Monday, January 30, 2006

What Was That Again?

This morning when I entered the library at my college to return a book (on Goa of all things!), I was confronted with a hand-written notice that said -

“Issue-return is closed due to sever[sic] problem with the computer.”

“Don’t you guys use cutting edge technology?”, I asked the librarian at the desk, with as straight a face as I could muster.

She didn’t get the joke. But then again, I figure anyone who can’t spell ‘severe’ or ‘server’ or whatever they were trying to spell there probably isn’t going to be all that quick on the uptake anyway!

The ‘Miracle’ Stones?

Last week, I visited the Qamar Ali Darvesh shrine at Shivpuri, just off the Bombay-Bangalore Highway. The shrine houses the grave of a Moslem saint, Mr. Qamar Ali, I presume. However, its actual claim to fame has a distinctly petrous nature - a levitating stone!

In the courtyard in front of the shrine lies a rather innocuous looking spherical rock, about a foot in diameter - a little larger than a soccer ball. I would estimate its weight to be about 100-120 pounds. According to the script, the stone can be raised by nine or eleven people, using only one index finger each. The lifters are supposed to yell out “Qamar Ali Darvesh!” as they are lifting the stone.

In classical Islamic fashion, women are barred from performing the levitation. Since the group I had gone with had only one other individual exhibiting an XY sex chromosome (my Mom’s brother), it was obvious that we were going to have to enlist a few more willing hands. There were a decent number of tourists around, all Moslem-looking and seeming like they had come more to pray than for the ‘touristy’ part. I went around asking them, but none of them evinced even a modicum of interest in the task at hand.

There was also, a herd of mendicants sitting under a banyan tree outside the shrine’s precincts; and I approached them next. They seemed even more loth than the people I had asked before that, with some of them bordering on what could be termed as churlish. The reason was soon obvious - labor in this country rarely comes for free, and raising a stone (even a supposedly magic one) is, after all, labor!

After promising them some rupees, their reluctance slowly started to melt, and soon we had ourselves a group of almost-merry men around the stone. My uncle and I were given quick instructions on how to place our fingers under the stone. We were also told to shout out the phrase - “Qamar Ali Darvesh” - while lifting the stone.

As we all bent down to insert our fingers under the stone, my nostrils were buffeted by a particularly unsavory stench emanating from the guys around me! Taking a shower obviously doesn’t rank very high on a mendicant’s daily or even weekly list of activities!

“One, two, three!”, one of the men counted down in Hindi. We all lifted - and I didn’t say the words. I had excepted the stone to be raised slowly, with only one finger of each person in contact with it. Surely, that would be a miracle worth witnessing! However, what the men did was hurl it upward in a quick continuous motion. Since I was much slower than the rest, the stone fell toward my side and almost crushed my feet! The fact that I hadn’t said the phrase loudly enough and that the stone fell toward me meant that I was immediately subjected to a severe lambasting from one of the mendicants in Urdu and expelled from the second attempt!

This time I chose to man the video camera instead. Once again they all placed their fingers under the stone and hurled it upward! And once again it almost fell on one of the guys heads! We paid the mendicants and after shooting some more footage of the place, we left.

So what exactly had we witnessed? Was it some sort of miracle? Of course not! It was a huge fraud. I was certain the mendicants weren’t using only one finger! Once their hands are under the stone, it’s impossible to see just how much contact they have with the stone - they could use their entire palms for all the difference it would make to a viewer! When I looked at the video footage yesterday, it just confirmed what I had always believed. Most of the guys were using more than just a single finger. We were about 10 men, each therefore only having to lift about 12-15 pounds. Certainly no big deal, if you’re using more than a finger. Besides, contrary to what I thought, the stone wasn’t raised slowly. It was just hurled upward!

The reason for the entire fraud? Like most other things in life, the incentives are monetary. The entire area around the shrine is filled with small stores selling all sorts of religious knickknacks. The stones make the shrine famous and bring these people more customers. Even the shrine itself is undoubtedly funded by donations from people who visit the place because of the stones.

It’s surprising though, just how many people will actually fall for it! Just come up with a story that sounds interesting and add a dash of religious flavor to it, and you’ll get takers fer sure!

Sunday, January 15, 2006

I’m Back!

