Tuesday, September 20, 2011

India Diary II - Motocross on 7bhp and 100cc

Delhi certainly didn't disappoint, and neither did my hometown of Ludhiana.In the ten days that I have been back home, I have experienced the city like I never did when I was living here while growing up. The pothole ridden roads, roads that literally turn into streams during monsoon, the unruly traffic, the blaring horns from two-, three- and four-wheelers - I was surprised to find myself completely at ease with, if not actually enjoying everything. There is something oddly satisfying about seeing hordes of people moving about in the city - it is not like US where all one sees on highways is fast moving traffic - just an endless string of cars and SUVs going somewhere, and in their own lanes.

I found the chaotic traffic, ceaseless noise, vehicles spewing smoke, and dusty roads etc. oddly therapeutic. One is so engrossed in making it to ones destination that the only way is to keep ones focus on the road and in the now. Everything else is blocked out. Getting from one place to the other is a project in itself, and at the end of it there is that sense of accomplishment that I've made it, alive and well! Atleast it has been so for me. Where else can one experience that always-on-the-edge excitement, and that too daily?!

Friday, September 16, 2011

India Diary I - Delhi didn't disappoint

It will be a week tomorrow since I have been in India. There were a lot many things going through my mind while I was flying from Dallas to Delhi. On the top of the heap was the realization that I am going back home to India after almost six years. The questions utmost on my mind were - how will I feel once I am there, will I be ill at ease with everything or will I be able to adapt to the ways that I was all too familiar with only eight years ago when I first left for the US? To my relief, and surprise, I took to India, my India, like fish to water. And that too inspite of everything that I had been apprehensive about. So I thought it is only fitting that I keep a journal of my experiences while I am here in India. Here is the first entry of my India Diary: 'India Diary I - Delhi didn't disappoint'.

Terminal 3
My flight from Chicago landed at IGI Airport's Terminal 3 in New Delhi. I was definitely looking forward to experiencing the vaunted Terminal 3. There was also something else at the back of my mind while I was getting ready to disembark the plane - there was this sketch that Russell Peters did once in one of his stand-up routines - he pokes fun at the "smell" that hits you when you first step outside the plane upon landing here in India. But believe me, nothing of the sort happens - that jackass is as prone to hyperbole as every other stand-up comic, definitely to an amusing effect I might add. What does hit one though is the heat and humidity, the mugginess in the air - but surprisingly, that didn't bother me either. Probably because I was finally home.
The best part of landing at Terminal 3 for me was that I found the staff at Terminal 3 very helpful and welcoming. The directions within the terminal were easy to understand. The artwork and the decor of the terminal is impressive and inviting. The lighting and the furnishings are very modern.
Terminal 3 is "state-of-the-art" alright, but there are a couple of things that I wish had been done differently. May be it was just this particular flight, but I remember thinking at the time that the walk from the gate to immigration desks was excessively long. To be sure, there were those motorized walkways most of the way. But the purpose of those walkways is defeated when people just stand there and do not move! So I walked from my gate towards the immigration and baggage claim area - it was definitely a good walk as I was able to look around and see the T3 for the very first time. One other thing that bothered me was the wall to wall carpet on the floor in the terminal - I have never liked carpeted floors, especially at airports, so this must just be a personal bias. All in all, T3 is definitely one of the better airports that I have been to. Kudos to GMR Corporation.

Airport Metro Express
The ride on Airport Metro Express from IGI Airport to New Delhi Railway Station has to be the highlight of this visit of mine to India. I mean, in 20 minutes flat one can get from the international airport to the railway station in the middle of the city. How cool is that? The stations, especially the ones at the airport and at New Delhi are expansive, and the systems in place to keep people moving are good, and seemed efficient. If the rest of the metro in NCR is anything like this, this project was and is definitely worth all the hype, the time, the effort, and the investment.

New Delhi Railway Station
The railway station was as abuzz with activity as ever. As I had a couple of big bags with me, the short walk from the airport metro station to the railway station wasn't as easy as I had hoped. Moreover, the pothole marked roads full of water only made things difficult. The most difficult part of it all was to get rid of those touts/self-proclaimed travel agents who promise you confirmed train tickets to anywhere and everywhere. I am certain that my bags must have given me away!
Unfortunately I missed my train out of New Delhi railway station just by a whisker - the airline had misplaced one of my bags and that issue took a little while to sort out at the airport. Moving the bags from metro station to platform 14, then to the cloak room at platform 1, then to Paharganj side of the station was quite a project. So was finding a train ticket at the last moment.

New Delhi
Once I had arranged for a ticket for a train out of New Delhi to Ludhiana for next morning, I went to a friend's place in Dwarka. Decided to haul an auto-rickshaw instead of a taxi - just so I could experience the sights, the sounds, and the smells of Delhi first hand. And I wasn't disappointed at all. It had just rained and the dust had all settled down so the air was still quite breathable. The traffic was as relentless as I had always know Delhi traffic to be, but we still made good time of getting to Dwarka. While the main roads were well kept and tarred, the side lanes were a neglect. All in all, the auto ride from New Delhi Railway Station to Dwarka was interesting and brought back a lot of memories from days past.
Especially gratifying was the hustle and bustle in the city. Everyone seemed to be going somewhere. Most of the people must be going back home to their loved ones for it was late evening then. The engines of two-, three-, and four-wheelers would rev-up when a traffic light turned green. Some vehicles belched smoke as they started, and some would simply groan into life and begin to move. There was no order to the traffic. The smallest of spaces in the traffic was taken, if not by a four- or a three-wheeler, then by someone on a motorcycle or a scooter.
The following day my friend drove me to the train station and the drive was as smooth as it could get. The traffic was sparse at that early hour, and especially so because it was a Saturday I think.

All in all, my first sojourn with New Delhi in years was not nearly as terrifying as I had somehow let myself to believe. Here is to home, and to all those who wish to be back home. Cheers.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

I'd rather be Anna - An open letter to Ms. Arundhati Roy

Ms. Roy,

I watched your sit-down with Ms. Sagarika Ghose from CNN-IBN via the internet, and I tried to understand the reasons that you laid out for your disenchantment with- and lack of confidence in- various Lokpal Bills that have been proposed - Jan Lokpal Bill by Team Anna, Aruna Roy and colleagues' version, and the government's Lokpal Bill. But I could not. Probably because you said a lot without having said anything.

At the end of this video, all I wanted to ask you is: What would you rather have done, and how? What do you think can/should be done to tackle the scourge of corruption? What are your ideas? How would you mobilize the opinion and the masses around your ideas? How would you ensure that participation in the movement is not skewed by and for a certain sector of society? Pray tell us. We need more disparate voices in order to come up with an effective bill, and yours can certainly be one of those voices, for people listen to you when you say something.

