The Bangalore Advantage

Last night, Pinky and I had this long conversation discussing aunts and uncles and why certain aunts and uncles were “cooler” or “more modern” compared to other aunts or uncles. I put forward my theory that in every family there is one particular generation with a large generation gap, and while in families like mine or Pinky’s this large gap occurred at our generation, these “cooler” aunts’ and uncles’ families had the large gap one generation earlier. Of course, this didn’t go far in explaining why the gap was so large in that generation in the first place.

Then Pinky came up with this hypothesis backed by data that was hard to refute, and the rest of the conversation simply went in both of us trying to confirm the hypotheses. Most of these “cool” aunts and uncles, Pinky pointed out, had spent most of their growing up years in Bangalore, and this set them apart from the more traditional relatives, who spent at least a part of their teens outside the city. The correlation was impeccable, and in an effort to avoid the oldest mistake in statistics, we sought to identify reasons that might explain this difference.

While some of the more “traditional” relatives had grown up in villages, we discovered that a large number of them had actually gone to high school/college in rather large but second-tier towns of Karnataka (this includes Mysore). So the rural-urban angle was out. Of course Bangalore was so much larger than these other towns so size alone might have been enough to account for the difference, but the rather large gap in worldviews between those that grew up in Bangalore, and those that grew up in Mysore (which, then, wasn’t so much smaller), and the rather small gap between the Mysoreans and those that grew up in small towns (like Shimoga or Bhadravati) meant that this big-city hypothesis was unfounded.

We then started talking about the kind of advantages that Bangalore (specifically) offered over other towns of Karnataka, and the real reason was soon staring us in the face. Compared to any other town in Karnataka (then, and now), Bangalore was significantly more cosmopolitan. I’ve spoken on this blog before about Bangalore having been two cities (I’ve put the LJ link rather than the NED link so that you can enjoy the comments) but the important thing was that after independence and the Britishers’ flight, the two cities got combined into one big heterogeneous city.

Relatives growing up in Mysore or Shimoga typically went to college with people from large similar backgrounds. Everyone there spoke Kannada, and the dominance of Brahmins in those towns was so overwhelming that these relatives could get through their college lives hanging out solely with other people from largely similar family backgrounds. This meant there was no new “cultural education” that college offered, and the same world views that had been prevalent in these peoples’ homes while they were growing up persisted.

It was rather different for people who grew up in Bangalore. Firstly, people from East Bangalore didn’t speak Kannada (at least, not particularly fluently), which meant English was the lingua franca. More importantly, there was greater religious, casteist and cultural diversity in the classroom, which made it so much more likely for people to interact and make friends with classmates from backgrounds rather different from one’s own. Back in those days of extreme cultural conservatism, this simple exposure to other cultures was invaluable in changing one’s world view and making one more liberal.

It is in the teens that one’s cultural norms are shaped, and exposure to different cultures at that age is critical to formation of one’s world-view. In our generation, this difference has probably played out in the kind of schools one goes to. However, the distinction in conservatism (based on school/college/ area) isn’t so stark as to come up with a unified theory like the one we’ve come up here. Sticking on to the previous generation, what other reasons can you think of that makes certain aunts and uncles “cooler” than others?

The Personality Cult

So all business newspapers report that LK Advani had issued a “warning” to Yeddyurappa a while back that he was getting too corrupt. Nevertheless, several BJP “party workers” in Karnataka have been coming out in defence of Yeddy, saying he’s innocent and that he’s still their leader. Some of them have refused to accept the leadership of DV Sadananda Gowda. And some of the leaders themselves are quite silent on the issue, preferring to say that the “law will take its own course”.

This points to a larger problem that is afflicting Indian politics nowadays which is the “personality cult”. First of all, we have several parties (too many to name here) where the only ideology is “absolute loyalty to a certain party leader”. Even in parties that don’t fall under this definition (the BJP for instance), we seem to have several “local leaders” who carry significant weight, and local units of parties that are more loyal to their leaders than to the parties. In fact, if you were to objectively look at it, as a voter there seems to be no escape at all from this cult.

This has several disturbing consequences. One stems from the belief that “loyalty should be rewarded”. Given the loyalty that so many of our “leaders” get from “party workers” it is not surprising that the “leaders”, upon assuming power, accord to these workers plum rent-seeking posts, which will keep them happy. This can result in positive feedback – once a leader has shown that he  will “reward” loyalists, more people clamour to get close to him, and they too must get rewarded. And so it goes.