I’m back from a 4-day sojourn to that Indian paradise, which goes by the short-and-sweet name of Goa. I would have liked to have posted day-to-day, chronological details of the trip, but didn’t find the time, or more importantly the inclination, to make any notes while I was there. So instead, I shall post about incidents and thoughts as they come back to me, though not necessarily in the order in which they occurred.

I’d also like to say thanks to the Patenaudes for the wonderful holiday, and the excellent time I had with them.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Sunny Beaches Ahead!

I'm heading off to Goa this evening, so there probably shan’t be any updates for the next 4 days or thereabout. Hope to make amends for that with plenty of interesting stories when I return.

Till then, Cheers!

Sunday, January 08, 2006

On Why the Best Ones are Always Taken

The handful of girls I have liked over the past few years all share one common characteristic - they were all in relationships at the time. Not one single one of them was single.

Being attracted to people who are already in a relationship with someone else is quite common indeed. We’ve all been there, done that. There is an obvious correlation between being in a relationship, and someone else being attracted to you. But the question is - which way does that correlation run? Does being in a relationship cause more people to be attracted to you? Or is it the opposite?

There are two main reasons for the correlation, one each in both directions.

Firstly, the very fact that someone appears attractive to you, implies that that person probably appears attractive to a fair number of other people too. Hence, it is quite likely that someone else has got to the target before you. By the same reasoning, someone you find less appealing, is just as likely to be single. Not too many other people want to be in a relationship with that person either.

Imagine a large pile of apples from which a group of people each pick up one apple for themselves. If you examine the pile at any point during the selection process, it is likely that you will find the apples that have currently been chosen to be superior to the ones still lying in the pile. The dating scene is similar. However, a person’s criteria for selecting a good partner is much less uniform than that for selecting good apples, and so you could expect to have a little more luck finding the perfect partner than grabbing the best apple.

Thus, in the first direction of the correlation, the fact that they are the best implies that they are taken.

There is, also, a second direction to the correlation. People, and women in particular, are more attracted to members of the opposite sex who are more in demand. Thus, a guy who already has a few girls in pursuit of him, is more likely to attract the attention of even more girls. Maybe it’s the challenge that appeals to us, or maybe the thought of competing for a more sought after prize. And if we are attracted to someone with a plethora of pursuers, you can imagine how much more we would be attracted to someone who’s already been bagged!

Seems unlikely? In retrospect, I believe there may be more to this theory than one might initially think. Looking back at the girls I’ve liked, I can now see that the fact that they were already in relationships did play a not-so-insignificant role in causing me to like them in the first place.

Thus, when viewed from this angle, the fact that they are already taken that implies that they are the best.

Which of these two contrasting correlations is true?

It’s the classic “chicken-and-egg” scenario, but I believe the answer is both. Both in their own ways combine to form a vicious cycle of “attraction implying unavailability” and “unavailability implying attraction”!

A Little Pun

Yesterday, I was walking with Kunal Sawardekar toward the parking lot at COEP, when I say, “Oww, my ass sure hurts!”

He looks at me and replies, “That’s why I’m thankful I’m straight.”

(In case you're wondering, the hurting was due to the hard stone steps we were sitting on earlier. Have a nice day!)

Friday, January 06, 2006

Yours or Mine?

You know what I’ve always wondered - “Who pays for a gay date?”

Ever since man began dating, it’s been standard practice for the guy to pick up the check on a date. A Stone Age man taking a Stone Age woman out for a romantic campfire-lit dinner would, invariably, raise his club in the air after a scrumptious meal of burnt saber-toothed tiger ribs, and signal for the check. He’d then offer the rather hairy waiter his Mastodon Card (because back in those days, there were some things money couldn’t buy, but for everything else there was Mastodon!). Or if he wasn’t quite so well-off, he’d pay using seashells. But the bottom line is, it would always be the guy doing the paying.

This ancient practice carried on through the ages, and still exists today. And it works great. It ensures the absence of any post-meal, check-grabbing awkwardness, that is often the scourge of most restaurant dinners. And it does so by ensuring a simple, effective protocol for everyone to follow - the guy pays!

All this works perfectly so long as there’s only one man on the date. But what happens when you remove the woman, and throw in another guy? Who signals for the check now? Who picks it up when it arrives? John or Joe?

Both will probably reach for it, grab it at the same time and confusion will reign for a few seconds before they decide that it’s in everyone’s better interest for them to go Dutch. (I wonder who pays for dates in Holland?)

