February 26, 2006
The Collected Essays of A. K. Ramanujan [Vinay Dharwadker, editor] was published in 2004 as an Oxford India paperback. It was printed in Noida, Utter Pradesh, by Saurabh Printers Pvt. Ltd.
Each of the book’s 638 pages is cut from the usual high-quality Indian papyrus. Connoisseurs will recognize this stock: it’s pre-faded, pre-abused and conveniently transparent so that a person can read two pages simultaneously. Channa-wallas love its feel; they hate the paper cuts they get from glossy American magazines.
On the Oxford India website, the book is listed at Rs. 395/-. At today’s conversion rate, that works out to be about $8.90. Now, a new American paperback is usually priced at around $7.99. An Oxford India paperback is therefore quite a bit more expensive — by $0.91/Rs. 40 to be exact — than an American paperback. That’s Mystery #1.
Here’s Mystery #2. On Amazon, the price of the book magically transmogrifies into $30. That’s right. $30. When I first noticed it, it got me rather excited. Where did all that extra value come from? What’s in the book that American readers are willing to pay almost three times what Indian readers are willing to pay? I can’t make up my mind who’s conning who.
The digital economy has removed this disparity between Indian and American book markets. D.K. Agencies, an online bookstore based in India, lists the book at $40 (not including shipping)! A gain of $10!
But that’s not the mystery. The gain in value is easily explained. I’m guessing that the book is shipped from Noida, U.P. to a warehouse in Mawah, New Jersey and after its value has been magically pumped up by worshipful American readers, it’s then shipped back to India. Simple.
No, what I find mysterious is this: Why don’t the Indians send it back to Mahwah, N.J.? Rinse-repeat as the bottle says. As the book oscillates between India and the States, its value could keep rising, higher, ever higher, till it knocks Steve Wright, the Hindu God of Irony, right out of his heavenly perch.
Isaac Asimov, arguably the smartest all-rounder in the 20th century, wrote about economics:
I cannot understand it, and I cannot believe that anyone else understands it, either. People may say they understand it… but I think it is all a fake [cited in Julian Simon, The Ultimate Resource 2, pp. 610, 1996].
Asimov’s comments were made in the context of falling resource prices in a supposedly resource-starved world. Our problem is roughly the reverse; increasing prices for a book explicitly designed to be within the reach of Indian pockets.
Of course, economics probably has nothing to do with it. Economics is as unrelated to book prices as virtue is to virginity. That some books must be inaccessibly priced is, no doubt, as unavoidable as the annual disappointment of a sweaty subset of males on prom night.
February 16, 2006
George Orwell said that good prose was like a windowpane. He should know; his own windowpanes often revealed painfully clear views of the 20th century. When a writer’s work is capable of being admired by both extremes of a political spectrum, in this case Christopher Hitchins and Michael Moore, then surely it contains something essential about the human condition.
One of Orwell’s As I Please essays, written on September 8th 1944, has special bearing upon the Abu Ghraib pictures. In his essay, Orwell wrote about the humiliation of two female French collaborators:
"I have before me an exceptionally disgusting photograph, from the Star
of August 29, of two partially undressed women, with shaven heads and
with swastikas painted on their faces, being led through the streets of
Paris amid grinning onlookers. The Star — not that I am picking on the
Star, for most of the press has behaved likewise — reproduces this
photograph with seeming approval."
Brutality souvenirs are not new. In the old American south, photographs of lynchings were sold as souvenirs and keepsakes. In Nazi Germany, ordinary soldiers sent back photographs of their murdered victims. Hunters like to pose with their quarry. In many of these brutality keepsakes, perpetrators are in high spirits. The source of their humor is not clear, but perhaps it’s the relief that they are not them or it.
In his essay, Orwell suggested that people wearied by years of unending warfare against a brutal
enemy tend to become brutes. He ended with a quote from Nietzsche — always reliably gloomy — who warned against staring into
abysses and fighting dragons. It’s a plausible hypothesis.
