this has me thinking, if the choice were between say Trump and Warren come November 2020, whether staying home is not an option on Election Day. So in my case I am stuck for my choice of president between an assclown and a socialist so far out to the left that she does not appeal to me, desirable as her other qualities may be.

What does all this have to going back to first principles you ask? It does because we are, apparently, living in arguably the greatest nation on the earth, that devised the best form of self governance yet known to man, stuck in a figurative place where sentient people who at one point would have considered themselves #NeverTrump-ers are beginning to wonder whether DJT is all that bad, given the other choice. Returning to the text conversation with my friend, quoting him regarding what he calls “mechanical tweaks” to make the current system more fair and equitable:

The mechanics of democracy need tweaking, with speed-breakers and a binary choice….a winnowing process that presents two final choices to select….clarifies the issues somewhat. In [I]ndia, probably a 50% vote requirements and “none of the above” as one of the many candidates before the winnowing process.
Will be a 10-30% improvement I think, for the rest….People will be people.

In an effort to go back and try to understand first principles, as they pertain to the founding of America led me to reading, among other works, the famous “pamphlet wars” of the late eighteenth century between Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine. Plus any reading of the founding of America is incomplete without reading Rights of Man and Common Sense by Thomas Paine. Reading the founding papers gave me a good sense of what people setting out to create a brand new system had to contend with. More importantly it gave me an idea of the constraints and the baggage from our Homo Sapiens species; baggage going as far back as 300,000 years. The founders set out to create a republic founded on the “principle that all men are created equal”. But they had to contend with and accommodate the baggage from the transatlantic slave trade that clearly contradicted this founding principle. Repercussions of which still hold this great republic back from achieving is full potential. If we want to go further back, modern India still suffers from the scourge of the caste system that originated 3000 years ago. The list of baggage goes on.

Going back to the conversation of tweaking the existing system, for democracy is, as  Winston Churchill has reminded us:
“….the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

I quote Churchill here because he is lionized in the West (rightly so) as the one who saved western civilization as we know it from the tyranny of Fascism. He looms larger than most other figures of the twentieth century. But Churchill has just as much innocent blood on his hands as Hitler. The blood on Churchill’s hands just happened to matter less because it was that of the coolies or darkies. And I’m not talking blood spilled in the course of fighting in the war but blood as a result of at least one famine he could have prevented but chose not to because those lives were deemed inferior.

Another point on tweaking existing systems. Take for example the second amendment. If the rights enshrined in the second do not sit well with what goes on in modern society, then it would behoove the proponents of a repeal of the second amendment to know that given the mistrust of the press in this climate and the left’s increasing intolerance of free speech, the first amendment is fair game too. That’s a slippery slope to start going down.

Continuing on the topic of tweaking an existing system. The problem initially appears that there is no trust in any politician or entity to tweak the system, at least here in the United States. I do not trust anyone in power to not build in implicit biases any such tweaking would entail. And really, politicians are just the scapegoat. They’re only pandering to what the people want. There’s a reason the outgoing GOP senators and representatives all of a sudden find their voice when they decide they are no longer going to run for office ever. I use departing GOP men (and women) as an example here but the reality is its true of anyone going against the “base”, on the left or the right. As the text exchange with my friend from down under goes:

Yeah, but the tweaks have to pass a vote too…anyway, not going to happens [sic], any systems builds entrenched interests that prevents a virtuous feedback loop from functioning…
The systems for for [sic] the people it works for, so change isn’t allowed to happen…except for the worse

The point of all this being that when one goes back to first principles does one really go back to first principles? What Jesus of Nazareth preached, Siddhartha Gautama “Buddha” preached 300 years before Jesus lived. What Niccolo Machiavelli wrote in The Prince, considered the first treatise on political science in the modern world was what Sun Tzu wrote in The Art of War nearly 1500 years before Machiavelli was born and what Sun Tzu wrote, Chanakya (or Kautilya) wrote in the Arthashastra nearly 300 years before Sun Tzu was born.

Really going back to first principles would mean starting over, in another planet, from another solar system. The closest planet that the most advanced species on earth has targeted for colonization is Mars. But then, when we do that we are going to carry the baggage of 300,000 years of our species, good and bad. Any reading of the history of humanity will tell you that it is one of subjugation, mass murder,  and dominance.

To that end, it would be worth learning from another advanced species that has managed to colonize an inhabitable piece of rock and hope that their history and systems are less riddled with baggage. But that would mean learning from the “other” and we humans haven’t exactly figured out yet how to not look at and treat the “other” with suspicion, let alone learn from them. The problem is that we, the most advanced species on this planet cannot even think beyond our own inherent prejudices, biases and what we already know. The best depictions of aliens from the most creative people of the most advanced species on our planet typically tend to be pointy ears and green bodies, or some other distorted form of the human form as we know today.

So once we have figured out another planet to colonize (since we’ve run out of “New Worlds” on this planet to colonize) we take the lessons, the good ones and learn from the bad ones. Then we hope another species has made enough progress to reach us just as we are embarking on this new journey and teach us their ways where we can take their good and learn from their bad.

Perhaps that’s what the philosophers should concentrate on going forward. I mean, as more and more things that once belonged in the realm of philosophy are taken away by science it is a natural progression for the field. I always picture an ancient philosopher sitting under a tree, quill and parchment in hand philosophizing why leaves are green. Until someone figured out there’s this chemical called chlorophyll. I picture someone tapped him on the shoulder and went: “Buddy, its because of this thing they’re calling chlorophyll. I know this was your life’s work. So sorry. Move on”. So perhaps the new charter for the realm of philosophy, to save itself from obscurity or potential irrelevance in the face of onslaught from STEM should be how to construct a system with no implicit biases if and when we figure out how to colonize another piece of rock. So we can turn it into a better version of mother earth.
In the meantime though, lets figure out a way to tweak existing systems so we can help mother earth’s children from destroying themselves.