At least in the case of two men, they are faced with the problem of plenty; things get even more interesting when you consider a lesbian date! Whatever are they going to do now? Both women are filled with millennia of “woman”-ness in them, urging them to resist picking up the check. How the check even got there in the first place is a matter worth considering, for I am yet to meet a woman capable of performing that funny little wiggle in the air, that serves as the universal signal for “Get me the check, please.” Perhaps, the waiter having had enough of watching them touch up their makeup, decided to hand them the check and get it over with.

But the puzzling question that I posed at the top of this post still remains. Anyone who wishes to hazard a guess (or speak from experience, maybe) is welcome to leave their say in the comments!

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Ever Wonder Why a Whore makes More?

I’m currently reading Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner.

In it, the authors claim that there are four meaningful factors that determine the wage of a particular job - the number of people who are willing and able to do the job, the specialized skills required by the job, the unpleasantness of the job, and the demand for services that the job fulfills.

“The delicate balance between these factors helps explain why, for instance, the typical prostitute earns more than the typical architect. It may not seem as though she should. The architect would appear to be more skilled (as the word is usually defined) and better educated (again, as usually defined). But little girls don’t grow up dreaming of becoming prostitutes, so the supply of potential prostitutes is relatively small. Their skills, while not necessarily “specialized”, are practiced in a very specialized context. Their job is unpleasant and forbidding in at least two significant ways: the likelihood of violence and the lost opportunity of having a stable family life. As for demand? Let’s just say that an architect is more likely to hire a prostitute than vice versa.”

Hmmm... Interesting, is it not?

Love, Shmove and all that Jazz!

All male beings hate relationships. They love the sex; but they hate the relationship. That's because they hate commitment. Actually ‘fear’ would be a better word. All men fear commitment. Can't stand it at all. Frightens the living daylights out of them.

The way I see it, ‘relationships’ are just the price that men pay in order to get regular free sex (‘free’ if you don’t count the relationship). Contrast that with women, who often view regular sex as the price that must be shelled out in order to have a steady relationship. In the end though, the women get the relationship, the men the sex, and everyone’s happy.

Why do guys hate commitment?

Because it has too many strings attached to it. Too many unwritten laws and regulations that must be followed. Too many responsibilities. In short, it means your life as you knew it before you got into the relationship is over! It means no late nights with the guys and coming home drunk at 2.00 am. It means having to rack your brain for that perfect gift to give her for her birthday. It means no flirting with the cute salesgirl behind the counter at the mall.

I think the last point is the most poignant. Commitment can also be spelled another way - “M-o-n-o-g-a-m-y”! And that’s something that no man was ever built to deal with. It’s like going fishing, but only being allowed to catch one fish! Or like sending a woman into a cosmetic store and only letting her buy one perfume! Makes no sense, does it? (Try actually picturing the shopping store example, ladies!)

Two things that men cannot understand are women’s fascination with flowers and with cards! A man’s brain is completely practical - if he can’t put something to use, he doesn’t want it! For a man, the verb ‘use’ has three meanings - ‘eat’, ‘play with’ or ‘sleep with’! Thus, pepperoni pizza, a Sony PlayStation and Paris Hilton would all make for excellent gifts. But not flowers.

Why would a woman ever like to receive flowers? What is she going to do with them? How does she plan to use them? The same goes argument holds for cards. You say you can look at the card sometime in the future and cherish the memory? Well, a set of golf clubs last at least as long, so I’d just as soon be cherishing memories using those instead. At least this way, my cherishing is being done on the pleasurable confines of the golf course.

So once again, it’s simple game theory. He knows she likes flowers, but he doesn’t know why. But why should he care? He gives her the flowers and hopes that it leads to her bed - simple as that! That’s all it takes - a little common sense, a bouquet of flowers and a sweetly worded card! Except you’ve then got to be willing to pay the heavier price - the relationship!

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

What’s in a Name?

Everything, if you ask an Indian, according to this.

Indians strictly refrain from naming their children after members of their family, a custom often followed in the West. It is unheard of for an Indian son to have the same name as his father, and naming children after grandparents, great-aunts or great-uncles, or other such relatives is almost equally rare.

Vikrum writes,

“Names are not only sacred and inviolable but they are also supposed to confer uniqueness on the name holder. Because names are supposed to be unique and descriptive of the name holder, Hindu parents sometimes wait for years before naming their child.”