Now, please allow me to go point-by-point about the whole host of "issues" that you say leave you skeptical about the Lokpal Bill, what it can/may accomplish and the movement. I am using the major phrases that you used during your conversation with Ms. Ghose in order to pin-point the 'reasons of your disenchantment with the movement and the bill':
1. Its an NGO driven movement, has Magsaysay Award winners linked to Rockefeller and Ford Foundation, hidden agenda? - Aren't you just implying a 'guilt by association' here, that is if there is any guilt at all?! If I didn't know better, I'd say that the 1997 Booker Prize that was to be your claim to fame, was awarded to you by an organization whose principal sponsor is a company that manages hedge funds and commodity futures - Man Group. So by your standards, you should be the last one to be associated with social movements. But then, the sponsor of the prize when you won it was a company called Booker Group - this company derives a bulk of its billion pound profits from coffee, tobacco, alcohol, among other things. You'd probably know more about how these three industries are exploitative of not just natural resources but of peoples as well, and in more than one way. Now isn't it ironic that you accepted the Booker Prize awarded to you by these guys happily, even though these companies are the very epitome of businesses exploiting globalization and embracing new-imperialism, that you so thoroughly now despise. Will it be ok if we called this your double standard and hypocritical stance on things, as you so comfortably chose to do when talking about Team Anna's members and question their intentions and motives?
2. World Bank's Agenda (increasing political accountability, strengthening civil society's participation, creating competitive private sector, instituting restraint on power, improving public sector management - increasing penetration of
international capital) - the only "questionable/nefarious" goal in this list, if one is at all, seems to be 'creating competitive private sector'. So may be 'resource exploitation' by MNCs is one of the agendas behind what bodies such as World Bank/IMF/UN end up promoting, and that too at the expense of the welfare of the native peoples in these resource rich but socially stricken countries. If anything, putting in place the mechanisms (such as anti-corruption laws) that will allow people to question their own government's dealings with external players, will only help limit their exploitation. Isn't it? Now someone will make profit off of all the business, but then that is the cost that has to be paid in a setting that is not utopian.
3. NGOs taking over government's agenda - going by the yardstick that you ascribe to, aren't other movements, lets say the ones that you espouse so dearly e.g. Sardar Sarovar Project, also taking over government's agenda by being unwilling to allow the government even the slightest wiggle room when it tries to address those issues. Instead of suggesting solutions to tackle the issues, all that you and your ilk do is raise hullabaloo about what is wrong with something. Please also try to suggest some remedial measures.
4. Anna Hazare being a passive-vessel/figure-head for the movement - may be this is the case or may be it is not. Only Anna and his team's inner circle will be privy to that I suppose. The way I look at it, as austere a lifestyle as Anna embodies in this day and age when hoarding material possessions is a measure of success and even ones virtuosity, there are no monetary/material/political-ambition incentives for him to have embraced this movement. So you may fault him for letting his team hijack his agenda, if that indeed was the case, but you may not fault him for the purity of his intentions. I'll put such a face to a movement everytime. Won't you?
5. Medha Patekar and Prashant Bhushan's credibility - I don't know what to say, other than that 'innocent until proven guilty'! You did not offer any explanations.
6. Maoists and India Against Corruption (Jan Lokpal Bill) movement seek overthrow of government, parallel oligarchy, research committee comprised of eminent people selected by self-proclaimed leaders of civil society - if overthrow of the government was indeed the goal of this movement, "they" would have let Anna die, and the aftermath of that alone would have ensured an uprising (and I am sure an armed one and bloody) the likes of which haven't been seen in this country for a long time.
7. Currency of social transaction in unequal society from bottom of the socioeconomic ladder to the very top, perpetual economic inequality - corruption is rampant because both the parties that are involved, the one seeking bribe and the one bribing, have an incentive to do so, irrespective of their socioeconomic status and wellbeing. It will be easier to disincentivize bribe seeking than it will to disincentivize bribe giving, don't you think? Jan Lokpal being proposed will have mechanisms built in it that achieve precisely that.
8. Why aren't corporations and NGOs under Lokpal's ambit - I agree with you, they should be. And if I recall correctly it was suggested on the floor of the house as well, and I believe this is something that will be considered when the standing committee convenes.
9. Media's role in this movement - I agree with you that media saw this movement as an opportunity to have eyeballs glued to the TV screens, and they had wall to wall coverage of the spectacle that this movement was to become. Moreover, media did not help deliberate the provisions of various Lokpal Bill versions as diligently as it should have.
10. Mobilization from BJP and RSS - I ask you, so what if BJP and RSS were involved. Isn't it their democratic right to participate and dissent. Don't they have as much right to have an opinion in the matter as anyone else? If your concern stems out of the fact that both these organizations have right-wing tendencies, then you need only think about the calm and peace with which people participating in the movement conducted themselves. What do you say?
11. One man's regressive piece of legislation - just earlier you said that you think Anna was only a figure head and not the original brains behind the proposed bill or the movement. I am sure you see the contradiction of your statements there, don't you. Even if you think of Anna's Team alone as the overarching architects of the bill and the movement surrounding it, other members and groups from the "civil society" were and are surely welcome to put forth their points of view once the standing committee begins its hearings. If that is not the democracy at work, I don't what is/can be.
12. Aggressive nationalism, chants etc., communist history of vande' mataram, and national flag's waving and exclusion - so would you rather have had five thousand people go on a fast-unto-death at Ramlila Maidan? They needed to vent, and feel a sense of camaraderie while working towards a common goal, and slogan shouting and music and prayers helped them channelize their emotions and energies, instead of doing something more drastic and destructive.
13. Anna going to private hospital at the very end - Dr. Trehan and his team were attending to Anna. Dr. Trehan is one of the founding members of Medanta Medcity, and as he was responsible for Anna's well-being, he chose to take him where he thought he could best take care of him. Having said that, may be it would have been appropriate to take Anna to AIIMS or Lady Harding or Maulana Azad Medical College. But then, I am certain that your criticism would still be the same.
14. Spontaneity and size of crowds, comparisons to Babri Masjid demolition - are you kidding me, with comparison to Babri Masjid demolition mob? I mean, really? Did you not see that for the most part, the two weeks of Anna's fast and the peoples' participation in the movement was peaceful?
Spontaneity - social networking tools via internet did play a role in mobilizing opinion as well as crowds, there is no denying that, in some huge numbers I might add. If you were looking for the rural participation, that was ofcourse sparse. First we need to inform people in remote villages about the bill, its provisions, and the movement itself. Part of that responsibility will certainly lie with the elected representatives from those areas, if not all of it.
15. Anna's persona, not like Gandhi, not his own man, not in-charge - I don't know about that. You yourself have called this bill as 'one man's regressive piece of legislation'. Moreover, Gandhi was "in-charge" because there was this largest political party of the country that he had the backing of and that he was backing. Would you have been supportive of Anna and his movement if he was openly affiliated with, lets say BJP or RSS or BSP or with Congress for that matter?
16. Fast-unto-death for Jan Lokpal, not interested, but interested in other issues ... - I don't know what to say to you. Anna chose a fast-unto-death as the tool of his choice to make his point. I think it was a move out of desperation more than anything else, and by the way, he was the only one on a fast. Where on the other hand, there are thousands of Naxals up in the arms killing people willy-nilly. What means would you have preferred he and his supporters adopted?
17. This movement cannot be a precedent for protest movements of future, this has been a privileged protest movement - I reluctantly have to agree with your first assertion, but I cannot with the second. It would have been a privileged movement if the corporate houses had chosen to fund the movement, and had their banners all across Ramlila Maidan! But that was not the case. As far as I know, donations consisted predominantly of small sums of money donated mostly by people with limited means i.e. those who even value the tax rebate that they can avail from such donations. Now, if you are saying that people who showed up at the ground were more privileged than the ones whose causes you champion, I'd have to call you on that. The setting of the protest was such that it was literally in the corridors of power. Do you think it would have drawn same coverage and participation if it had been in some remote village of Jharkhand? I am sure it would not have. But even so, if the provisions such as citizen's charter and disincentives for irresponsible office holders are anything to go by, beneficiaries of it won't just be people who live in urban or semi-urban settings. People everywhere will benefit from this bill - only, most of us will need to be trained to avail of it correctly. RTI is a good example of that happening, isn't it?
The reason police did not use force or was reluctant to use force may have been that the government had started on the wrong foot from the very outset by jailing Anna. But, why do you choose to ignore the fact that the crowds that had gathered at various venues in cities and town across the country were peaceful as such a mass movement can be. But then you have already made up your mind, so enough said.

As far as your article titled 'I'd rather not be Anna' that appeared in The Hindu on August 21, 2011 goes, even if I were to accept the examples that you have cited in your writeup on face value, I do not agree with the conclusions that you have drawn from them. But still, I'll go so far as to say that your concluding remark was spot-on. I am certain that you'd agree me when I say we need more disparate voices in order to come up with an effective bill. But, wouldn't you agree with me that today we don't just need critics and cynics who can point to the problems with almost anything and everything, what we are desperately in need of is some creative and effective solutions for those problems, and people who can come up with those solutions.

Ms. Roy, once again, my only question to you is: What do you think can/should be done to tackle the scourge of corruption? What are your ideas? How would you mobilize the opinion and the masses around your ideas? How would you ensure that participation in the movement is not skewed by and for a certain sector of society? Please enlighten us.

- I'd rather be Anna. Actually, I'd rather be Dr. Jayaprakash Narayan, but that is a whole another ...

Monday, August 29, 2011

Jan Lokpal Bill - four more "stages" to go

Over this past weekend I keenly followed the goings on in India vis a vis the 'India Against Corruption' movement, led by Anna Hazare, seeking the introduction and subsequent passage of a Jan Lokpal Bill (Citizen's Ombudsman Bill) that will be stronger and more effective than the one Indian government (Congress led ruling coalition) had proposed. It was ofcourse a relief to learn that Anna finally decided to break the fast unto death that he had undertaken on the thirteenth day. It was certainly very satisfying too see the show of support by thousands of people across the country for this campaign against corruption, and for a strong Lokpal. It was also good to see the spirited discussion on the issue in both the houses of the parliament - there were some very good speeches made, especially by the leaders of the opposition.

But, when the speaker banged her gavel to adjourn the house just seconds after the minister had read the "resolution" adopted by the house affirming the government's agreement "in principle" with Anna Hazare and his team's position, I was left with a sinking feeling of not-much-achieved-after-all-this. It took an aged Gandhian's fast-unto-death that lasted almost a fortnight, tens of thousands if not a couple of million people coming out on the street all across India, and almost six months (since the beginning of this movement) for the government to even accept that the sort of measures to tackle corruption suggested under Jan Lokpal Bill were worth considering. And all that our elected representatives in the parliament could come up with was a lame resolution suggesting their agreement "in principle", which if the proceedings in both the houses that day were anything to go by, wasn't nearly as unanimously adopted as the ruling coalition was suggesting. I was also surprised to hear Anna say later that we had won only half the battle, when in my mind nothing substantial had been achieved and this parliamentary resolution was nothing more than political hogwash.

So, to temper the increasing feeling of discontentment and disenchantment that I was coming down with, I decided to learn more about how the mass movements usually evolve. One of the very informative resources I found was an article titled 'The Eight Stages of Successful Social Movements' by Bill Moyer. This actually is an abridged version of 'The Movement Action Plan (MAP)' laid out by Bill Moyer almost exactly twenty-five years ago. Upon going through MAP and the eight stages of a successful social movement I realized that maybe Anna was right in saying that we have won only half the battle. Now that I have a better understanding (than what I had a couple of days ago) of how any social movement of significance may unfold, it does seem that we have only been through stage four (Take Off!) yet, and there is still much that will have to be done vis a vis keeping this movement alive and kicking until the goal of instituting a strong Lokpal has been achieved.

So if you also wish to reaffirm your faith like I was able to do - right below you will find the 'The Eight Stages of Successful Social Movements'. There is also another graphic below that - this one lays out four different activist roles that any social movement has - very insightful stuff. A must read for everyone in my opinion, but especially for activists and wannabe activists.
The Eight Stages of Successful Social Movements

The Four Activist Roles

Here is hoping that stages five, six, seven, and eight are not very far off in this movement against corruption and for a strong Lokpal.