I’ve rambled on long enough from Brexit to USA 2020 to first principles with detours along the way slandering (as some would interpret it) Churchill among other thoughts . If you’re still here, thank you for reading.

Lakshman
12/14/19
Prosper, TX

To feel truly American

I’m a newly minted American, relatively speaking, and the novelty hasn’t worn off. So I’m always looking for things to do every Fourth that make me feel truly American. This Fourth I have several choices. Listed in no particular order of importance here they are:

  1. Being that I live in Texas, I could head over to a border town, round up some migrant children and hand them over to ICE so they can be put in a concentration camp. These aren’t concentration camps you say? Might I remind you that not all concentration camps in Nazi occupied territory were created equal? They weren’t all Auschwitz. Remember Theresienstadt? The “model” concentration camp? As for the children? They came here illegally you say? See I missed that.  Now that I’ve been enlightened that they got here illegally I stand corrected. Of course they deserve to be put in concentration camps. What was I thinking?
  2.  Head on over to the nation’s capital to watch a Soviet style parade where we show off our military hardware escorted by soldiers marching through the National Mall. I’ve done that when I was a young child. Watched columns of tanks and artillery flanked by soldiers marching in near unison parade through the streets of New Delhi. One thing I know about that parade? The thing was so mind numbingly boring that it aroused anything but a sense of pride in our nation’s military might. And this  when my father was a member of the Indian military and I was an impressionable nine year old. So.. No thanks.
  3. I could save a few dollars and watch said parade televised on state sponsored media, our version of TASS, aka Fox News. But then again, no thanks.
  4.  Watch The 2019 Nathan’s Famous International Hot Dog Eating Contest as I shove a few brat(wurst)s down the gullet myself.
  5. Wash said brats down with Budweiser, aka America’s brew, aka horse piss.

We are indeed spoiled for choices as Americans. Sadly though, lazy and unimaginative as I am, I will be sticking to #4, as I’ve done for the past several years. Happy fourth y’all. Thanks for reading.

Lakshman Hariharan
07/04/19, Prosper, TX.

 

MBS

A lot of outrage regarding the White House statement about the Turkish journalist Khashoggi’s murder. Understandably so. I suppose. And I’ll explain the “I suppose” part. Khashoggi, who, as I understand, is a distant cousin of the arms dealer with the same last name, who became an almost household name in the eighties in India around Bofors. The statement itself is is “incoherent, moronic and imbecilic” as one commentator pointed out, or as the chess Grandmaster turned crusader for civil liberties Gary Kasparov tweeted: “Lowering the bar even when it seems impossible is Trump’s superpower.” All that is true. The statement truly reads like it was written by Trump himself and not one of his lackeys. Or written by one of lackeys so it sounds exactly like he wrote it. For example, it starts off in his typical style, with liberal use of exclamation points and fear mongering : “America First! The world is a very dangerous place!” and so forth.

As for the content and message of the statement, if one were to try and draw one, Samantha Power put it best  “An abomination that will define the ignorance, corruption, cruelty and recklessness of this presidency for generations to come” Yes, yes I know; Obama appointee, so what possible credibility could she possibly have? Harvard professorship and Pulitzer prize notwithstanding. Power, who by the way, has written a realistic, if scathing account of the United States’ refusal to act in the face of genocide in the twentieth century. No president is excused , Democrat or Republican in her book The Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide. The most striking aspect, though, of Trump’s statement is the acknowledgement that “maybe he and maybe he didn’t!” but there’s not a damn thing we’re going to do about it. Note the liberal sprinkling of exclamation points.

For people outside the United States following this, it all feels, as an American of  Russian descent once pointed out to me; “two faced”.  The list of dictators and human rights abusers the United States has backed because it is in her own foreign policy interests (as perceived at the time anyways), is long and depressing. Remember “He may be a sonofabitch but he’s our sonofabitch”? We don’t have to look that far back into the past either. The hypocrisy of Barack Obama, the darling of liberals everywhere including me, lecturing Indians (a well deserved lecture I might add) on the importance of treating women the right way, but uttering not so much as a word against, yes,  no other country but Saudi Arabia. Not one peep out of his mouth, let alone a rebuke. Because, as one knows, the Saudis are models when it comes to women’s rights and equality. On the same visit where he made a stop in Saudi Arabia. Or as he silently watched a democratically elected Morsi being ousted by Sisi without so much as a protest.

All this is to say that the United States backing dictators or human rights abusers when it suits our foreign policy interests is nothing new. And in this case, there’s so much more involved. Much more than petty abuse of rights and that small, rather inconsequential thing about the basic founding principles of these United States and what the country should stand for. There’s a lot more at stake here. Money. Billions of dollars worth of arms the Saudis buy from us. Even so, there is something terribly disturbing about the supposed leader of the free world coming out and saying that we really don’t care what a regime does as long as they are on our side. It is just one way this president erodes the sanctity of the office. Yes, I know Clinton didn’t hesitate to pull down his pants for a blowjob right in the Oval Office but whataboutism is something I have little patience for these days. It is just one more way of normalizing what would be inconceivable under another president. But this is what his supporters want and he promised he would do. Straight talk. Cut through the bullshit. Why even make the pretense of outrage when in reality we won’t really do much, if even anything at all about it.

If you would be so kind as to indulge me while I take this latest outrage and try to tie it to a larger point about impeachment. Every new outrage from this man intensifies the chatter about impeachment, more so since the Democrats took the control of the House. It won’t happen, at least as it looks now. I personally believe that he should’t be impeached. I would like for him to be impeached but I do not believe he should be. Like it or not, he was legitimately elected as president. Agree or not with the electoral college and the system that lets a man losing the popular vote by almost three million votes to be elected president, he was elected president under the law of the land. Our best chance is to grit our teeth and ride this out for another two years and hope this time the Facebook activists posting #NotMyPresident actually show up and vote. And keep stress testing the system of “checks and balances” that the founders supposedly put in place to check abuse of executive power. As the former GOP presidential hopeful and the Governor of Ohio John Kasich said, and I’m paraphrasing: “When you’re on a plane, you want the pilot to do well.” Plus even if against all prevailing odds, we do manage to get this man impeached it plays directly into his hands.