Another fallout of this personality cult is a dramatic increase in security, with not inconsiderable cost to the public. Given t he power that some of our “leaders” wield, the payoffs of bumping off an opposing leader are quite strong, both in terms of electoral politics and otherwise. Parties which have been built on “personal loyalty” as an “ideology”, upon losing their leaders, will suddenly have no “natural centre” and will tend to fragment. Hence, it is in the interest of all politicians to provide themselves “security”, which comes at the cost of the general public (cue traffic jams whenever there is “VIP movement” in some city, or the fact that our generally under-staffed police force has to spend so much of its effort in “VIP security” rather than other more important policing duties).

Then, we seem to be moving to a situation where parties are bereft of ideologies, and are simply collections of random leaders (who have lots of “followers”) thrown together. I’ll probably address this in detail in another post, but if you come to think of it there is very little to choose between different political parties now in terms of ideology. Yes, the BJP might have the nominal ideology of building a Ram Temple, but take that out and there is little to separate it from the Congress. The regional parties are even worse. The only difference you could probably see there is in terms of the dominant caste or lobby backing each party.

Again, it needs to be pointed out that multipolar politics in India is very young – it’s existed for little more than twenty years. Still, the future of Indian politics is worrisome, and I don’t know how we’ll get out of the rut we’re in.

The Bharadwajs

I’m married to a Bharadwaj. To put it another way, I’ve “bailed out” a Bharadwaj. Let me explain.

There is a concept of “gotras” among “Caste Hindus”. Each person is supposed to have a paternal ancestral line to a rishi, and that rishi’s name is your gotra. For example, I’m supposed to be a descendant of the sage Haritsa (such an obscure rishi he doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page). And so my gotra is “haritsa”. Knowledge of your own gotra is important when you go to a temple to get “archane” (where you pay 10 rupees, give some vital stats and get sugar candy in return) done. It is also important when you are going to get married.

So Hindus have a weird way of defining cousins, especially for the purpose of marriage. Only male ancestry matters, and male brotherhood also. If you examine this further, everyone who has the same gotra as you (and hence are related to you by a paternal line) are your cousins. Sisters and mothers don’t particularly matter in this definition of cousins, hence the widespread incest, especially in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. There is one important exception of course – your mother’s sister’s siblings are also your cousins, though no one bothers keeping track of such relationships over more than a generation.

Like in any other good religion, Hinduism doesn’t allow you to marry your cousins. And due to the weird definition of cousin, you effectively can’t marry someone from your gotra. That is supposed to be incestuous. If you have any doubts about this, please travel to Haryana and ask any of the khap panchayats there.

So among Brahmins (due to lack of sufficient data points, I’ll restrict my discourse to Brahmins), the most “popular” gotra is Bharadwaja. It is either the Rishi Bharadwaja himself, or some of his descendants, or all of them collectively, who did a “Genghiz Khan”. Rather, one should say that Genghiz Khan did a Rishi Bharadwaja. Because of this, Bharadwajas constitute a really large proportion of Brahmins. I’m not sure of exact statistics here, but they are easily the largest Brahmin Gotra.

So now, “rules” dictate that you should marry within your caste, but outside of your gotra. And this puts the Bharadwajas at a great disadvantage, for so many other Brahmins are Bharadwajas, that the sample space from which to look for a spouse is severely restricted indeed. I know of a cousin (mother’s father’s sister’s son’s daughter) who is a Bharadwaja, and who spent a really long time in the arranged marriage market. As I told you, restricted sample space. That way, people like me who belong to obscure gotras should consider ourselves lucky, I guess.

So if you are a Brahmin, and not a Bharadwaja, please help out a needy fellow-Brahmin, who may otherwise have to spend a really long time in the marriage market (arranged or otherwise) only because one of their ancestors happened to be particularly prolific. And this is one thing in which I can proudly claim to lead by example.

PS: The proportion of Bharadwajs among Brahmins might be overstated due to the sheer number of them who put the name of their Gotra as their surname. I don’t think putting gotra as surname is common among any other Brahmin gotra.

Going Global

Ok the second word in the title doesn’t refer to B-school slang. It means “global” in the true sense of the word, and has nothing to do with what my father used to call as “bulldology” (derived from the kannada word “bullDe” which essentially means “globe” (in the B-school sense) )

Ok so the story goes back to 2003, when I headed my way north all the way to Delhi, to intern at IBM Research. I would be staying at the IIT Delhi hostels during the course of my visit. I traveled by Rajdhani express, and had rotis and dal makhni through the journey. And in the mornings I’d get a flask of hot water along with “chai saamagri” (tea bag, sugar, milk powder, etc.)