Viva la Revolution. Inquilab Zindabad. Jai Hind.

Friday, August 5, 2011

24.Rxd4!! - The Move of The Game of The Century

I've known how to play chess since I was a kid. We played chess at home, in school, and at my college. Now I play chess with my computer, and I also play chess online. But somehow I had never gotten around to understanding chess by way of its notations. Oh how I wish I had learnt that while I was still a school going kid.

What got me interested in learning about chess notations was a random search I did one day for 'the greatest game of chess ever played'. Too much free time at hand I guess. The chess match that seemed to have been called 'The Game of the Century' turned out to be the one played between Garry Kasparov and Veselin Topalov in 1999. I watched the very first youtube video that my quick google search returned. In this video, Kevin from 'thechesswebsite.com' goes move by move and explains the possible rationale behind both Kasparov's and Topalov's moves. One of the top comments for this video says, "24 minutes flew by". And I sure had to agree. Its an engrossing game of chess and some of Kasparov's moves were beyond comprehension when he made them but turned out to be brilliantly well thought out.

For a few days I just kept finding myself thinking about this game, and revisiting this video time and again to try to go through different scenarios had Kasparov made a different move or had Topalov responded with a different move. It was during one of those days that I searched for Kasparov's impression of this game that he played with Topalov. I was happy to locate a chess website that had this game move by move, complete with annotation from Kasparov - with his explanations of the moves that he made, the moves that he didn't make, and the moves he thought Topalov could have made to save the game. But my happiness was shortlived, for I wasn't particularly conversant in the notations of chess. That is when I decided to learn the notations of the game of chess. And I have to say, now that I am a little conversant in chess lingo, I am able to enjoy chess all the more.

If at some point in your life you've played chess, and still like to play chess, watch the video with commentary about this game below. If on the other hand you are a die hard chess fan, like the one I am turning into now, go through the entire game with Kasparov's annotated commentary here: http://medlem.spray.se/tal0/replay/kas-top.html. Also, you'd ask what is so special about the move 24.Rxd4!! - Kasparov sacrificed his Rook with this move, all in the build up to some beautiful lines and ultimate resignation by Topalov. You shall have to see for yourself why this move was so crucial in this match.

For those of you who already have kids or are expecting some soon: for god sake teach your kids how to play chess. They will thank you for that. If it were upto me, I'd gift each kid and his/her family 'checkmate! my first chess book' by Garry Kasparov.

Have fun chessheads.

The Chess Game Of The Century:

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The US "Debt Debate" - Voices of Reason

Just yesterday President Obama signed into law the latest debt increase. The issue of raising of the debt limit was as contentious as they come - atleast this time around. The bone of contention was the proposed tying up of the debt limit increase with deficit reduction measures. Democrats and Republicans slugged it out in the run up to the final deal that was reached on July 31, approved by the lower and upper houses of US congress just before the deadline of August 2. If the congressmen and senators from respective party are to be believed, this deal has been a big compromise for both parties. On the other hand, commentators of major cable news channels and most business experts have denounced this deal as a (very poor) result of congress' inability to function. Most of the blame, atleast in liberal media circles, has been attributed to the rigid stance of the right wing of American politics, the first term congressmen from the 'Tea Party'. They were dead set against any hike in taxes or as it has been oft referred to, increase in revenue for tax-hike has long been a taboo phrase in the capitalist economy that is US.

Having followed this "debt debate" a little bit, it seemed to me that the most sane voices in the entire conversation were those of Independent Senator Bernie Sanders from Vermont and Republican Congressman Ron Paul from Texas. Some would argue that these two gentlemen represent the very extremes of their American political spectrum. Well, even so, what they have to say makes sense. Moreover, I don't think that the 'Tea Party' folks are really true to the principles that they espouse. If they did, they would think and act more like Congressman Ron Paul. Similarly, many of the progressives are as right of the center as most right wingers.

If you want to listen to just the voices of reason, and not to all the hullbaloo surrounding the debt debate, there are a couple of youtube videos below. There is one each from Senator Sanders and Congressman Paul. The best commentary from a media personality about the whole affair was by Keith Olbermann of Countdown with Keith Olbermann on Current TV.

Senator Bernie Sanders:

Congressman Ron Paul:

Special Comment by Keith Olbermann:

Monday, July 18, 2011

(Not Enough) Ado about Aadhaar

For those of you who are Hindi illiterate, Aadhaar is a Hindi word that means foundation. Aadhaar is also the brand name of the Unique Identification (UID) Number - the plan is to provide every Indian resident with one.

When Aadhaar was being instituted, we were told (and I am quoting from UIDAI - UID Authority of India - website), "Aadhaar will empower poor and underprivileged residents in accessing services such as the formal banking system and give them the opportunity to easily avail various other services provided by the Government and the private sector", and "Aadhaar will ensure increased trust between public and private agencies and residents." Both good reasons to adopt a system of identification in a country where a bulk of the population is reeling with poverty and has limited access to some very basic services, right?

Moreover, the whole UID project was going to be spearheaded by one of the most successful Indian entrepreneurs of our generation, Mr. Nandan Nilekani. Forbes Magazine called Mr. Nilekani the Governtrepreneur, for he had given up his job as co-Chairman of Infosys Technologies, and was going to chair the UIDAI project. To understand the significance of Mr. Nilekani's appointment to the top job in UIDAI, you have to understand two things: 1. In India private sector and its abilities (vs. those of Indian government's) to be "efficient" and "get things done" are revered (perhaps mistakenly so, but that is for another discussion another time) 2. Mr. Nilekani is to India's technocrat community what Warren Buffet is to US investors. This seemed like a match made in heaven - one of India's best technical minds was going to lead an effort that would help tackle one of India's most pressing issues - that of delivery of services to India's poorest. So there was almost no reason to question the UID project and what it set out to accomplish, and not many did. Now I have no intention of questioning Mr. Nilekani's commitment to the UID project. In fact, I am certain that if anyone can get UID implemented he can. My only worry however is that the rest of us in India may have hopped on the UID bandwagon far too quickly and without thinking this completely through.

Over the years 'The Hindu', an English language Indian news daily has published some insightful articles about issues relating to UID that haven't been sufficiently addressed. A couple of those articles are linked-to here:
1. Aadhaar: on a platform of myths
2. High-cost, high-risk
3. UID: doubts, concerns and confusions

If you consider yourself an informed citizen of India, I implore you to read these articles, and I promise you that you'll come out informed, if not reformed, at the other end. And yeah, don't forget to spread the word, for this is one of those issues that is going to impact lives of us Indians for generations to come, and we cannot just let it be without a purposeful discussion.

Jai Hind.

Friday, July 15, 2011

The young Indian politicians - not there yet.

Rajdeep Sardesai, IBN Network's Editor-In-Chief, says here that India lacks involvement of young politicians at the highest levels. He says that the recent cabinet reshuffle by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh did almost nothing to suggest otherwise either, and rightly so. He also goes on to cite examples of US President Barack Obama and English Prime Minister David Cameron as prominent world leaders who are still to cross over into the latter half of their lives, but are already leading respective countries. Whereas the young guns of India, the likes of *Rahul Gandhi, Varun Gandhi, Jyotiraditya Scindia, and many others, are either just unable to or are reluctant to join and raise the level of national conversation as is desired of them.

Most of the young breed of Indian politicians have just been parachuted into their roles as leaders. They never had to work their way up through the ranks. No wonder that not many beyond their immediate posse are in their awe. Come to think of it, their lineage seems to be the only qualification that they possess to be a politician. Most of them, if not all of them, may have chosen to be in politics because most of the work had already been done for them. They had the right last names, the parliamentary constituencies were invariably set aside for them without any competition, the organizational structure of respective political parties was already in place, and all they had to do was show up.

I think it is because of their lack of experience as grass roots activists and the fact that they did not have to work hard to rise through the ranks that they are having a hard time connecting with people. They should have a hard time getting to the top jobs as politicians, shouldn't they? If this is the reason they are reluctant to begin participating wholeheartedly, then I don't blame them. In fact, I am encouraged that they know their limitations and are willing to work hard to overcome those limitations. May be this baptism by fire will help them grow not just as politicians, but as leaders too.

Without doubt, with age comes experience and wisdom, and it may be especially true of politicians. But, on the job training that these young politicians are getting by virtue of being MPs and leaders in their respective parties may not be enough to make quality politicians out of them. Because it is not just about the ability to wheel and deal in the pressure cooker that is today's coalition politics. It is not just about being visible to the people every so often so they recognize you by face come election day. It has to be about substantive issues, and ideas about tackling those issues. Politics is not just about seeing to it that the country's GDP grows at a rate of >8% year on year. It has to be about ones heartfelt desire to serve the people, and making sure that the lowest common denominator of our socioeconomic setup is not left behind.

*The spaghetti that is world politics: Many saw the padyatra that Rahul Gandhi embarked upon recently as a publicity stunt, and their cynicism may not be entirely misplaced. After all he did work for a consulting firm before coming back to India and making his foray into Indian politics. This firm that Rahul Gandhi worked for, Monitor Group, is the same firm that had Muammar Gadaffi as a client. The work that they were hired for was primarily public relations related. I am not suggesting any guilt by association. All I am suggesting is that may be public relations is something that he is more comfortable doing.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

The (Wobbly) Wheel of Fortune

I don't know why, but each time I go to a grocery store, I get a cart that has atleast one wheel that is wobbly. The periodic jerks of the handlebar and the persistent clank definitely draws some attention. People look at me as if I am stopped at a traffic light and the loud bangs from my car's broken muffler are rattling their car's windows.