And please, we need to stop with this notion of “we have never been this divided in our history”. Remember that small skirmish in the nineteenth century that almost tore the Union apart? When the total number of dead exceeded the American deaths in all foreign wars combined that America has fought in? Or the late sixties and that great champion of civil liberties, George Wallace, declaring; “Segregtion now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever”? The man that ran for president on a segregationist platform and declared “Stand Up for America”? Sound familiar? No? How about “America First”?  I think I can make a case that this isn’t the most divided we have ever been. And all of us liberals need to stop screaming bloody murder every time DJT opens his mouth. All it does is normalize the outrages he perpetrates that cause real and lasting damage to the office and the republic.

Thanks for reading.

Lakshman Hariharan,
11/21/18, Breckenridge, CO

Sabarimala

Here are some of the arguments I’ve heard opposing the recent verdict by the Supreme Court of India allowing women entry to Sabarimala. I’ll break them down one by one.

  1. Its a clear case of judicial overreach. These things take time and will have to happen gradually, organically from within the society itself. Rather than imposing something from the outside, the affected society should bring about this change by having conversations among themselves. Bullshit. Lets turn the clock back and discuss the rights of Dalits to enter temples as and when they please, in presence or not of a person of  upper caste. Lets hypothetically say there will be no law providing equal rights to Dalits because, you know, that right would violate the religious sensibilities of the majority of upper caste Hindus. Let that change happen organically too. Yeah. Not holding my breath on that.
  2.  But the constitution provided for equal rights for Dalits. This is an arbitrary law passed by a handful of activist judges. Granted. To a degree. But the constitution wasn’t some piece of work that magically appeared from nowhere. It was a document, and a set of laws drafted and passed by, yes, you guessed it right, people. Oh, and by the way, headed by a man, much respected (at least outside the bigot circle) today but reviled in his time. Don’t believe me? Read Annihilation of Caste by B.R. Ambedkar to get a sense of how reviled he was by upper caste and really most Hindus that weren’t “untouchables” and the level of animosity between him and Gandhi.
  3. Speaking of arbitrary laws, how about we strike down another arbitrary one that decriminalized gay sex in India. A law to strike down a law to strike down a law that was passed to strike down a law.
  4. But so many women’s groups are protesting this decision. And your point is? I can also find groups that go by “Blacks for Trump, “Hispanics for Trump”, “Minorities for Trump”, and I’m almost positive if I looked carefully enough even find a “Immigrants for Trump” group. The two topics are unconnected you say? The point is that this is the Sabarimala version of “but I have a black friend so I cannot be racist” argument. Again, calling bullshit on that.
  5. But what about Muslims not allowing women to pray alongside men in mosques? Might I respectfully suggest that if we are going to look to an Abrahamic religion for practices to emulate lets look a little further and find one that isn’t famous (or infamous) for subjugating women? Just a little further. To about six hundred years or so earlier. Also, whatabout-ism is not an argument. It’s a disease more and more reasonable people seem to be suffering from these days but not an argument.
  6. “They” get to do whatever “they” want because you guys appease minorities. We poor Hindus have to bear the brunt of your liberal progressive ideas by compromising on our religious beliefs. Hindus are the real victims here. Yeah. Hindu’s are victims in India (especially Modi’s India) just like rich white men are victims in Trump’s America.
  7. You have to be a Malayalee to understand where we’re coming from. Yeah. Ok. I’d also have to be Arab to understand why men in that part of the world insist on putting on their women a full body, face covering armor with a tiny opening for the eyes . Closer to home I was told that to really understand Jallikattu and what it means to Tamil “culture” I’d have to live in Tamil Nadu. Growing up part of your life in Tamil Nadu and spending months of summer vacation there wouldn’t do. You have to go to and live in the villages specifically. Remember Jallikattu? Seems like decades ago but it’s only been over a year or so if I recall correctly.
  8. Women in Kerala are empowered. That’s why we don’t care so much about this. It’s only outsiders that are stirring up trouble. Do you know there are temples in Kerala where men aren’t allowed to enter? Yeah, ok. Granted Kerala is a progressive state and women are definitely more empowered there than most of the rest of the country, All of it possibly. As I understand there’s a certain community in Kerala where children even take their mothers’ last name instead of their fathers’. Even so you can’t tell me that the traditional practices used to discriminate against women don’t happen at all or that they happen in such negligible numbers so as to be considered non-existent. That Kerala is somehow inoculated from this scourge that affects the rest of the country. Not buyin’ it. Oh, and it does sometimes take an outsider to point out the wrongs that for centuries have been normalized because “thats how its always been done and we’ve made peace with it”. So the “please don’t stir the pot unnecessarily with your liberal progressive nonsense because you don’t understand our culture” line doesn’t work. Sorry. No can’t do. People like me will stir the pot constantly when it comes to liberal progressive ideas. If you don’t like it please make cogent arguments.
  9. The last one and this is the best: “This has nothing to do with how post pubescent and pre menopausal women are a polluting influence and have been treated over the years in India. Ayyappa is a celibate god. He took a vow never to marry and went to Sabarimala. That’s why women in reproductive stages of their lives should not enter Sabarimala.” Child please! He’s a god, isn’t he? You said so yourself. I’m sure he doesn’t need help from us earth dwelling mortals to stay celibate. If he’s still celibate, and pardon the irreverence (reiterating irreverence, not disrespect) here, I feel for the guy. I mean can you imagine the number of times he’s had the “what the hell were you thinking?” conversation with himself?  Sorry but I’m inclined to believe must have this figured out by now. Plus I’m willing to bet five bucks that there have been other acts you as humans have engaged in that he’s been disappointed by more. Acts that are probably far worse than allowing women to enter a temple.
  10. Ok, this is the last one. Not so much a refutation but a reiteration. Religious beliefs have been used to perpetrate some of the most egregious acts of discrimination against groups of underprivileged people throughout history. In fact religious beliefs were used to justify the most heinous of these acts that man has ever perpetrated against fellow man: slavery. Closer to home they have been used as an excuse to deny all manner of civil rights (and in many cases human rights) to underprivileged classes like Dalits. The premise on which denying women of a certain age entry to a temple is rooted in such misogyny that it should be an affront to every decent free thinking human being. Liberal or not. Woman or not. Anyone justifying otherwise to keep these archaic institutions in their calcified forms are just arguing semantics.