He further goes on to state,

“In traditional Hindu culture, names are chosen days, weeks, months, or sometimes years after the child’s birth. The rationale is that the parents and others have to see the child, see how he behaves, and gauge his personality before conferring a name upon him.”

And concludes,

“All of this is ironic because the United States is considered an individualistic country, in which the individual is supposed to individually forge his identity. India, in juxtaposition, is considered a family-dominant society in which the family forms a great part of one's identity. It is ironic because the individualistic society (America) has a trend of recycling names in tribute while the family-dominated society (India) stresses individuality in naming.”

An interesting concept, that I have spoken about before , is the Indian convention of using one’s father’s name as a second name of sorts, quite like one would normally use a middle name. Thus, my middle name, Christopher, is often mistakenly assumed to be my Dad’s name, which as you can imagine leads to confusion. Girls too, take on their father’s name (and not their mother’s) as a middle name. In the South though, I am told, both boys and girls use their mother’s name in the middle.

Indian names and surnames are strictly distinguished from each other. Thus, no name is also a surname or vice versa. This is in stark contrast to Moslem cultures where it is quite common for the same name to be used as both a name as well as a surname for different people. A cursory glance through the Pakistani cricket team would clarify my point.

Indians are also careful to distinguish between male and female names. The only prominent exception to this are the Sikhs, who often use the same name for both boys and girls. This, of course, leads to situations like the case of the former Indian cricketer Navjot Singh Sidhu, whose wife is also named Navjot. In the West too, a few names like Alex and Ashley are now unisex.

Personally, I have always been against the idea of one not getting to choose one’s own name. The one thing in this world that is mine, and I don’t even get to select it. I know of at least a few people who, displeased at the names their parents conferred upon them, actually decided to change their names. What’s funnier is that some of them actually switched to names that were even worse than the originals! To me, that’s the equivalent of a woman going to a cosmetic surgeon and saying, “Can you please make my breasts smaller!”

I think I’ll just leave my kids to name themselves, and refer to them as numbers until they’re old enough to do so!

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Kids, Do Not Try This at Home...

If I die tomorrow, I can safely say I've done it all. I've traveled in the 'Unreserved' cabin of an Indian train.

The Indian railway system is, in a manner that is not dissimilar to Indian society, fraught with various classes. And the lowest rung in that ladder belongs to the 'Unreserved' or 'Third' class. And that is exactly where Salil and I found ourselves late in the night of December 26th.

We were traveling to Bombay. 'Why' isn't really important right now (for those of you who frolic in insignificant details, we were going for Mood Indigo), but all that matters is that we had to get there pronto. Our safest bet, and first plan of action, was to take a bus. However, when we reached the bus station at about 12.30 am, we found a long line of people standing in front of the ticket counter, but the person manning the counter was nowhere to be seen. We gathered, from the whispers and mumbles that we heard around us, that there weren't going to be any more buses for the night. We were in for a long wait.

Patience has never featured among my strongest virtues, and I suggested that we hop over to the neighboring train station and try our luck there. "Surely," said I, "There must be some train passing through at this unearthly hour, that we can hop onto."

And sure enough, we found out that there was a train coming from Hyderabad and going to Bombay, that would arrive at 1.05 am. The only problem was that it would be impossible to get tickets for any class other than the dreaded 'Unreserved'. We rushed to the ticket counter to purchase the necessary fare, only to be met with a rather churlish individual who certainly didn't enjoy working the night-shift. Ten minutes later, tickets in hand (or in waist-pouch, to be precise) we climbed the overhead bridge and ran to the platform at which our train was standing.

An 'Unreserved' ticket gives you the right to be on the train in any one of the general carriages. Nothing more, nothing less. Sorry, make that nothing more, a lot less! And we found that out the hard way.

As we walked down the length of the platform, searching for our 'general' cabins, we harbored thoughts of slipping into one of the higher class cars. But the legion of railway officials prowling around, ensured that those thoughts evanesced rapidly into the cold, nighttime air. We finally reached the general section.

The stories I had heard in the past about such Unreserved cabins had done plenty to scare me, but they had hardly prepared me for the abomination that greeted me when I entered. The general cabin is composed of several smaller cubicles, each with four rows of wooden slats, two for people to sit on, and the other two, at about shoulder height, for people to sleep on at night. The was another row of slats that ran along the wall and served as a luggage rack.