The Gods of grocery stores seem to be pissed with me at the moment. May be it is that I enjoy letting the shopping carts go really fast when I go to return them in their parking space, and that pisses the powers that be off. Or may be, the Walmart/Target Gods are just racist and don't like it when a brown skinned person from Indian subcontinent does only part of his groceries at their stores and the rest of it at an ethnic food store. Or may be they are pissed because on multiple occasions I have checked out my groceries at the register that says '20 Items or Less' even though I have counted multiple units of one thing as one item to make the cut.

I've even tried to take a cart that is two, three or four deep in the train, but to no avail. I hope the law of averages catches up soon and that one of these days I'll find a shopping cart whose wheels ride smooth.

The wobbly wheeled carts in grocery stores used to annoy me, but not anymore. May be because the ride hasn't been particularly smooth on the personal front either, and I am in the midst of a confluence of events that are hell bent on going wrong howsoever hard I may try. I am keeping my fingers crossed though, and I will keep pushing the damn cart till I've crossed everything off from my shopping list.

I hate grocery shopping.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Alphabet I Wish I'd Learned

Have you ever had those moments when talking to call center representatives of a utility company or a bank over the phone, and found yourself wanting for words for a letter of the alphabet while trying to spell something out? I know I have. So I decided that enough was enough, and began to re-learn the letters of the English alphabet. Only this time, it'd be the words as they are used for radio communications. Its called the 'Phonetic Alphabet'. It is ofcourse used primarily by the armed forces, law enforcement officers, pilots, ham radio operators, and others who have to communicate using radios.

The entire Phonetic Alphabet is listed further below (if you go through the list, at the bottom of this post you'll find a very amusing, may be even cerebral, snippet I promise), but a comprehensive list of the alphabet from almost a century ago and the words that have changed over time, can be seen here. An interesting fact that pops out upon going through this list - of the 26 words in the Phonetic Alphabet, only two have remained unchanged for almost hundred years - M (Mike) and X(X-ray). Another good list of the Phonetic Alphabet used by a few different agencies and countries (all of them have occupied parts of the world beyond their own at one time or another!) of the world is here.

If it were up to me, I'll teach all the kids this alternate alphabet. Enough with 'A for Apple', 'B for Boy', and 'C for Cat' already. To me, it makes a lot of sense to teach kids the alphabet with words that are used in the Phonetic Alphabet. Less training for kids who go on to become soldiers or pilots or law enforcement officers for they'll already be aware of the entire Phonetic Alphabet, less training for kids who go on to become call center employees around the world (I've already imagined a scenario where the entire world is one big call center - more on that some other day), and fewer hassles for customers (all of us are customers, isn't it?) who need to call those 1-800 numbers. Moreover, it is just more fun. I know, I know, if the kids don't know the letters of the alphabet, how will they be able to learn the Phonetic Alphabet? Will need to work on that.

May be its just the engineer in me, but while I was learning the Phonetic Alphabet, I just had to take the leap to learning the Morse Code! I am still working on it. It'll take a little bit of time to get used to to teaching myself to think in terms of dashes and dots, or dah, di and dits. Here is one for those of you who text a lot, and use the stupid shorthand (yeah, there, I said it - I don't like it) all the time:
1. LOL translates to .-.. --- .-..
2. ROFL translates to .-. --- ..-. .-..
3. ROFLMAO translates to .-. --- ..-. .-.. -- .- ---
And, for those of you who think I shouldn't mind all the shorthand used in text messages, my message to you is: -.-- --- ..- / -.-. .- -. / --. --- / - --- / .... . .-.. .-.. --..-- / .- -. -.. / -... . ..-. --- .-. . / .-.. . .- ...- .. -. --. --..-- / -.- .. ... ... / -- -.-- / .... .- .. .-. -.-- / -... .-. --- .-- -. / .- ... ... .-.-.-

A for Alpha
B for Bravo
C for Charlie
D for Delta
E for Echo
F for Foxtrot
G for Golf
H for Hotel
I for India
J for Juliet
K for Kilo
L for Lima
M for Mike
N for November
O for Oscar
P for Papa
Q for Quebec
R for Romeo
S for Sierra
T for Tango
U for Uniform
V for Victor
W for Whiskey
X for X-ray
Y for Yankee
Z for Zulu

Ok. Here is the promised snippet. Ever wondered if one can compile a list of Silent Phonetic Alphabet? Well, I hadn't either. But I sure am glad that someone had. The following is blatantly taken from this webpage here.

A as in BREAD
B as in DEBT
E as in GIVE
G as in GNAW
H as in HOUR
I as in FRIEND
K as in KNOW
L as in CALM
M as the first M in MNEMONIC
N as in AUTUMN
O as in PEOPLE
P as in PSALM
Q as in COLQUHOUN (a Scottish surname)
S as in ISLAND
T as in CASTLE
U as in GUARD
V as in MILNGAVIE (a Scottish place name)
W as in WRONG
X as in SIOUX
Y as in PEPYS

Friday, June 10, 2011

The day Gunga Din drove me to the airport

Last night, on my way back from Rochester (the one in Minnesota), I hailed a cab from right outside my hotel at Rochester Downtown. The weather was just beautiful - temps in low 70s (Fahrenheits of-course) and it was just slightly breezy. But, I was just dead tired to enjoy the weather much at that point, leave alone the cab ride to the airport. The cab's driver was a very genial looking Caucasian gentleman. I found out later that he was 60+. He gave me his name just as Chuck.

Rochester airport is not more than 10 or so miles south of the downtown. Factoring in all the traffic lights and some afternoon traffic it must only have taken the cab 15 minutes to get me to the airport. But, as tired as I was, when I got off the cab at the airport, I was smiling ear to ear. Somehow, my conversation with Chuck, during our ride to the airport, veered to Rudyard Kipling and his composition Gunga Din. And Chuck knew the entire Gunga Din by heart. How do I know - he recited the whole thing for me while driving me to the airport, complete with flourishes where they should be and how they should be! It was so much fun listening to him recite the poem, and especially because he did not miss a note or a syllable from the non-English words in this poem. It was just brilliant - it was the best cab ride I've had to date. As far as various professions go, cab drivers have always been one of the two favorite people of mine to strike a conversation with - the other being barbers at hair salons. More on that some other day.

Here's a shout out to Chuck - Thanks Chuck, for making my day, giving me an unforgettable moment with Gunga Din, and for bringing back for me some cherished memories of school days, and that too with one of my favorite English poems that I hadn't recited or listened to in a long-long time.

The complete Gunga Din by Rudyard Kipling (it was sourced from here) below. Just a few pointers so you can enjoy reciting this poem as it was meant to be recited, and enjoyed:
1. Gunga Din is an Indian (/Hindi) name. It can be one word (Gungadin) or it can be two words (Gunga Din), but you'll still stay it the same way - Gungadin.
2. It is Gunga as in Gun+ga, and not Goonga.
3. Din part of the name will actually be pronounced as 'Deen' or 'Dean', and not Din (as in loud noise).
4. If you do not speak Hindi, have one of your friends from India help you say the few Hindi words in this poem right, and ask your friends the meanings to those words as well. Better yet, ask your friend to recite this poem out loud once! Not only will you enjoy the poem, I promise you, your Indian friend will too!
5. Ok, one last suggestion: If you've never ever heard of this poem, or listened to someone else recite it, I'd suggest you play one of the embedded youtube videos at the bottom of this post, and then follow the lyrics of the poem as the gentleman in the video recites the poem in the background. I especially like the recitation in the first video by Robert Hardy.

Rhyme away.

Gunga Din

YOU may talk o' gin an' beer
When you're quartered safe out 'ere,
An' you're sent to penny-fights an' Aldershot it;
But if it comes to slaughter
You will do your work on water,
An' you'll lick the bloomin' boots of 'im that's got it.
Now in Injia's sunny clime,
Where I used to spend my time
A-servin' of 'Er Majesty the Queen,
Of all them black-faced crew
The finest man I knew
Was our regimental bhisti, Gunga Din.

It was "Din! Din! Din!
You limping lump o' brick-dust, Gunga Din!
Hi! slippy hitherao!
Water, get it! Panee lao!
You squidgy-nosed old idol, Gunga Din!"

The uniform 'e wore
Was nothin' much before,
An' rather less than 'arf o' that be'ind,
For a twisty piece o' rag
An' a goatskin water-bag
Was all the field-equipment 'e could find.
When the sweatin' troop-train lay
In a sidin' through the day,
Where the 'eat would make your bloomin' eyebrows crawl,
We shouted "Harry By!"
Till our throats were bricky-dry,
Then we wopped 'im 'cause 'e couldn't serve us all.

It was "Din! Din! Din!
You 'eathen, where the mischief 'ave you been?
You put some juldee in it,
Or I'll marrow you this minute,
If you don't fill up my helmet, Gunga Din!"

'E would dot an' carry one
Till the longest day was done,
An' 'e didn't seem to know the use o' fear.
If we charged or broke or cut,
You could bet your bloomin' nut,
'E'd be waitin' fifty paces right flank rear.
With 'is mussick on 'is back,
'E would skip with our attack,
An' watch us till the bugles made "Retire."
An' for all 'is dirty 'ide,
'E was white, clear white, inside
When 'e went to tend the wounded under fire!