Thanks for reading.

Lakshman “insomnia ain’t such a bad thing” Hariharan.
11/12/18. Prosper, TX.

Gadfly

The Economist, in this remarkable obituary for Khushwant Singh wrote that he was India’s Gadfly. To say that I do not possess the stature, intellectual heft or the erudition of  one of twentieth century, post colonial, independent India’s most accomplished writers  would be stating the so obviously obvious that it would border on the ridiculous. I can, however, aspire to be a gadfly of much smaller proportions. There’s nothing quite like a trip back home to be reminded of all the questionable things that we Indians do. Customs from hundreds, some thousands of years ago that have no relevance in the twenty first century blindly being followed because that’s how its always been done. The bigotry that is so woven into the social fabric that acts of discrimination against certain groups of people are just part of how things are done and nobody questions them. Because, you know, who wants to disturb the decorum of a religious ritual? And to what end? You’re not going to change this by yourself, relax, I’m often told.

I am critical (some would say overly) of the place of my birth, specifically the customs and traditions, much to the chagrin of several of my fellow countrymen. As an aside, an American friend had once asked me how come now that I’m American I still refer to anything Indian as “us” or “ours”? I mean, shouldn’t it be “them” and “they” and “theirs”? I told him that’s one of the perquisites of being a first generation immigrant to a country that’s not of your birth.  You get to double dip. I get to refer to both India and America as “us”, “mine”, and “our”. Returning back on point, the closer one is to someone or something, the more one feels strongly about the flaws I suppose. As an example, I see so many of my own flaws amplified in my ten year old that many of the good things he does almost always get overshadowed in my own mind.
Another example comes to mind when the news of the Delhi rape broke a few years ago. I saw post after social media post by several of my fellow people of Indian origin lament how the west and the media is only interested in showing things when they’re bad in India. Why not show this or that they asked? About the booming economy. About the culture and the beauty of the land. Its been a common lament of most Indians for a long time now, anytime a story breaks that shows India in a poor light. Slumdog Millionaire winning all those Oscars was a conspiracy by the west to perpetuate the stereotypes of India as a poor and starving nation. Never mind that Bombay has the largest slums in the world. Never mind that if one were to look closely  — on a day that’s not smog covered — from the twenty seven story mansion of one of the richest men in the world and the richest man in India, one would see that it overlooks one of the largest slums in the world. Of course, in all these discussions I had to take it upon myself to argue about what is wrong with that attitude.

Yes, I had to bite my tongue every time someone asked me “Have you watched Slumdog Millionaire?” Or every time someone made a remark about Indian men not respecting women and so forth. In fact I have, once at a work gathering, had a couple of women who had clearly consumed more than their fair share of the free booze that was on offer, come up to me and ask me: “Do you like women?” To which I, trying to make one of my poor jokes said “Of course I do, all kinds too. Don’t tell my wife though.”
It was then that the other woman asked me: “No. Do you respect women? Do you think they are your equal?” I was taken aback by the questions and the self righteous interrogative style specifically that all I could mutter was “Yes, yes I do. Of course I do.”  After a minute or so of letting that conversation sink in I realized how offensive it was. That two women, white in this case, would look at a brown man and automatically assume that, at best, he thought women weren’t his equal or at worst, was a misogynistic wife beater. But then I had to look only a tad deeper and introspectively to realize that that question would have been legitimate for many Indian men.  One of my fellow countrymen was outraged that an American colleague refused to go to India in the wake of the Delhi rape news citing personal safety concerns. Its a small price to pay I say, bruised sensibilities, for the awareness that the news of such atrocities create and movies that highlight such stark realities.

Enough about the bad things. I was sitting in an airplane about thirty thousand feet above the ground when I looked out the window and it occurred to me that from that vantage point there really wasn’t as much of a difference between what I see when I fly cross country on an American airliner. Of course when I’m flying over American airspace, I can, given I know my source and my destination, at any given point look out the window, and with generally decent accuracy tell you that at this moment we are, say flying over, Baton Rouge Louisiana or Albuquerque New Mexico, or Cleveland, OH and Lake Erie. Something that I can’t unfortunately say about flying over the country of my birth. Its probably the perspective that the vantage point, albeit much higher, from the moon, provides that prompted the astronaut Edgar Mitchell to remark:
“You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it. From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, ‘Look at that, you son of a bitch.”