But the unfurnished environ didn't trouble me too much. It was easy to see that with the crowd that was already present in the cabin, there would be scant little room for either Salil or me on any of the seats. All the seats were occupied, mostly with sleeping travelers. All the sleeping berths were occupied with sleeping people. All the luggage racks were occupied with sleeping people. All the space in between rows of seats was occupied with sleeping people. Don't ask me where these travelers stored their luggage, I don't know. I am inclined to believe they may not even have had any. Their footwear was placed on top of the fans!

These people were from the lower strata of society, comprising mainly of poor village folk and the like. There were families and farmers, grandparents and grandchildren, and I even spied a couple of sadhus (ascetic monks).

Salil and I resigned ourselves to a few hours in the passageway near the door. This space was crowded too, but at least it offered us enough space to place our backpacks on the floor and stand beside them. The milieu wasn't the most pleasant I've ever been in. The wash-basin in front of me was clogged with trash of all sorts - fruit peels, plastic, paper, saliva and of course paan (a reddish tobacco concoction of sorts). There was a mashed up banana lying in the corner. The washrooms were about five feet away. (For a while I thought that perhaps the washrooms might be cleaner and I should stay there for a while, but those hopes were rudely dashed when someone opened the door to reveal an evil-looking, brown mass slathered all over the floor.

I decided the wisest thing for me to do would be to keep the door open and stand there facing outside. This would provide me with a bit of fresh (albeit frighteningly cold) air, and also relieve me of the stench emanating from inside the car. There was another guy standing beside the door, obviously with similar intentions in his mind. As the train started to slowly move out of the station, we reached a tacit agreement whereby, we would both share the door as best as we could.

I have in the past spoken about the pleasures of traveling at the door of an Indian train. The circumstances on this occasion were quite different though - my doorway companion not quite as charming or loquacious as the American lasses, the nighttime scenery outside wasn't much to speak about and the smell certainly much less fragrant. It's safe to say that I didn't enjoy it as much.

About half an hour into the journey, the man, whose name I gathered was Laxman, left me, and went to stand in front of Salil. I enjoyed the peace and space that that afforded. However, after a little while I realized that Laxman and the other people standing in the passageway were shivering with cold due to my open door. I, for that matter, was already as cold as a Popsicle, by virtue of standing right at the door, half outside. So I closed the door, and sat myself on my backpack, next to Salil who was sitting on his. Laxman, promptly came and sat himself in between me and the now closed door.

For a while, Salil and I read Freakonomics, the book he was carrying with him. Soon, he was too sleepy to continue, so I read on alone while he nodded off. Laxman was by now fast asleep, and had apparently decided the side of my arm made for an excellent pillow. Repeated attempts at pushing him away were futile, and so I threw in the towel and turned my nose away.

At about 4 am, the train halted at Kalyan, the only stop before ours. We knew that quite a few people would alight here, and that we might perhaps find ourselves some seats. As the train drew to a stop, people started pouring out of the car - at least 40 of them from our door itself. Salil and I grinned at each other. Finally, a proper place to sit! But we were in for a surprise. For when we peered into the cabin, there was still no vacant seat! It was like the magic jar of oil that refused to empty - you could take out as much as you wanted, but it would still be full! We returned to our original places. At least the passageway was now empty!

In about another hour, we reached Dadar, the place we were scheduled to alight. Salil had a desperate urge to go to the washroom, but couldn't muster up the courage after what we had seen inside. I told him that perhaps the other washroom might be better, and so he went to look. As it turned out, it was indeed much cleaner.

Our adventure didn't end even after we alighted the train. We were rudely questioned on the platform by an inebriated policeman, my shaggy look obviously not helping things much.

I am certain that all Unreserved compartments aren't as bad as the one we traveled in. The train had come from Hyderabad and was at the end of a long journey. Perhaps, the shorter distance trains (say Poona-Bombay) have better Unreserved cars. I can stand crowds. I don't like them, but I can stand them. But it was the sheer filth that lay all around that made it unbearable. And to think that the car next to ours was an air-conditioned First-class cabin! We were 10 feet away from luxury!

I've mostly followed a "try-everything-at-least-once" mantra in life, so I didn't mind it so much. But I think I can confidently say that in this case, it's not "at least once" but "only once"!

In case you want to read another account of the same (though I don't know why that may be), here's the rather tardigrade Salil.