It was "Din! Din! Din!"
With the bullets kickin' dust-spots on the green.
When the cartridges ran out,
You could 'ear the front-files shout:
"Hi! ammunition-mules an' Gunga Din!"

I sha'n't forgit the night
When I dropped be'ind the fight
With a bullet where my belt-plate should 'a' been.
I was chokin' mad with thirst,
An' the man that spied me first
Was our good old grinnin', gruntin' Gunga Din.

'E lifted up my 'ead,
An' 'e plugged me where I bled,
An' 'e guv me 'arf-a-pint o' water—green;
It was crawlin' an' it stunk,
But of all the drinks I've drunk,
I'm gratefullest to one from Gunga Din.

It was "Din! Din! Din!
'Ere's a beggar with a bullet through 'is spleen;
'E's chawin' up the ground an' 'e's kickin' all around:
For Gawd's sake, git the water, Gunga Din!"

'E carried me away
To where a dooli lay,
An' a bullet come an' drilled the beggar clean.
'E put me safe inside,
An' just before 'e died:
"I 'ope you liked your drink," sez Gunga Din.
So I'll meet 'im later on
In the place where 'e is gone—
Where it's always double drill and no canteen;
'E'll be squattin' on the coals
Givin' drink to pore damned souls,
An' I'll get a swig in Hell from Gunga Din!

Din! Din! Din!
You Lazarushian-leather Gunga Din!
Tho' I've belted you an' flayed you,
By the livin' Gawd that made you,
You're a better man than I am, Gunga Din!

Gunga Din by Rudyard Kipling, by Robert Hardy (posted on youtube by poetictouchannel):

Gunga Din by Rudyard Kipling, (posted on youtube by Caspar33):

Friday, June 3, 2011

Recipe for Sleeplessness - Opposable Thumbs vs. Prehensile Tails

So I finally decided to read 'A Walk in the Woods' by Bill Bryson - it had been by my bedside for a few days and somehow the picture of that bear on the cover was more inviting than usual. Moreover, I was hoping to fall asleep soon enough. Afterall Dallas Mavericks had just beaten Miami Heat in the second game of the NBA Finals and I was happy.

I was lying on my bed with my left arm under my neck to prop my head up a little bit, and with my right hand I was holding the book - the little finger and the thumb of my right hand were helping me keep the book open to where I was. I must have been a couple of more pages, and just a few more blinks away from falling asleep when this strange thought occurred to me - how would I have been able to read this book if I had no opposable thumb? The very next thought was - what are the other things that I wouldn't have been able to do without opposable thumbs?

Right then I knew that this is going to be a long night. I tried so hard to get rid of that thought and focus on the book again. But there was no going back to it now. I was way too occupied thinking about things that one wouldn't be able to do without thumbs - everything from not being able to hit the spacebar on the keyboard to not being able to shoot basketball to tie shoelaces occurred to me. Some of the things that occurred to me were kinda obvious, some not so much. But some others were downright 'R' rated, and can't mention any of those here.

Many of the problems that we would have faced without opposable thumbs we would been able to tackle with some ingenuity. Maybe we would have developed some other feature in our body! How about a prehensile tail? Voila. A prehensile tail would be a good substitute. The more I think about it, the more convinced I am that a prehensile tail would be way better than opposable thumbs. If somehow I had a choice between opposable thumbs and prehensile tail, I would certainly go for the latter. How about you?

Go Mavs. And do not ever think about what you would do if you never had your thumbs, or you won't be able to sleep at night.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The (Hopping) Beast

President Obama's Limousine, also known as 'The Beast' or 'Cadillac One' ran aground/beached/got-stuck on a ramp while coming out of the US embassy in Dublin. Read more about 'The Beast' and its capabilities here. The first thing that came to my mind when I watched this news was that President Obama now has a really good reason to get his car fitted with a Hydraulic Lift Kit, or in other words, get the presidential limo tricked out like a low-rider. If you have ever ridden a public transportation bus in a major US metropolis, you've seen the Hydraulic Lift at work - remember when the front of the bus lowers right before the front exit door opens to let the passengers in/out. So, it'll be easier for the presidential limousine to go over humps easily. To see what else a Hydraulic Lift Kit can do for a car, see for yourself:

Somehow I am just not able to get the image, President Obama and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh sitting in the limo trying to talk while it is hopping down Constitution Avenue in Washington D.C., out of my head.

The major issue I see with it is the weight of all the steel that has gone into making this car such a beast. So the hydraulic lifters will have to be really powerful. But, if any car can handle such heavy duty piston assembly and batteries it is this one. Moreover, lets make the folks at GM earn their money - afterall they were able to weather 'Chapter 11 Reorganization' (legalese for declaring bankruptcy) with the backing of The White House! Not to mention the "boost" this will give to the custom car industry ;-).

Monday, March 21, 2011

Bhagat Singh - The Atheist

Bhagat Singh is one of the more well known freedom fighters from India's freedom struggle against the colonial rule of the British. He and two of his comrades, Rajguru and Sukhdev, were hanged on March 23, 1931. In India, Bhagat Singh is revered as a martyr and his contribution to Indian freedom struggle is highly regarded.

For those of us who grew up learning about Bhagat Singh and other revolutionaries of Indian Freedom Struggle, be it from our history books during our school going years or from various adaptations of his life by Indian film industry, know that he was a revolutionary, a leader, a poet, a thinker, but what is less known is that he was an atheist. We owe it to ourselves to complete that history lesson now. And what better day to do that than the anniversary of Bhagat Singh's death - this March 23 will be the eightieth anniversary of Bhagat Singh, Rajguru, and Sukhdev's martyrdom. Below is an unabridged version of an essay from Bhagat Singh titled 'Why I Am An Atheist' that he penned in the Fall of 1930, just a few months before his hanging. It is sourced from here. It may take about fifteen minutes of your time to read and digest the entire essay, but consider this as the homage that you'll pay today to Bhagat Singh and others who fought for our freedom.

Inquilab Zindabad (Viva la Revolution), and Inquilabi Zindabad (Viva la Revolutionaries).

Why I Am An Atheist - by Bhagat Singh

"It is a matter of debate whether my lack of belief in the existence of an Omnipresent, Omniscient God is due to my arrogant pride and vanity. It never occurred to me that sometime in the future I would be involved in polemics of this kind. As a result of some discussions with my friends, (if my claim to friendship is not uncalled for) I have realised that after having known me for a little time only, some of them have reached a kind of hasty conclusion about me that my atheism is my foolishness and that it is the outcome of my vanity. Even then it is a serious problem. I do not boast of being above these human follies. I am, after all, a human being and nothing more. And no one can claim to be more than that. I have a weakness in my personality, for pride is one of the human traits that I do possess. I am known as a dictator among my friends. Sometimes I am called a boaster. Some have always been complaining that I am bossy and I force others to accept my opinion. Yes, it is true to some extent. I do not deny this charge. We can use the word ‘vainglory’ for it. As far as the contemptible, obsolete, rotten values of our society are concerned, I am an extreme sceptic. But this question does not concern my person alone. It is being proud of my ideas, my thoughts. It cannot be called empty pride. Pride, or you may use the word, vanity, both mean an exaggerated assessment of one’s personality. Is my atheism because of unnecessary pride, or have I ceased believing in God after thinking long and deep on the matter? I wish to put my ideas before you. First of all, let us differentiate between pride and vanity as these are two different things.

I have never been able to understand how unfounded, baseless pride or empty vanity can hinder a person from believing in God. I may refuse to acknowledge the greatness of a really great person only when I have got fame without doing any serious efforts or when I lack the superior mental powers necessary to become great. It is easy to understand but how is it possible that a believer can turn into a non-believer because of his vanity? Only two things are possible: either a man deems himself to be in possession of Godly qualities, or he goes a step further and declares himself to be a god. In both these states of mind he cannot be an atheist in the true sense of the word. In the first case, it is not an outright rejection of God’s existence; in the other, he is affirming the existence of some kind of supernatural power responsible for the working of universe. It does not harm our argument whether he claims to be a god or considers God to be a reality in existence above his own being. The real point, however, is that in both cases he is a theist, a believer. He is not an atheist. I want to bring home this point to you. I am not one of these two creeds. I totally reject the existence of an Omnipresent, all powerful, all knowing God. Why so? I will discuss it later in the essay. Here I wish to emphasise that I am not an atheist for the reason that I am arrogant or proud or vain; nor am I a demi-god, nor a prophet; no, nor am I God myself. At least one thing is true that I have not evolved this thought because of vanity or pride. In order to answer this question I relate the truth. My friends say that after Delhi bombing and Lahore Conspiracy Case, I rocketed to fame and that this fact has turned my head. Let us discuss why this allegation is incorrect. I did not give up my belief in God after these incidents. I was an atheist even when I was an unknown figure. At least a college student cannot cherish any sort of exaggerated notion of himself that may lead him to atheism. It is true that I was a favourite with some college teachers, but others did not like me. I was never a hardworking or studious boy. I never got an opportunity to be proud. I was very careful in my behaviour and somewhat pessimistic about my future career. I was not completely atheistic in my beliefs. I was brought up under the care and protection of my father. He was a staunch Arya Samaji. An Arya Samaji can be anything but never an atheist. After my elementary education, I was sent to D. A. V College, Lahore. I lived in the boarding house for one year. Besides prayers early in the morning and at dusk time, I sat for hours and chanted religious Mantras. At that time, I was a staunch believer. Then I lived with my father. He was a tolerant man in his religious views. It is due to his teachings that I devoted my life for the cause of liberating my country. But he was not an atheist. His God was an all-pervading Entity. He advised me to offer my prayers every day. In this way I was brought up. In the Non-cooperation days, I got admission to the National College. During my stay in this college, I began thinking over all the religious polemics such that I grew sceptical about the existence of God. In spite of this fact I can say that my belief in God was firm and strong. I grew a beard and ‘Kais’ (long head of hair as a Sikh religious custom). In spite of this I could not convince myself of the efficacy of Sikh religion or any religion at all, for that matter. But I had an unswerving, unwavering belief in God.