However, like Nietzsche, Orwell’s great talent was to be usefully wrong. He was wrong about how best to make tea. He was wrong about politics. He was wrong about the degradation of the English language. He was usually wrong about the future (when he was right, as he was in Animal Farm, it was because the particular future he talked about had already happened). And I think he was wrong about what that picture said about human beings. Orwell didn’t see that his professional skill — every good writer’s skill — namely, the ability to imagine being someone else (a hunted tiger, a shamed woman, a brutalized Jew) would become widespread in the coming decades. As the blogsphere indicates, aren’t we all writers now?
Orwell accused the newspapers of his time as being indifferent, even supportive, of the abuse. Compare that with how the world reacted to the Abu Ghraib photographs. The near-universal horror indicates, I think, that most of us were able to imagine being those poor Iraqi prisoners. It’s getting tough to find lynchings and shikars and whippings and public brandings. Israel, who’s been fighting its dragon for the past 60 years, hasn’t become Nazi Germany or the Hamas. And the ones who leaked the first set of Abu Ghraib pictures to the media were ordinary American soldiers, not intrepid reporters. They survived the abyss.
February 14, 2006
In his essay, Is There An Indian Way Of Thinking, the late A. K. Ramanujan credits the linguist Frits Staal with the insight that the ancient Indians were as obsessed with linguistics as the Greeks were with geometry.
"…And grammar is the central model of thinking in many Hindu texts. As Frits Staal has said, what Euclid is to the European thought, the grammarian Panini is to the Indian. Even the Kama Sutra is literally a grammar of love — which declines and conjugates men and women as one would nouns and verbs in different genders, voices, moods and aspects."
It’s a neat idea. Neat because it explains many aspects of the Indian worldview, both ancient and modern: the context-sensitive nature of our ethics, the mania for taxonomy (for e.g., Bharata’s Natyashastra lists 108 different hand-foot sequences or karanas), the centuries long discussion on whether there were eight fundamental rasas (savors) or nine, and the use of verse for practically every endeavour (for e.g., Rama Krishna Deva’s algebra problem).
In a world where preservation of knowledge is as important as its production (if not more), memory becomes of paramount importance. But an oral tradition uses memory very differently. Memory is not just a storehouse, just as the internet is not merely an encyclopedia; in an oral tradition, memory becomes a kind of virtual person, joining conversations, correcting errors, acting as a mentor, and surviving death by constant renewal. In an oral tradition, the people fade, the memory remains.
Today it’s hard to get a sense of the kind of mnemonic feats the ancient Indians were capable of. Two examples may be cited.
In the 70s and 80s, Staal showed how the ancient Indians devised elaborate cryptographic schemes (Kramapatha) to ensure that nothing
in the main Vedas — RigVeda and SamaVeda — was lost during oral
transmission. And it wasn’t. As the British discovered to their
astonishment, different groups of Brahmins across the country were
still chanting the very same verses, almost 3500 years later.
Or consider the incredible Ashtavadhanam where 8 Sanskrit scholars — rappers really — pose memory tests and poetry composition challenges to the central Avadhani,
all the while attempting to disrupt his concentration with irregular chimes of
bells (yes, bells) and irrelevant questions from a dude who’s dedicated
his life to that singular purpose. Eminem would pee his pants.
The Greek obsession with geometry led to a world where generalization became synonymous with abstraction. The ancient Indians took a different tack, as unique as that of the Greeks. They categorized rather than generalized, and the richer the categorization, the closer they felt to understanding something. It should come as no surprise that it’s a view closer to the biologist than to the physicist.
The Koran, in a felicitous turn of phrase, refers to Christians and Hebrews as People Of The Book. Perhaps it makes sense to think
of the Indians — south asians — as "People Of
February 11, 2006
I’ve decided to take up flogging.
A flog is a blog entry that’s less than 500 words. A flog is a flash blog. The world craves to be flogged and good floggers are always in short supply.
Now, ‘flog’ does have another meaning; it’s how the British transmitted seat-of-the-pants know-how. The battle of Waterloo was supposedly won on the schooldesks at Rugby. Possibly. But I am not talking about that kind of flogging.