That was when it hit me that for the next two months I’d be in chOmland, devoid of access to South Indian food, and good filter coffee. I remember getting paneer-fatigue within two weeks of my stay in Delhi. I would salivate at the very thought of going to the nearby “hotel Karnataka” and eating “meals” for a then princely sum of Rupees Fifty. The primary reason I got bugged with my internship was that I wasn’t getting my kind of food, and coffee.

Two years later, I would travel to London, for yet another internship, this time at an investment bank. The day I landed in London, I headed out for lunch with a few friends. Picked up a sandwich, and then it hit me how far away from home I’d come. Sandwich, for lunch! And I was the types who used to say stuff like “bread is for dogs”.

I remember going to this Sri Lankan store in Eastham every two weeks, carrying back “pirated” (smuggled, actually) packets of MTR Ready to Eat food, and frozen chapatis. And every evening I would microwave chapatis and some chOm dal or sabzis. The same chom food that I had so despised two years earlier was “home food” now. Of course every time I went to Eastham I’d also go to this “Madras Restaurant” and thulp madrasi masala dosa.

I don’t know where the knee-bend/point of inflexion happened but on my recent trip to New York, I didn’t have Indian food at all. The rationale being that there are certain kinds of food available in New York that are not easily available in India, so I shouldn’t miss the opportunity of eating them.

So I ate at Turkish, Greek, Ethiopian, Italian, Thai, Israeli, Korean restaurants, quite enjoyed the food, never asked a waiter “does this dish contain meat” (the reason for my vegetarianism is more because I get grossed out by meat, rather than any religious or cultural reason) (and I didn’t feel much when I set aside what looked like an octopus from my salad and continued eating the rest of the salad), never craved sambar, and generally had a good time.

My wife may not be the happiest when she reads this but frankly when I returned I didn’t exactly crave home-cooked Indian food. Of course the Rasam last night was wonderful, but it was now for me just yet another culinary item, just like coconut milk curry, or hummus or the ethiopian dals or pizza.

I seem to have truly gone global (again no pun intended)

Ranji nostalgia

It was the winter of 1991-92. I had just got introduced to this wonderful game called cricket, and about a month earlier had seen my first ever full one day international (on TV, of course). India had thrashed Australia at Perth. Ravi Shastri had taken 5-15 but still the man of the match award went to Srikkanth who made 60. This was two days after I had turned nine.

India was touring Australia and cricket craze hit me. It hit me so bad I couldn’t have enough of cricket. In a few days’ time I’d pulled out all the newspapers in my house and rummaged through them for cricket scorecards and stories. I remember getting fascinated reading about the England-West Indies series of 1991. And while going through the newspapers I saw that there was a Ranji trophy match on, and it was being broadcast live on radio. Out came my grandfather’s ancient pocket transistor.

The game was being played at Kolar Gold Fields (an ironic choice considering the Cauvery riots were on – the reason I had holidays from school and could indulge in luxuries like listening to Ranji commentary). On the first day, Karnataka had bowled Goa out cheaply, with Anil Kumble (i think) doing most damage. Goa had this left arm spinner in their line-up called Arun Shetty, and on the second day, he was spinning webs around the Karnataka batsmen. He took a 5-for that day, most of them bowled. Only one man was able to resist him. That also happened to be the day Rahul Dravid made his first first-class century.

Karnataka duly won the game by 10 wickets, with Dravid’s 100 being the difference between the teams in the first innings. Karnataka would go on to massacre Kerala and Andhra, while they drew Hyderabad after conceding a large first innings lead. Tamil Nadu were beaten by one wicket, but some silly points system in the Ranji meant that Karnataka, with four wins and a draw didn’t go through while Hyderabad and TN, with three wins each made it to the knockouts.

Unfortunately I don’t think I followed any other Ranji season as closely as that one, until cricinfo came along that is. Forget international matches (India’s tour of Australia, world cup, etc.), I would know the scorecards of most Ranji matches. At the ripe age of ten, I was able to provide insightful commentary on domestic cricket, on Indian team selections, and so forth. Sadly, I would never play the game.

Nowadays occasionally when I’m trying to take a break from work, I pick a random Ranji season from the 1990s and start looking up the scorecards. First the scorecards of all the South Zone matches (remember that Ranji was zonal in those days)., and then the knockouts. I remember that in one of the seasons in the early 90s, there were no draws at all in the knockouts (or maybe there were one or two here and there) – a far cry from nowadays when hardly one innings gets completed. And then I go on to look at the Duleep Trophy scorecards from the season – and these are the most interesting since I’m likely to know more players there.