Then I joined the Revolutionary Party. The first leader I met had not the courage to openly declare himself an atheist. He was unable to reach any conclusion on this point. Whenever I asked him about the existence of God, he gave me this reply: “You may believe in him when you feel like it.” The second leader with whom I came in contact was a firm believer. I should mention his name. It was our respected Comrade Sachindara Nath Sanyal. He was sentenced to life imprisonment in connection with Karachi conspiracy case. Right from the first page of his only book, ‘Bandi Jivan’ (Incarnated Life) he sings praises to the Glory of God. See the last page of the second part of this book and you find praises showered upon God in the way of a mystic. It is a clear reflection of his thoughts.

According to the prosecution, the ‘Revolutionary Leaflet’ which was distributed throughout India was the outcome of Sachindara Nath Sanyal’s intellectual labour. So often it happens that in revolutionary activities a leader expresses his own ideas which may be very dear to him, but in spite of having differences, the other workers have to acquiesce in them.

In that leaflet, one full paragraph was devoted to the praises of God and His doings which we, human beings, cannot understand. This is sheer mysticism. What I want to point out is that the idea of denying the existence of God did not even occur to the Revolutionary Party. The famous Kakory martyrs, all four of them, passed their last day in prayers. Ram Parshad Bismal was a staunch Arya Samaji. In spite of his vast studies in Socialism and Communism, Rajan Lahiri could not suppress his desire to recite hymns from Upanishads and Gita. There was but only one person among them who did not indulge in such activities. He used to say, “Religion is the outcome of human weakness or the limitation of human knowledge.” He is also in prison for life. But he also never dared to deny the existence of God.

Till that time I was only a romantic revolutionary, just a follower of our leaders. Then came the time to shoulder the whole responsibility. For some time, a strong opposition put the very existence of the party into danger. Many leaders as well as many enthusiastic comrades began to uphold the party to ridicule. They jeered at us. I had an apprehension that some day I will also consider it a futile and hopeless task. It was a turning point in my revolutionary career. An incessant desire to study filled my heart. ‘Study more and more’, said I to myself so that I might be able to face the arguments of my opponents. ‘Study’ to support your point of view with convincing arguments. And I began to study in a serious manner. My previous beliefs and convictions underwent a radical change. The romance of militancy dominated our predecessors; now serious ideas ousted this way of thinking. No more mysticism! No more blind faith! Now realism was our mode of thinking. At times of terrible necessity, we can resort to extreme methods, but violence produces opposite results in mass movements. I have talked much about our methods. The most important thing was a clear conception of our ideology for which we were waging a long struggle. As there was no election activity going on, I got ample opportunity to study various ideas propounded by various writers. I studied Bakunin, the anarchist leader. I read a few books of Marx, the father of Communism. I also read Lenin and Trotsky and many other writers who successfully carried out revolutions in their countries. All of them were atheists. The ideas contained in Bakunin’s ‘God and State’ seem inconclusive, but it is an interesting book. After that I came across a book ‘Common Sense’ by Nirlamba Swami. His point of view was a sort of mystical atheism. I developed more interest in this subject. By the end of 1926, I was convinced that the belief in an Almighty, Supreme Being who created, guided and controlled the universe had no sound foundations. I began discussions on this subject with my friends. I had openly declared myself an atheist. What it meant will be discussed in the following lines.

In May 1927, I was arrested in Lahore. This arrest came as a big surprise for me. I had not the least idea that I was wanted by the police. I was passing through a garden and all of a sudden the police surrounded me. To my own surprise, I was very calm at that time. I was in full control of myself. I was taken into police custody. The next day I was taken to the Railway Police lockup where I spent a whole month. After many days’ conversation with police personnel, I guessed that they had some information about my connection with the Kakori Party. I felt they had some intelligence of my other activities in the revolutionary movement. They told me that I was in Lucknow during the Kakori Party Trial so that I might devise a scheme to rescue the culprits. They also said that after the plan had been approved, we procured some bombs and by way of test, one of those bombs was thrown into a crowd on the occasion of Dussehra in 1926. They offered to release me on condition that I gave a statement on the activities of the Revolutionary Party. In this way I would be set free and even rewarded and I would not be produced as an approver in the court. I could not help laughing at their proposals. It was all humbug. People who have ideas like ours do not throw bombs at their own innocent people. One day, Mr. Newman, the then senior Superintendent of CID, came to me. After a long talk which was full of sympathetic words, he imparted to me what he considered to be sad news, that if I did not give any statement as demanded by them, they would be forced to send me up for trial for conspiracy to wage war in connection with Kakori Case and also for brutal killings in Dussehra gathering. After that he said that he had sufficient evidence to get me convicted and hanged.

I was completely innocent, but I believed that the police had sufficient power to do it if they desired it to be so. The same day some police officers persuaded me to offer my prayers to God two times regularly. I was an atheist. I thought that I would settle it to myself whether I could brag only in days of peace and happiness that I was an atheist, or in those hard times I could be steadfast in my convictions. After a long debate with myself, I reached the conclusion that I could not even pretend to be a believer nor could I offer my prayers to God. No, I never did it. It was time of trial and I would come out of it successful. These were my thoughts. Never for a moment did I desire to save my life. So I was a true atheist then and I am an atheist now. It was not an easy task to face that ordeal. Beliefs make it easier to go through hardships, even make them pleasant. Man can find a strong support in God and an encouraging consolation in His Name. If you have no belief in Him, then there is no alternative but to depend upon yourself. It is not child’s play to stand firm on your feet amid storms and strong winds. In difficult times, vanity, if it remains, evaporates and man cannot find the courage to defy beliefs held in common esteem by the people. If he really revolts against such beliefs, we must conclude that it is not sheer vanity; he has some kind of extraordinary strength. This is exactly the situation now. First of all we all know what the judgement will be. It is to be pronounced in a week or so. I am going to sacrifice my life for a cause. What more consolation can there be! A God-believing Hindu may expect to be reborn a king; a Muslim or a Christian might dream of the luxuries he hopes to enjoy in paradise as a reward for his sufferings and sacrifices. What hope should I entertain? I know that will be the end when the rope is tightened round my neck and the rafters move from under my feet. To use more precise religious terminology, that will be the moment of utter annihilation. My soul will come to nothing. If I take the courage to take the matter in the light of ‘Reward’, I see that a short life of struggle with no such magnificent end shall itself be my ‘Reward.’ That is all. Without any selfish motive of getting any reward here or in the hereafter, quite disinterestedly have I devoted my life to the cause of freedom. I could not act otherwise. The day shall usher in a new era of liberty when a large number of men and women, taking courage from the idea of serving humanity and liberating them from sufferings and distress, decide that there is no alternative before them except devoting their lives for this cause. They will wage a war against their oppressors, tyrants or exploiters, not to become kings, or to gain any reward here or in the next birth or after death in paradise; but to cast off the yoke of slavery, to establish liberty and peace they will tread this perilous, but glorious path. Can the pride they take in their noble cause be called vanity? Who is there rash enough to call it so? To him I say either he is foolish or wicked. Leave such a fellow alone for he cannot realise the depth, the emotions, the sentiment and the noble feelings that surge in that heart. His heart is dead, a mere lump of flesh, devoid of feelings. His convictions are infirm, his emotions feeble. His selfish interests have made him incapable of seeing the truth. The epithet ‘vanity’ is always hurled at the strength we get from our convictions.

You go against popular feelings; you criticise a hero, a great man who is generally believed to be above criticism. What happens? No one will answer your arguments in a rational way; rather you will be considered vainglorious. Its reason is mental insipidity. Merciless criticism and independent thinking are the two necessary traits of revolutionary thinking. As Mahatmaji is great, he is above criticism; as he has risen above, all that he says in the field of politics, religion, ethics is right. You agree or not, it is binding upon you to take it as truth. This is not constructive thinking. We do not take a leap forward; we go many steps back.

Our forefathers evolved faith in some kind of Supreme Being, therefore, one who ventures to challenge the validity of that faith or denies the existence of God, shall be called a Kafir (infidel), or a renegade. Even if his arguments are so strong that it is impossible to refute them, if his spirit is so strong that he cannot be bowed down by the threats of misfortune that may befall him through the wrath of the Almighty, he shall be decried as vainglorious. Then why should we waste our time in such discussions? This question has come before the people for the first time, hence the necessity and usefulness of such long discussions.

As far as the first question is concerned, I think I have made it clear that I did not turn atheist because of vanity. Only my readers, not I, can decide whether my arguments carry weight. If I were a believer, I know in the present circumstances my life would have been easier; the burden lighter. My disbelief in God has turned all the circumstances too harsh and this situation can deteriorate further. Being a little mystical can give the circumstances a poetic turn. But I need no opiate to meet my end. I am a realistic man. I want to overpower this tendency in me with the help of Reason. I am not always successful in such attempts. But it is man’s duty to try and make efforts. Success depends on chance and circumstances.