It was that perspective from the airplane that led me to wonder if there was another country in the world where at the crack of dawn one could hear the Venkatesa Suprabhatam by the illustrious and late M.S. Subbulakshmi playing in your own house while at the same time the muezzin’s call to azaan is heard from the loud speaker of the local mosque. And if one heard really carefully, possibly a rendition of KJ Yesudass’ Ayyappan Padalgal, paens to a Hindu deity by a Christian man, — Yesu = Jesus, Das = Servant/Follower, so literally the follower of Jesus — emanating from a radio in the neighborhood potti kadai. If there was any other place where I would find a man like the driver on one of my trips, a self professed “strict Hindu”, who goes to the the local church (Anthoniyar Kovil) every Tuesday and has a little statuette of the Virgin Mary on his dash as a good luck charm. If there is such a place I’m yet to hear of or visit it.
So far so good with the religious diversity. My hometown of Hyderabad has a substantially large Muslim population, so what I’m about to narrate happens every single time and riles me up like nothing else. Because of the substantially large Muslim population, at any given point one is never too far from a mosque, especially if one lives closer to the city and not in the suburbs. Sure enough when all of us are gathered at the table late afternoon for the afternoon chai the muezzin’s call for azaan will be heard. Inevitably, against my wanting to believe that it wont happen this time. Maybe just this time, no one will make a disparaging comment about how “annoying” it is for them to have to hear that five times a day. It usually comes from a person that means no harm and is otherwise probably one of the nicest persons you’ve ever met but it comes inevitably. That usually sends me into a frenzy of argument and lectures that the others on the table roll their eyes at. It is usually at this point that I’m reminded that I don’t live in India and don’t know what the ground realities are about how “these people” conduct themselves, so I obviously have to no idea what I’m talking about. Which sends me into a further mental tailspin because the topic will inevitably turn to how those benefiting from affirmative action policies for the lower castes oppressed for centuries are abusing the system and how most of “these people” convert to Christianity just for a few hundred rupees and so forth. No one ever answers me when I ask them about the irony of a bunch of upper caste privileged Hindus  sitting in their air conditioned living room discussing how “these people” should go about bettering themselves. You know, because the life experiences and viewpoints of upper caste privileged Hindus that didn’t grow up in abject poverty or being discriminated against is the same as the ones that did. No one ever answers me though, when I ask why the word “Bhangi” or “Madhiga” is used as an insult if we live such a post-caste society. Don’t we get all riled up when some white people on Fox News claim that there’s no such thing as racism?
To mimic the style of the great philosopher king Yoda; long winded I am getting so I’ll stop now.
Thanks for reading.
Lakshman Hariharan
11/10/18 Prosper, TX.

Letters from a Father to His Daughter

On a recent trip to India I picked up the book that forms the title of this post. The book was written by Jawharlal Nehru as a series of letters to his daughter Indira during the summer of 1928. My boys seem to not read as much so in an attempt to have them imbibe some of the knowledge I decided I would record podcast episodes as  short audio clips they can listen to. Perhaps some other parents would see some value in it and play it for their children….
I am loth to hearing my own voice on any form of media so if it grates on you, apologies in advance.

Episode 1: Preface and Chapter 1 — How the Pebble Became Smooth

Episode 2: Letter 2 — How Early History Was Written

Episode 3: Letter 3 — The Making of the Earth

Episode 4: Letter 4 — The First Living Things

Des Mera Rangreziya Babu

Part I. Maybe a part II follows, maybe not. Need to buy a notebook first if it were to.

Before anyone from the west reads this and takes it as my disparaging views on India. Please keep in mind I was born and raised there. So use this as a forewarning if you will, before you plan a trip and want to see the real India. Or anything westerners call “third world” for that matter. Do yourself a favor and find someone like me that you know is from India and has family there. Actually, better yet and more accessible to most, watch Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown. All thirteen seasons of it to get a sense. It’s all romantic until one has to slum it out with us natives in the second class train compartment. You can’t just show up in India like you would in Paris or Rome and have a great experience. India is like James Joyce’s Ulysses. Its painful, its excruciating at times, maddening most of the time but if you stick with it (and why would I want to, one may ask?) you will be rewarded. To the question “why would I want to?” I can only say, you don’t. There’s plenty of places in the world you don’t have to be sitting in a room with no electricity typing away on a laptop your views the first three days you’ve been really back after a long hiatus.

The first thing that hits you as someone else, Mark Tully I believe wrote, are the smells and the heat. The smell of raw sewage, sweaty bodies beaten down by life and the heat, humidity, the dust, and of course the glorious smell of food. And this in a town at the foothills of the Nilgiri Mountains that forms part of the famed Wesetrn Ghats of India.
So here are some observations on my three days here thus far, in no particular order.

Indian expatriates in the west, especially in the US get their noses all upturned at how these people hold minimum wage jobs and can’t afford the Christmas presents they buy for their loved ones but yet go into so much debt every holiday season. Yeah. I thought of that when I was sitting in a store chock full of Kumaran Thanga Maligai and Sridevi Silks Deepavali shoppers as the mother and aunt were shopping for some clothes that ancient customs dictate need to be bought for the close ones of a recently deceased relative: mother, daughter, sisters sisters in law, granddaughter etc. The ancient customs that dictated that (Manu shastra maybe) and likely have no bearing or meaning in modern life as we know it in 2018.

Speaking of useless ancient customs. One other contraption I’ve seen south Indian people wear is the ubiquitous molathadu. The word literally means in Telugu, string worn on the waist. The only damn practical implementation of the thing I could ever think of was back in the day when the ol’ veshti was the de facto clothing of choice for most south Indian men. When it could be used to secure the veshti because the western concept of a belt hadn’t yet arrived in India. That or some supernatural powers in that string that helps with performance down there. Although, I have to say, I haven’t worn one since I was, I think six and I can’t put any diminished performance in that department specifically to have not worn the molathadu. You’d have to check with the wife on that though. Because, like most Indian men I have only been sexually active with one woman and the poor woman has nothing to compare against. So I must be the best because I’ve been the only one. So when I see tens of children of south Indian descent dutifully wearing their speedos or swim trunks taking swim lessons at the Frisco, TX public pools with said molathadu secured above their speedos or swim trunks, I wonder. I wonder what that thing is for. I’m ever more convinced it has to do with being well endowed or not down there. I would know, trust me.

Of course the guy that was fine waiting in line all the way from Dubai to Chennai all of a sudden found his Indian-ness and cut the line while three of us were waiting in the customs line. Until I called him out and asked:

“Hey! Where are you going? You see the three of us here? Standing in line? Got here before you? Why’re you special?”