It’s an awesomely good feeling to find a scorecard of a match that I remember, and I don’t know why but each time this happens I’m reminded of that game at KGF, the first one I followed, when Rahul Dravid made his first first-class century.

Wedding Invitation Prefixes

It seems simplest in Tamil Nadu, where the  girl’s name is prefixed with “Sow” (or “Sou”; for Sowbhagyavathi) while the boy’s name is prefixed with “Chi” (for Chiranjeevi). Considering most Tams have only one initial to their names, this sounds fair.

As we move to Andhra, the boy’s prefix remains “Chi” while the girl’s prefix gets elongated to “Chi Lax Sow”. I guess this is in line with the practice of three or more initials in Andhra.

In Karnataka, where two initials are dominant (at least were dominant in my parents’ generation; though not in mine (for eg. my father decided “Gollahalli” sounded too country to be part of my name so he dropped it and gave me only one initial) ) both boys and girls have two syllable prefixes. Girls get “Chi Sow” (for chiranjeevi sowbhagyavathi i guess). Boys get “Chi Ry” (I have no clue what Ry stands for. Maybe Karnataka boys show a special fondness for rye-based drinks).

Found this pertinent given that this afternoon I journeyed to Sultanpet and bought cards on which we’ll print our wedding invites.

JEE Results

Exactly ten years ago, they used to give a sum total of 3400 ranks for IIT-JEE. Typically, to get an engineering branch at one of the “big 5” IITs you needed to be in the early 2000s or better. Back then, there were ~40 people from Bangalore who made it to the merit list (I’ve forgotten the exact numbers but if I remember right, at least 30 people from Bangalore JOINED some IIT or the other). About 1.2% of all successful candidates back then were from Karnataka (for IIT/JEE purposes Bangalore = Karnataka since there are no other centres in the state).

JEE results for this year came out yesterday. Most of the second page of today’s The New Indian Express is spent in giving footage to people from Bangalore who got a rank. This year, they gave out 13,100 ranks, of which 58 were from Bangalore – 0.5% of all successful candidates. And you have the New Indian Express which puts the headline “City Students crack IIT by the dozen”. Yeah, five dozen out of thirteen kilopeople is worse than three dozen out of three kilopeople. But anyway…

Back in my days, there was one decently established factory and a couple of fledgling factories in Bangalore. The established factory (a small scale industry by national standards) had 100 students, of which over 30 got ranks in the JEE (and about 20 actually joined IIT). Today the same factory has some 500 students. And surely not more than 58 of its students could have cleared the JEE! And then there are several other factories in the city. Don’t know if any of them have done significantly well.

Madness. Sheer madness. I had written about this before.

Postscript: I must admit there is a small bit of hotteuri (stomach burn) at the amount of footage toppers get nowadays. Back then, it was an advertisement by the coaching factory in all major English dailies in the city, and little else.

Postscript2: This post might sound like one old thatha sitting in his armchair and ranting. It is meant to be that way.

Bangalore Book Festival

So today I made my way to Gayatri Vihar in the Palace Grounds to visit the Bangalore Book Festival, on its last day. It was interesting, though a bit crowded (what would you expect on the last day of an exhibition? and that too, when it’s a Sunday?). I didn’t buy much (just picked up two books) given the massive unread pile that lies at home. However, there was much scope for pertinent observations. Like I always do when I have a large number of unrelated pertinent observations, I’ll write this in bullet point form.