Now we come to the second question: if it is not vanity, there ought to be some sound reason for rejection of age-old belief in God. Yes, I come to this question. I think that any man who has some reasoning power always tries to understand the life and people around him with the help of this faculty. Where concrete proofs are lacking, [mystical] philosophy creeps in. As I have indicated, one of my revolutionary friends used to say that “philosophy is the outcome of human weakness.” Our ancestors had the leisure to solve the mysteries of the world, its past, its present and its future, its whys and its wherefores, but having been terribly short of direct proofs, every one of them tried to solve the problem in his own way. Hence we find wide differences in the fundamentals of various religious creeds. Sometimes they take very antagonistic and conflicting forms. We find differences in Oriental and Occidental philosophies. There are differences even amongst various schools of thoughts in each hemisphere. In Asian religions, the Muslim religion is completely incompatible with the Hindu faith. In India itself, Buddhism and Jainism are sometimes quite separate from Brahmanism. Then in Brahmanism itself, we find two conflicting sects: Aarya Samaj and Snatan Dheram. Charwak is yet another independent thinker of the past ages. He challenged the Authority of God. All these faiths differ on many fundamental questions, but each of them claims to be the only true religion. This is the root of the evil. Instead of developing the ideas and experiments of ancient thinkers, thus providing ourselves with the ideological weapon for the future struggle, – lethargic, idle, fanatical as we are – we cling to orthodox religion and in this way reduce human awakening to a stagnant pool.

It is necessary for every person who stands for progress to criticise every tenet of old beliefs. Item by item he has to challenge the efficacy of old faith. He has to analyse and understand all the details. If after rigorous reasoning, one is led to believe in any theory of philosophy, his faith is appreciated. His reasoning may be mistaken and even fallacious. But there is chance that he will be corrected because Reason is the guiding principle of his life. But belief, I should say blind belief is disastrous. It deprives a man of his understanding power and makes him reactionary.

Any person who claims to be a realist has to challenge the truth of old beliefs. If faith cannot withstand the onslaught of reason, it collapses. After that his task should be to do the groundwork for new philosophy. This is the negative side. After that comes in the positive work in which some material of the olden times can be used to construct the pillars of new philosophy. As far as I am concerned, I admit that I lack sufficient study in this field. I had a great desire to study the Oriental Philosophy, but I could get ample opportunity or sufficient time to do so. But so far as I reject the old time beliefs, it is not a matter of countering belief with belief, rather I can challenge the efficacy of old beliefs with sound arguments. We believe in nature and that human progress depends on the domination of man over nature. There is no conscious power behind it. This is our philosophy.

Being atheist, I ask a few questions from theists:

1. If, as you believe there is an Almighty, Omnipresent, Omniscient God, who created the earth or universe, please let me know, first of all, as to why he created this world. This world which is full of woe and grief, and countless miseries, where not even one person lives in peace.

2. Pray, don’t say it is His law. If He is bound by any law, He is not Omnipotent. Don’t say it is His pleasure. Nero burnt one Rome. He killed a very limited number of people. He caused only a few tragedies, all for his morbid enjoyment. But what is his place in history? By what names do we remember him? All the disparaging epithets are hurled at him. Pages are blackened with invective diatribes condemning Nero: the tyrant, the heartless, the wicked.

One Genghis Khan killed a few thousand people to seek pleasure in it and we hate the very name. Now, how will you justify your all powerful, eternal Nero, who every day, every moment continues his pastime of killing people? How can you support his doings which surpass those of Genghis Khan in cruelty and in misery inflicted upon people? I ask why the Almighty created this world which is nothing but a living hell, a place of constant and bitter unrest. Why did he create man when he had the power not to do so? Have you any answer to these questions? You will say that it is to reward the sufferer and punish the evildoer in the hereafter. Well, well, how far will you justify a man who first of all inflicts injuries on your body and then applies soft and soothing ointment on them? How far the supporters and organizers of Gladiator bouts were justified in throwing men before half starved lions, later to be cared for and looked after well if they escaped this horrible death. That is why I ask: Was the creation of man intended to derive this kind of pleasure?

Open your eyes and see millions of people dying of hunger in slums and huts dirtier than the grim dungeons of prisons; just see the labourers patiently or say apathetically while the rich vampires suck their blood; bring to mind the wastage of human energy that will make a man with a little common sense shiver in horror. Just observe rich nations throwing their surplus produce into the sea instead of distributing it among the needy and deprived. There are palaces of kings built upon the foundations laid with human bones. Let them see all this and say “All is well in God’s Kingdom.” Why so? This is my question. You are silent. All right. I proceed to my next point.

You, the Hindus, would say: Whosoever undergoes sufferings in this life, must have been a sinner in his previous birth. It is tantamount to saying that those who are oppressors now were Godly people then, in their previous births. For this reason alone they hold power in their hands. Let me say it plainly that your ancestors were shrewd people. They were always in search of petty hoaxes to play upon people and snatch from them the power of Reason. Let us analyse how much this argument carries weight!

Those who are well versed in the philosophy of Jurisprudence relate three of four justifications for the punishment that is to be inflicted upon a wrong-doer. These are: revenge, reform, and deterrence. The Retribution Theory is now condemned by all the thinkers. Deterrent theory is on the anvil for its flaws. Reformative theory is now widely accepted and considered to be necessary for human progress. It aims at reforming the culprit and converting him into a peace-loving citizen. But what in essence is God’s Punishment even if it is inflicted on a person who has really done some harm? For the sake of argument we agree for a moment that a person committed some crime in his previous birth and God punished him by changing his shape into a cow, cat, tree, or any other animal. You may enumerate the number of these variations in Godly Punishment to be at least eighty-four lack. Tell me, has this tomfoolery, perpetrated in the name of punishment, any reformative effect on human man? How many of them have you met who were donkeys in their previous births for having committed any sin? Absolutely no one of this sort! The so called theory of ‘Puranas’ (transmigration) is nothing but a fairy-tale. I do not have any intention to bring this unutterable trash under discussion. Do you really know the most cursed sin in this world is to be poor? Yes, poverty is a sin; it is a punishment! Cursed be the theoretician, jurist or legislator who proposes such measures as push man into the quagmire of more heinous sins. Did it not occur to your All Knowing God or he could learn the truth only after millions had undergone untold sufferings and hardships? What, according to your theory, is the fate of a person who, by no sin of his own, has been born into a family of low caste people? He is poor so he cannot go to a school. It is his fate to be shunned and hated by those who are born into a high caste. His ignorance, his poverty, and the contempt he receives from others will harden his heart towards society. Supposing that he commits a sin, who shall bear the consequences? God, or he, or the learned people of that society? What is your view about those punishments inflicted on the people who were deliberately kept ignorant by selfish and proud Brahmans? If by chance these poor creatures heard a few words of your sacred books, Vedas, these Brahmans poured melted lead into their ears. If they committed any sin, who was to be held responsible? Who was to bear the brunt? My dear friends, these theories have been coined by the privileged classes. They try to justify the power they have usurped and the riches they have robbed with the help of such theories. Perhaps it was the writer Upton Sinclair who wrote (Bhagat Singh is referring to Sinclair’s pamphlet ‘Profits of Religion’ – MIA transcriber) somewhere “only make a man firm believer in the immortality of soul, then rob him of all that he possesses. He will willingly help you in the process.” The dirty alliance between religious preachers and possessors of power brought the boon of prisons, gallows, knouts and above all such theories for the mankind.

I ask why your Omnipotent God does not hold a man back when he is about to commit a sin or offence. It is child’s play for God. Why did He not kill war lords? Why did He not obliterate the fury of war from their minds? In this way He could have saved humanity of many a great calamity and horror. Why does He not infuse humanistic sentiments into the minds of the Britishers so that they may willingly leave India? I ask why He does not fill the hearts of all capitalist classes with altruistic humanism that prompts them to give up personal possession of the means of production and this will free the whole labouring humanity from the shackles of money. You want to argue the practicability of Socialist theory, I leave it to your Almighty God to enforce it. Common people understand the merits of Socialist theory as far as general welfare is concerned but they oppose it under the pretext that it cannot be implemented. Let the Almighty step in and arrange things in a proper way. No more logic chopping! I tell you that the British rule is not there because God willed it but for the reason that we lack the will and courage to oppose it. Not that they are keeping us under subjugation with the consent of God, but it is with the force of guns and rifles, bombs and bullets, police and militia, and above all because of our apathy that they are successfully committing the most deplorable sin, that is, the exploitation of one nation by another. Where is God? What is He doing? Is He getting a diseased pleasure out of it? A Nero! A Genghis Khan! Down with Him!

Now another piece of manufactured logic! You ask me how I will explain the origin of this world and origin of man. Charles Darwin has tried to throw some light on this subject. Study his book. Also, have a look at Sohan Swami’s “Commonsense.” You will get a satisfactory answer. This topic is concerned with Biology and Natural History. This is a phenomenon of nature. The accidental mixture of different substances in the form of Nebulae gave birth to this earth. When? Study history to know this. The same process caused the evolution of animals and in the long run that of man. Read Darwin’s ‘Origin of Species.’ All the later progress is due to man’s constant conflict with nature and his efforts to utilise nature for his own benefit. This is the briefest sketch of this phenomenon.