He goes “Oh I thought she called my name.”

“Oh she did. Did she now? How does she know your name? Last I checked you were holding your passport and she just said “NEXT”.

All he could do was roll his eyes and go “You go saar please”. To which I said “I don’t need to go anywhere first. See that gentleman? He was here first. So thanks for standing in line.”

Then there’s the kid. I mean kid is a relative term, getting frustrated because the ticket agent was taking a long time to change my ticket from MAA to CJB from 6:00 the following morning to 11:00 the night before. Because, god help me, I was trying to make doubly sure I could make my uncle’s funeral. A man that was like an older brother to me. I looked him square in the eye and said “Dude, I’m sorry its taking a while.”
To which he replied “I am going to miss my engagement tomorrow.”

I couldn’t hold my sarcasm any longer and said “Well, someone died. So you think that’s a real emergency?”

What I wanted to say was this:

I’m sure if there’s a poor girl out there that’s waiting to be engaged to your esteemed self she’ll wait a day longer. So hang tight my friend. You’ll get to Kolkata eventually. And if that poor unsuspecting girl still wants to marry you, she’ll be waiting.

Let me stop before my curmudgeonly self negates all the good vibes and positive thoughts my previous post generated where I paid tribute to a man that was like an older brother to me.

Thanks for reading if you still are after this.

Lakshman Hariharan
Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu 10/19/18

P.S. This is news to most Indian men I know. The condoms they sell as “large” out here are really medium small elsewhere. So make what you will of that when you turn up your nose on the other culture-less people.

Is This How A Broken Heart Feels

This, I imagine is what a broken heart feels like.

My heart is heavy. They’re dropping on me, people I love, one after the other and there’s not a damn thing I can do. There’s a method to this madness I suppose. God works in mysterious ways they tell me. Words,the ones that usually come easy are deserting me in this state of mind I cannot justifiably explain.

The first early season tender coconut water, the soanpapdi from the jingle jangle push carts with those treasures under that magical plexiglass  — and often times real glass ones, at least the vendors that were worth their salt — egg shaped dome. You’d hand the vendor 25 paisa and he would slide that small door to the dome to the side and give you a few ounces of that fluffy melt in your mouth magic in a piece of old newspaper. The piece of sweet would be gone in less than the time it took to get it from the newspaper to your mouth. None of the hardened ghee infused pistachio and saffron enhanced flavors for these guys. Only the real stuff, just as god intended them to be eaten. Then we waited again, for the next vendor to show at the street. The soanpapdi so sweet and colored such a pristine white that until I grew to be twenty four and saw real snow that was I assumed snow looked (and tasted) like. One could get a small ice cream cone’s worth wrapped in a torn piece of old newspaper, even the boiled nalakadalai wrapped in small pieces of newspapers or elandhavadais, the cambarcats, the bus rides in the #5 bus from Gandhipuram. The Lakshmi vedis and the bottle rockets, the scrounging of unexploded crackers from the night before the day after Deepavali…I could go on and on.. The first ‘gedda”, one of those paper planes made of color paper that would instantly transport you to the stratosphere among the popular kids in the class.. Without Ramesh mama’s expertise I couldn’t even tear the papers the right way, let alone fly them. Growing up he was my role model for a few formative years. One just had to ask the question what I wanted to do when I grew up :“Work for MG Brothers Lorry service Obviously” came the pat reply. Because that’s where he worked. Until I grew up and decided to do see what career paths lay ahead,  Ramesh Mama’s dabbling sounded perfect for an inquisitive young child. The stuff was exciting, one week he’d be fixing and selling Remington typewriters, another season he’d be a carpenter and it was furniture and interior décor. Then it was delivering and selling milk. In his inimitable style on that TVS Suzuki moped, with the lungi raised over his knees so it doesn’t get caught in the chains. Never a dull moment. I just followed whatever it is that he did because it was so cool. More than an uncle he was the older brother that I never had. His jaanvasam car was the fist one I rode the tailgate of and oh what a thrill it was.

Waiting to board my Dubai to Madras flight I  walked into a duty free shop for things to buy for loved ones. My throat got lumpy and my eyes welled up when I realized that the only person I buy something for every single trip to India; someone I loved for to really have those things wont be around to enjoy them anymore.

My first Kamal padam, Rajini blockbuster, matinee, first show, second show. And the inevitable muttai -bajji (hiding it from my grandmother and other vegetarians in the family) right before walking into the Ganga Yamana Cavery theater, the Karpagam Complex. My sister and I (her more than I) grew up with our grandmother a few years of our childhood, in Coimbatore. And experienced the magic of summer vacations with the cousins, but Ramesh Mama’s bucktooth comedy routine beat anything that was on offer.

How can I forget the trip to Ooty where it rained and drank the best tea in the whole world under a cigarette stall and tree as a shelter? Ramesh mama, Mahesh, Uma Aunty, Achu and I. I still remember it like it was yesterday.

Those days our military man father had a distant, larger than life persona we never go to see except during family gatherings. When we did see him he had the aura of a military man and all the respect one instinctively felt in his presence

Ramesh mama and my mother’s mother, that strongest of strong matriarch of the family Kamala, had no strong financial means  at the time but somehow managed to get me admitted into the best high school in the city by using the little influence he could, despite my grades and performance.

That was the kind of man he was and the man I aspire to be: reliable and always present for his family and siblings in particular. The rock that the family can lean on.  I Know his sisters will terribly mourn him and there are no words in any language that can possibly assuage this incredible loss, All my mother had do was to make a call and he would drop everything, literally everything he was doing to be on her side to help no matter what the ask. We could count on him to take care of our mother like not even her own kids could. If she was traveling so much for an overnight trip he would be by her side helping her pack her bags. He shared a bond with his siblings and my mother especially that I am envious of and hope to emulate. I will always remember in my heart and carry to my grave your witticisms and spirit. The Vada Coimbatore station will miss you more than any of us. Rest in peace brother. You have no idea how much we’ll miss you especially Chitra, talking to you at least twice a day.