A flog is a brief, terse, precis of a summary. The 0.5K limit is necessary. Tolstoy’s idea of an epilogue resulted in a 28 chapter addendum to War and Peace. The arm neither aches nor does the sweat drip, but the satisfaction, I assure you, is still exquisitely pink and equally addictive.
A lot can be said in 500 words. The Gettysburg Address is under 300 words. My favorite example of a perfect tale is a mere 412 words. And obviously, my favorite language, English, was designed by floggers; the larger the concept, the smaller the tag. Consider: Life. God. Good. Evil. Die. YHWH. TAO. Yet. No. Text.
Sex. And oh yeah, Fuck.
Shakespeare — not exactly a flogger — posed one of the deepest questions ever with small words: "To Be Or Not
To Be?" John Steinbeck wrote a 350,000 word answer which boiled down to this one word: timshel. Roughly, Hebrew for: may be.
So: no more 6,000 word masterpieces on the smells listed in Kalidasa’s Kumarasambhava or the smells not listed in Jayarasi’s Tattvopaplavasimha. No more moody Borgesian reveries on the Tantric significance of the loincloth or on the origin of laughter amongst the Parsis. No more pedantic 10K expositions on the market for merkins or on equal rights for mammose
I think it was Bruce Sterling who said–
See! I would’ve finished that quote in the past. Not now. Who cares what Sterling said? A flogger
doesn’t have the luxury of considering what Sterling said or didn’t say. Floggers have to watch their keystrokes.
So here are some ground rules for a legit flog. Under 0.5K words of course. Use small words rather than big sesquipedalian ones. A picture may be worth ten thousand words Larkin,
Jill H. and Herbert A. Simon. 1987. "Why a Diagram is (Sometimes) Worth
Ten Thousand Words." Cognitive Science 11(1):65-99.† but we’ll ignore them. Words in footnotes count. Comments, however, will not be included in the flog count. Plastic cups will be provided.
Seriously, who has the time to read the 365 chapters of War And Peace? The Bible and the Vedas haven’t been read for centuries; had readers been flogged, who knows? The future belongs to floggers.
Flog it, I say.
February 3, 2006
She rocks, this woman in the stone. It is difficult to believe that she is about a thousand years old. We don’t know much about her. She may represent a dancer, devadasi, apsara, maid or courtesan. She adorns the Adinatha temple in the eastern group of temples in Khajuraho, Madhya Pradesh. During the tenth and eleventh centuries, when Europe was a God-haunted place turned by the bubonic plague into a vast graveyard, the Chandela Rajputs embarked on a joyous architectural project of unequalled moral courage and aesthetic ambition. The woman in the stone was one of their minor discoveries.
Unlike the other adornments in the temples, she is turned away from the viewer’s eye; the characteristic "glancing away" look used in Indian art (and by teenagers) to signal a pretended unawareness has been turned into an actual unawareness; the viewer becomes a voyeur, if only for that moment of turning away. The centuries are now like a lens through which we happen to see a very beautiful woman caught turning in mid-dance. Dancing is what she must be doing, for it is too stylized to be anything else.
The pose in which her sculptor — some unknown genius — found her is called the tribhanga, which means, roughly, "equipoised stance bent in three places." In the western aesthetic tradition, the tribhanga is known as the "contrapposto." The tribhanga is one of the five bhangas (equipoised stances) in traditional IndianIt’s much more accurate to say "South-Asia" and "South-asian" rather than "India" and "Indian"; it’s more accurate, but also more clumsy. So I’ll stick with the less accurate tag.†. dance: the others are shown in the figure on the right. The abhanga and tribhanga poses were both very popular in ancient and medieval Indian art.
The woman in the stone is a lovely representation of an aesthetic ideal. There’re some interesting aspects to both the pose as well the ideal. It touches upon the Doryphoros of Polykleitos, the Golden ratio and the sutras of Acharya Hemachandra. Anna Nicole Smith makes an appearance, as she must, in any discussion of aesthetics. Did I mention Kalidasa’s thoughts on Parvati’s thighs? No? Well, let’s get on with it then.