Your next question will be why a child is born blind or lame even if he was not a sinner in his previous birth. This problem has been explained in a satisfactory manner by biologists as a mere biological phenomenon. According to them the whole burden rests upon the shoulders of parents whose conscious or unconscious deeds caused mutilation of the child prior to his birth.

You may thrust yet another question at me, though it is merely childish. The question is: If God does not really exist, why do people come to believe in Him? Brief and concise my answer will be. As they come to believe in ghosts, and evil spirits, so they also evolve a kind of belief in God: the only difference being that God is almost a universal phenomenon and well developed theological philosophy. However, I do disagree with radical philosophy. It attributes His origin to the ingenuity of exploiters who wanted to keep the people under their subjugation by preaching the existence of a Supreme Being; thus claimed an authority and sanction from Him for their privileged position. I do not differ on the essential point that all religions, faiths, theological philosophies, and religious creeds and all other such institutions in the long run become supporters of the tyrannical and exploiting institutions, men and classes. Rebellion against any king has always been a sin in every religion.

As regard the origin of God, my thought is that man created God in his imagination when he realized his weaknesses, limitations and shortcomings. In this way he got the courage to face all the trying circumstances and to meet all dangers that might occur in his life and also to restrain his outbursts in prosperity and affluence. God, with his whimsical laws and parental generosity was painted with variegated colours of imagination. He was used as a deterrent factor when his fury and his laws were repeatedly propagated so that man might not become a danger to society. He was the cry of the distressed soul for he was believed to stand as father and mother, sister and brother, brother and friend when in time of distress a man was left alone and helpless. He was Almighty and could do anything. The idea of God is helpful to a man in distress.

Society must fight against this belief in God as it fought against idol worship and other narrow conceptions of religion. In this way man will try to stand on his feet. Being realistic, he will have to throw his faith aside and face all adversaries with courage and valour. That is exactly my state of mind. My friends, it is not my vanity; it is my mode of thinking that has made me an atheist. I don’t think that by strengthening my belief in God and by offering prayers to Him every day, (this I consider to be the most degraded act on the part of man) I can bring improvement in my situation, nor can I further deteriorate it. I have read of many atheists facing all troubles boldly, so I am trying to stand like a man with the head high and erect to the last; even on the gallows.

Let us see how steadfast I am. One of my friends asked me to pray. When informed of my atheism, he said, “When your last days come, you will begin to believe.” I said, “No, dear sir, Never shall it happen. I consider it to be an act of degradation and demoralisation. For such petty selfish motives, I shall never pray.” Reader and friends, is it vanity? If it is, I stand for it."

Friday, March 4, 2011

*March Madness of A *Desi Kind

Not all countries and people in the world are trying to overthrow oppressive regimes. Some are playing a sport called *Cricket. The 10th edition of The *World Cup of Cricket, a quadrennial event, is currently underway. Bangladesh, India and Sri Lanka are the joint hosts of this year's championship tournament. There are 14 teams participating in the tournament, and almost of them belong to the Commonwealth of Nations i.e. the countries that were British Colonies at some time or the other in the past. There are 49 games to be played over 43 days. The hoopla surrounding everything Cricket in the host nations is mind numbing. What is ironic though is that Bangladesh, Indian, Pakistan and Sri Lanka put together don't break top 50 in the list of countries by their per capita income [Ref. 1] but, the sub-continent is the biggest generator of revenue for the sport of cricket and for everyone who is associated with it (a.k.a corporate sponsors).

Anyway, let me put my cynical self aside for a moment and share my real beef with Cricket World Cups. This year's Cricket World Cup will take all of March and then some to culminate. My heart goes out to school going kids in these countries. You see, the final exams for respective classes/grades are held in the month of March in this part of the world. These kids are going to be torn between studying for their exams and watching their favorite teams and players play, and their grades are going to suffer. Yes, i am speaking from experience. Lets not get into any details alright - lets just say that i lost somewhere between seven to ten percentage points in my tenth standard due to that stupid Cricket World Cup of 1996, and India didn't even reach the final of the tournament.

BTW, do you remember that India vs. Pakistan match of 1996 World Cup where Ajay Jadeja hit Waqar Younis' yorkers to the boundary, and Prasad bowled Aamir Sohail right after he had been hit for a couple of fours. What fun. Yeah, yeah, ... there was also that embarrassing performance by India against Sri Lanka in the semifinal match at Calcutta - i remember, there is no need to rub it in.

Anyways, Go India.

[1] CIA's 'The World Factbook': https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/rankorder/2004rank.html. These guys would definitely have gotten it right since intelligence is their middle name! :-D

*Some tips to understanding the lingo used in the post:
1. March Madness: In the US it refers to a College Basketball Championship organized by NCAA (National Collegiate Athletics Association) that ends in March.
2. Desi: A word usually used by someone who belongs to a country from the Indian subcontinent to refer to someone who belongs to a country from the Indian subcontinent.
3. World Cup: An event where teams from many different nations around the world compete for the championship title.
4. Cricket: A team sport played with a flat bat and a ball with a raised seam. And yeah, in one of the formats of this sport a game can last for five days and still end up in a tie.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Revolutions and Roundabouts

If you've paid even the slightest of attentions to the news of ongoing protests in the Middle-Eastern and North-African countries, you must have heard at one time or another the newscaster saying, " ... protesters gathered on this day at so and so square ...". As i followed the TV coverage of these protests from Tunisia to Egypt to Libya and now to Bahrain even, it seems in all these countries there has been a "square" where protesters have been gathering: Liberation Square in Cairo - Egypt, Green Square in Tripoli - Libya, The Tree Square in Benghazi - Libya. I just had to find out for myself what is it about these squares really?

Well, guess what, these are not really squares. I mean at each one of these places there is actually a roundabout in the very middle. Yes, the roundabouts where a bunch of roads meet and the traffic can change directions without stopping. The traffic management system before the advent of the traffic lights - those roundabouts. Its just that the structures that surround the roundabout at each one of these locations give the place an appearance of a square.

Now that i know the real names of these "squares", a part of me wishes that during all the media coverage these places were referred to with their original Arabic names, and here is why:
1. Liberation Square, Cairo, Egypt is actually Maidan e' Tahrir. Maidan means ground/large open space and Tahrir means freedom or liberation.
2. Green Square, Tripoli, Libya is actually Maidan al Shohdaa. Shohdaa means martyr.
3. Tree Square, Benghazi, Libya is actually Maidan al Shajara. Shajara means tree. Yeah, there is a tree in the middle of the roundabout.
4. Pearl Monument, Manama, Bahrain is actually Dawar al-lu'lu'. Dawar meaning roundabout and al-lu'lu' means pearls. Yes, even the Pearl Monument is located in the middle of a roundabout.

A Roundabout - sounds like an appropriate enough metaphor for the events that are unfolding. An entire people are about to make their respective countries change direction, their fortunes change course, their futures change for the better and that too without so much as stopping for a breath. The situation might appear to be chaotic but, if the drivers are attentive they can negotiate all the traffic around the roundabout, and once the vehicle hits its road, its off to its destination. The same shall happen in these countries too - the people have chosen the path they wish to take, and now all that remains is for them to negotiate the prevailing chaos with the deftness of a driver in a busy roundabout and off they will go. Makes me wonder though - what if all these roundabouts had been replaced with traffic lights!

Viva la Revolution, Viva la Roundabouts.

Monday, February 21, 2011

30th - The Parallel of Strife

If there is one other aspect that is common to the strife that already is, or will soon be, tearing at many nations around the world, it is that almost all of them lie at/around 30°0′N - the northern 30th parallel. Lets go east from 0°0′E - Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, all of them lie on the 30th parallel.

In some countries such as Tunisia, Egypt and Libya the uprisings by the masses have been self-organizing, and in some others such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan such mass movements might be in the making due to years of deliberate (and may be uncalled for) external influences which led to years of war.

Some of the other countries that the 30th parallel passes through are Morocco, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, India, Nepal, China, and Japan. On the face of it these countries might seem peaceful, but even most of these countries are facing social unrest in their own right, albeit to a lesser (or rather, lesser known) extent. Israel, and its conflict with Arabs, can easily be thought of as central to almost any conflict in the middle-east and to any lasting solution to peace as well. Saudi Arabian regime has a track record that is none-too-dissimilar from its counterparts in the middle-east and elsewhere when it comes to violations of basic human rights and dignity. In India the separatists, mostly belonging to the tribes who have lost out on the "benefits" of liberalization and are missing out on high rate of growth, are seeking statehood so they can govern themselves and theirs better. Nepal, inspite of doing away with monarchy a few years back has still not been able to form a stable government due to its failure to appease the maoists. China it seems is already trying to suppress the news from other movements and revolutions around the world from reaching its populace.

Now going across the Pacific into the Americas - the 30th passes through Mexico as well as the US. Over last couple of years Mexico has seen (and continues to see) numerous killings due to infighting among drug cartels and their ceaseless tussle with the state. In the US the political temperatures are at an all time high - the Democrats and the Republicans have been at each others throats since President Obama assumed the office of the president, and it seems it is only going to get worse, and not in the least due to an ill-advised move of a Republican Governor to take away his state's unions' right to collectively bargain.

It seems the 30th parallel is going to be the new Doldrums, Doldrums of societal upheaval and political change that is, only a few degrees north of their geographical counterparts.

Viva la Revolution, and History and Geography.

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