Everytime I look a bag for travel or every time I see that buck toothed smile I will have to suppress some tears,

Rest In Peace my friend and uncle. You lived a life most of us would be proud to have. A loving husband father, grandfather  son and brother taken too soon from us.

As I’ve uttered this a few times, I’m writing this with a heart that feels its about twenty pounds heavier and is about to break into a million pieces so forgive the typos and the poor excuse of grammar. Thanks for reading.

Lakshman Hariharan
10/17/18. DXB

War

Its a shitty business. War is. Last night I was reading Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell; his experiences on the front during the Spanish Civil War. The experiences that would go on to shape many of his views on totalitarianism in the future and eventually result in the modern classics Nineteen Eighty Four and Animal Farm. As I was reading it, for some reason my mind drifted to a trip my son and I took to Washington D.C. this summer. To Reagan airport specifically, where I saw, while waiting to board the plane, a man wearing a t-shirt that said:

Back to Back World War Champions

He was referring to America’s victories, in World War I and World War II I suppose. Both wars in which America played a decisive influence and without which it is certainly doubtful whether the allies would have been successful. It does behoove us to remember, though, that by the time the United States entered the war the Russians or the erstwhile Soviet Union rather, had lost untold millions. And the siege of Stalingrad was yet to follow. The total deaths of the Soviet Union in World War II are said to be 27 million. The British had been at war with Nazi Germany for three years before the United States officially entered the war. The combined death tolls  for the United States and the United Kingdom? 800,000.  While I am fully aware of the sacrifices made by that generation; that when the bugle call came, farm boys from Iowa, city hands from New York and young men of all stripes everywhere signed up to fight Nazi tyranny, it helps keep things in perspective and how the war is viewed in different parts of the world.

One other fact–and this is personal for me because of where I was born and raised —  that also goes mostly unmentioned in any historical account of the war is the  total number of Indians dead. 2.2 million. The tragic part? 2.1 million of those deaths were a direct result of famine caused by Churchill’s policies; when he thought it prudent to hoard food for the British troops on the front line. The even more tragic part? The stockpiles were overflowing with surplus grain that the troops didn’t need. Wheat and other grains that could have saved millions of lives. Food he refused to divert to famine stricken Bengal in spite of innumerable pleas from Indian leaders. Lives that were deemed inferior and thus dispensable by Churchill; the hero of the twentieth century in most Westerners’ eyes, the greatest Briton that ever lived, according to most Britishers.

While we are on the topic of World War II, if there is one work and only one work you will read about World War II to understand everything that happened leading up to, during and the end of the war — Versailles to Hiroshima —  I would recommend The Winds of War and its sequel War and Remembrance by Herman Wouk. There is a character in that book; a German general who writes his memoir of  the war while awaiting trial after the war. A book within a book. Kind of a loosely fictionalized version of The Rommel Papers. In that memoir the fictional general writes, of Hitler’s desire for lebensraum (living space) for his ever expanding Reich as he invaded Russia. The fictional general draws quite a compelling parallel about India being Britain’s lebensraum. “Russia is our India”, he writes, solely to be used for resources, the people; the inferior Slavic race as the Nazis considered them, for slave labor and the land for living space.  Kind of like India was to Britain.

Returning to the gentleman in the t-shirt at Reagan airport; Kurt Vonnegut, in his wartime classic memoir Slaughterhouse Five writes that the only people who are enthusiastic about war are the ones that have never fought in one. That would explain why Cadet Bone Spurs has to rub one out every time he hears the word missile. So, I was irritated, that’s the best word I can use to describe my feeling, when I saw that man wearing that shirt and wondered to myself whether he had ever been to war ? If he has, then hasn’t he seen the misery wrought upon by it to be so naive? Perhaps he hasn’t. I have never been to war but as part of some service work I’ve been performing I have had the chance to visit a behavioral health clinic that houses many veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. Veterans makes it sound like they are old or at least middle aged men and women. The handful of men and women I met were mostly barely adults, in their early twenties, if that. They were all there partly for treatment for PTSD as a result of their deployments to Iraq or Afghanistan and partly for other issues.

The historian James McPherson, in his book on the Civil War Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era writes that a common refrain among confederate soldiers was that it was a rich man’s war but a poor man’s battle. That could probably be said of most wars I think. The singer songwriter Steve Earle, in his song Ben McCulloch, narrating (or singing) the story as a soldier in the confederacy under General McCulloch’s command, sings:

I killed a boy the other night
Who had never even shaved
I don’t even know what I’m fighting for
I ain’t never owned a slave

The song starts like this:

We signed up in San Antone, my brother Paul and me
To fight with Ben McCulloch and the Texas infantry
Well the poster said we’d get a uniform and seven bucks a week
The best rations in the army and a rifle we could keep

One of the most haunting poignant anti-war songs you will ever hear is the ballad The Band Played Waltzing Matilda, sung by Shane McGowan of The Pogues. Singing about an Australian conscript in World War I thrown into the hell that was Gallipoli he sings:

We were butchered like lambs at the slaughter
Johnny Turk he was ready, he primed himself well
He chased us with bullets, he rained us with shells
And in five minutes flat he’d blown us all to hell
Nearly blew us right back to Australia
But the band played Waltzing Matilda
As we stopped to bury our slain
We buried ours and the Turks buried theirs
Then we started all over again

It continues:

Now those that were left, well we tried to survive
In a mad world of blood, death and fire
And for ten weary weeks I kept myself alive
But around me the corpses piled higher
Then a big Turkish shell knocked me arse over tit
And when I awoke in my hospital bed
And saw what it had done, Christ I wished I was dead
Never knew there were worse things than dying

And the concluding paragraph:

And now every April I sit on my porch
And I watch the parade pass before me
And I watch my old comrades, how proudly they march
Reliving old dreams of past glory
And the old men march slowly, all bent, stiff and sore
The forgotten heroes from a forgotten war
And the young people ask, “What are they marching for?”
And I ask myself the same question

I would recommend one give a listen to that song, the Shane McGowan rendition. It brought a lump to my throat the first time I heard it. Gallipoli, incidentally happens to be the other great, acknowledged Churchill blunder.