  • There were some 200 stalls. Actually, there might have been more. I didn’t keep count, despite the stalls having been numbered. Yeah, you can say that I wasn’t very observant.
  • All the major bookshops in Bangalore barring the multicity ones had set up shop there. I don’t really know what they were doing there. Or were they just trying to capture the market that only buys in fairs? Or did they set up stall there just to advertise themselves?
  • It seems like a lot of shops were trying to use the fair to get rid of inventory they wanted to discard. All they had to do was to stack all of this on one table and put a common price tag (say Rs. 50) on every book in that collection, and it was enough to draw insane crowds
  • One interesting stall at the fair had been set up by pothi.com an online self-publishing company. I’ll probably check them out sometime next year when I might want to publish a blook. Seems like an interesting business model they’ve got. Print on demand!
  • I also met the flipkart.com guys at the fair. Once again, they were there for advertising themselves. Need to check them out sometime. Given the kind of books I buy, I think online is the best place to get long tail stuff.
  • There was an incredibly large number of islamic publishing houses at the fair! And have you guys seen the “want qur an? call 98xxxxxxxx for free copy” hoardings all over the city? Wonder why the Bajrang Dal doesn’t target those
  • There was large vernacular presence at the fair. I remember reading in the papers that there was a quota for Kannada publishers, but there was reasonable presence for other languages also, like Gult, Tam, Mellu, Hindi
  • A large number of stalls were ideology driven. Publishing houses attached to cults had set up stalls, probably to further the cause of their own cult. So there was an ISKCON stall, a Ramakrishna Mutt stall, a Ramana Maharshi stall, etc.
  • Attendance at most of these niche stalls was quite thin, as people mostly crowded the stalls being run by bookstores in order to hunt for bargains. Attendance was also mostly thin at publisher-run stalls, making me wonder why most of these people had bothered to come to the fair at all.
  • I saw one awesomely funny banner at the place. It was by “Dr Partha Bagchi, the world leader in stammering for last 20 years” or some such thing. Was too lazy to pull out my phone and click pic. But it was a masterpiece of a banner
  • Another interesting ideological publisher there was “Leftword books”. Their two sales reps were in kurtas and carrying jholas (ok I made the latter part up). And they were sellling all sorts of left-wing books. Wonder who funds them! And they were also selling posters of Che for 10 bucks each
  • I wonder what impact this fair will have on bookstores in Bangalore in the next few days. Or probably it was mostly the non-regular book buyers who did business at the fair and so the regulars will be back at their favourite shops tomorrow.

I bought two books. Vedam Jaishankar’s Casting A Spell: A history of Karnataka cricket (I got it at Rs. 200, as opposed to a list price of Rs 500) and Ravi Vasudevan’s “Making Meaning in Indian Cinema”.

Work Etc.

There are these days when you wake up and start wondering what the fuck you are upto. You start asking yourself why you are where you are, doing what you are doing. You ask yourself why you are not on that monthlong roadtrip of rural Karnataka, with the hope of maybe producing a shelf of books at the end of it. You ask yourself why you haven’t been doing stuff that you had promised yourself that you would do.

That new guitar has already started rusting, and the left index finger that you had cut the last time you played has long healed. The car mileage grows only in small increments – which approximately represents the distance you go to work. Half the days you cook rice, and mix it with copious quantities of Mother Dairy Dahi, and some pickle that has been sent from home. The other days you go to the same restaurant, sit at the same table and order the same set of items.

You are doing it for the sake of your career, you tell yourself. Career. Tha FUBAR thing. Which you are trying to marginally resurrect and repair by doing what you are doing, and trying to bring back to it some vague sense of recognition. You meet your friends. You hear them shag about their jobs. You hear about all the cool things that they are doing, and about how they are fast moving up the corporate ladder. About how you are a failure in life if you don’t work hard at this stage of life, and if you can’t win the rat race.

You meet friends’ friends. The first thing they ask you is what you do – and you are likely to get judged on that. So you need to make sure that you have a good story to tell about your job, which makes you sound cool. Coming up with formulae to price the movement of sacks of rice is not cool, as I found out. Financial services is usually met with a question asking you to predict the direction of the index. Sales is usually met with “the sun is very hot nowadays, no?”. And IT is met with “are you a Java coder or a C# coder?”.

Occasionally you want to get away from all this. These are the times when you accept that you are doing what you are doing because of the increments it produces in your bank balance. Sometimes you realize that the monthly increments in your bank balance are not enough; and some of those times you console yourself saying that you are doing this in expectation of larger inflows in the future. You consider your job to be an investment – that the dough you are not getting now will get more than compensated for later in your life. 

So when on certain days you wake up and ask yourself why the fuck you are where you are and doing what you are doing, you usually don’t have an answer. In those states of mind, “career”, “development”, “investment”, “corporate” etc. all don’t matter at all. Neither does “net present value of expected future earnings”. Your total costs look inflated. Your benefits look deflated. Every line of thought that runs in your head then tells you that you should go off into the Himalayas. You go to office instead. 

I’ll stop this essay here. In a forthcoming essay I’ll explain about how a job is essentially about costs and benefits, and why they use the word “compensation” to describe your salary. I have occasionally argued in the other direction, but thinking about it again, I think the word “compensation” with reference to salary package does make a lot of sense.