So almost thirteen hundred words later, what is my point you ask? The one I started off with. War is a shitty business. And that no one in their right mind should be glorifying it.

Thanks for reading.

Lakshman Hariharan,
09/30/2018 Prosper, TX.

Serena

It is becoming habitual for me to write about things I have no clue. Or to quote what David Letterman says of Dr Phil: “Here’s more advice” and thoughts, if I may add,  “I pulled our of my ass”.

Couple of stories regarding women’s issues dominated the news cycle here in the United States in the past few weeks. First, and one that has largely petered out is Serena’s outburst at the US Open final and her crusade ,if you were to believe her supporters, against sexism. Before any women reading this take umbrage to my condescending use of the word crusade; as someone who contends that white folk don’t get to decide what is and isn’t racist, I fully agree that men don’t get to decide what is and isn’t sexist.  It also goes without saying that those who say sexism in the work place doesn’t exist are just as full of shit as those that say there is no racism in our society.

A lot of overt acts of sexism in the workplace are probably rare these days, especially in the West, but they weren’t until a few years ago. Or to quote Jay Leno, since I’m apparently in the mood to quote comedians today; and this goes to everyone out there that laments the “PC culture”: “If it weren’t for political correctness we would still be throwing cat whistles” and slapping them on their rear ends, if I may add, ” at women in the workplace”. Are there instances of political correctness run amok? Absolutely. What with disinvited commencement speakers and such. But that doesn’t mean that the concept overall is to be lamented but that’s besides the point of this post.

I personally don’t think that Serena is some crusader against sexism in sports but I can definitely understand her being judged by different standards than those men are judged by. Several compilations of men throwing temper tantrums on the tennis courts with far less severe consequences have been making the rounds on my social media feeds so I’ll spare the reader that. Regardless of what one thinks of her crusade, to overuse that word, there is no doubt in my opinion that she was justified in taking exception to the harsh penalty imposed of one whole game.

Here are some of the overt and not so overt instances of sexism I have seen in the workplace:

Every time and I mean every single time I have had a woman boss, a male coworker has asked me “Is she hot?”. There are several things wrong with that but I’ll just say that no one has ever asked me whether my male boss was hot, but then I don’t have any gay friends, so take that for what its worth.

Referring to another coworker: “God she’s a bitch. I pity the poor sonofabitch that’s married to her.

or worse

“God she’s bein’ a bitch today. Time of the month again?”

Oftentimes when a woman gets promoted to a senior or an executive role:
“I’m sure she was fully qualified for the job and it has nothing to do with our diversity and inclusion policy”.
Never mind that despite making up half the population less than 20% of women make up the industry I work in, so even if I were to grant that the diversion and inclusion policy was at work somehow, there’s a long way to go for equality in the workplace. And what if it were indeed the diversity and inclusion policy at work? Isn’t that the whole point of diversity and inclusion?

“I don’t know how you can walk in those heels”

Well guess what you would’ve said if she did show up in say comfortable shoes?

“I can’t believe she showed up dressed like that.”

Enough about others, some of what follows are some times and situations I find myself suppressing my sexist instincts, and honest to goodness those happen subconsciously until I take a moment to realize what I’m doing. So here goes:

Whenever that shirt smells like it’s been left in the dryer in a half dry – half damp state for too long. My first instinct is to get irritated (and not at myself) as if it was somehow not my fault that the clothes were left in the dryer loo long in that state. It takes a split second to turn that blame around on myself.

That feeling of having accomplished something good the day I load the dishwasher and vacuum the house, half ass as the cleaning may be by most standards of cleanliness, and cook lunch and fold the laundry. To be clear, I don’t get that feeling of accomplishment when I do those individually or on separate days. I do when I do all in one day and I have to remind myself that my wife does that on most days. Or when I expect gratitude for having done all of that.  As if I’m going above and beyond what is expected of me.

Taking “days off” from parenting. I have too much going on these past few days and I just want to relax. Guess what? She doesn’t get any days off from parenting. There’s only one other person to pick up my slack and that’s her. And guess who picks up her slack? No one.

Now these may just be me and my upbringing in a highly patriarchal and sexist society in India, or my general assholery but I do wonder how many men actually have these reactions or feelings. Among other things, why do I have to remind myself that I live in this house too and its supposed to be a shared responsibility?

I won’t even go into the other more overt acts of sexism or double standards by which women are judged when, for example, they break down or cry (“Oh here come the tears”), or women, working or otherwise, having to take the brunt of the responsibility at home. When a man does the former its him showing his vulnerability and that’s oh so commendable.

If you’re a woman reading this and have had to suppress the urge to pound that keyboard at my incredibly ignorant and prejudiced point of view, I apologize. And to everyone who read this, whether you pounded the keyboard or not, thank you.

Sincerely,
Your garden variety sonofabitch.
09/23/2018, Prosper, TX

P.S.: 1. The oxford comma gets a bad rap these days, but I’m a fan, as you can see.
2. I’m still learning the proper use of the semicolon and colon so bear with me.

**Update: A reader pointed out that I started off being condescending to Serena and her crusade but never explained why I was condescending. The reason is that over the years I’ve seen a lot of these tantrums from her and I believe it was just that. A tantrum. The media is so penchant on turning everything into a cycle that will be discussed for days not minutes that it results in stuff like this. Making a crusade out of a tamper tantrum.