Explaining the lack of dishwashers in India

For the last four weeks, after landing in Britain, we’ve been using the dishwasher fairly regularly. On an average, we run it once a day, and the vessels come out of it nice and shiny – to an extent that is nearly impossible when you wash them by hand. Last year when we were in Spain, too, we used the dishwasher fairly often.

Considering the convenience (all your dishes done in one go, and coming out nice and shiny), I’ve been wondering why the dishwasher hasn’t taken off in India. The requirement for water and electricity doesn’t explain it – the near-ubiquity of the washing machine in upper middle class households suggests that is not that much of a problem. It’s not a function of our using steel plates, either – if that were the only constraint, people would have switched plates to get the benefit of this convenience.

The real answer lies in the archaic concept of the enjil (saliva; known as jooTa in Hindi), and theories on how saliva can get transmitted and contaminate stuff. To be fair, it’s a useful concept in a way that it doesn’t allow anyone’s germ-bearing saliva to contaminate things around them, except for roads and sidewalks that is! Specifically, the enjil concept ensures that food doesn’t get remotely contaminated by someone’s saliva. But it takes things a bit too far.

For example, sharing plates, even when you’re using separate spoons (let’s saw when sharing dessert at a restaurant), is taboo. When you double-dip your spoon into the plate, germs from your saliva get transmitted there, and can potentially contaminate people you are sharing your food with. Or so the theory goes. The exceptions are in childhood, where a child is allowed to share plates with the mother, and after marriage, when couples are allowed to share plates! Go figure how that works.

Similarly, traditional Indians eschew the dining table, and the concept of keeping serving bowls on the same surface as plates. Again, the concept is that saliva can somehow “transmit” from the plates to the serving bowls and contaminate everyone’s food.

Next, there is an elaborate protocol to deal with used plates. They are not supposed to be washed in the same sink as other vessels. Yes, you read that right. When I was growing up, the protocol for used plates was to first rinse them in the bathroom (after throwing leftover food in the dustbin) before dropping them in the sink. It didn’t matter how well you rinsed the plate in the bathroom – that water had fallen on it after your usage would indicate that it was now purified, and fit to sit with all the other unwashed vessels.

Now consider the dishwasher. To achieve economies of scale at the household level, and to ensure vessels don’t pile up, you put all kinds of vessels in it at the same time – plates, spoons, forks, serving bowls and  cooking vessels! In other words, “saliva-bearing” dishes are put into the same contraption at the same time as “saliva-free” cooking dishes, and the “same water” is used to wash all of them together.

And that clearly violates all prudent practices of saliva management and contamination avoidance that we have all grown up with! And trust me, it takes time to get over such instinctive practices one has grown up with. And so I predict that it will at least be another generation (20 years or so) when there are sufficient households with adults who grew up without a strong concept of enjil, and who might be willing to give the dishwasher a try!

Andhra Meals in Religious Rituals

A long time back I’d compared massage parlours in Bangkok to Andhra meals, where there is a “basic menu” (the core massage itself) which everyone orders, on top of which other add-ons (such as happy endings) can get tagged on.

Today, while performing a religious ritual (it’s 10 days since my daughter was born, so there was some ceremony I’d to perform), I realised that every religious ritual, happy or sad, also follows the “Andhra meals” principle.

So the “meals” part is the stuff they teach you to do as part of your daily “sandhyavandane” ritual immediately after your thread ceremony. Starting with the aachamana (keshavaaya swaaha, narayanaaya swaaha etc), going on to reciting the Gayatri mantra, repeating the aachamana several times in the middle, and then ending by apologising and atoning for all the mistakes in the course of the ritual (achutaayanamaha, anantaayanamaha, govindayanamaha, achutanantagovindebho namaha).

This is the basic sandhyaavandane you’re supposed to perform three times every day, and the interesting thing is that most other rituals are add-ons to this. Be it a wedding ceremony, worship of a particular god on a particular festival or even a death ceremony, all these parts remain and don’t go away. What changes from ritual to ritual are the add-ons, like the meats you might order during Andhra meals.

And so in the wedding ceremony, there is the wedding itself. In a death ceremony, there’s all the part where you wear the sacred thread the wrong way round (praacheenaavEti) and build rice-til balls (piNDa – have you noticed how similar they are to sushi?). While worshipping a particular god, you perform the worship in the middle of the regular sandhyaavandane ritual. And so forth.

I must say I’m fairly impressed with our ancestors who devised this “modular form” of performing rituals. What rocks about this practice is that pretty much everyone who wants to perform these rituals will know these rituals (the “basic Andhra meals”) bit, which makes it that much easier to “consume” the “extra fittings” appropriate to the occasion.

Good things do happen to those who wait

So once again I’ve taken myself off Twitter and Facebook. After a three-month sabbatical which ended a month back, I was back on these two social networks in a “limited basis” – I had not installed the apps on my phone and would use them exclusively from my computer. But as days went by, I realised I was getting addicted once again, and losing plenty of time just checking if someone had replied to any of the wisecracks I had put on some of those. So I’ve taken myself off once again, this time for at least one month.

This post is about the last of my wisecracks on facebook before I left it. A facebook friend had put an update that said “good things do happen to those who wait”. I was in a particularly snarky mood, and decided to call out the fallacy and left the comment below.

Good things

In hindsight I’m not sure if it was a great decision – perhaps something good had happened to the poor guy after a really long time, and he had decided to celebrate it by means of putting this cryptic message. And I, in my finite wisdom, had decided to prick his balloon by spouting gyaan. Just before I logged out of facebook this morning, though, I checked and found that he had liked my comment, though I don’t know what to make of it.

Earlier this year I had met an old friend for dinner, and as we finished and were walking back to the mall parking lot, he asked for my views on religion. I took a while to answer, for I hadn’t given thought to the topic for a while. And then it hit me, and I told him, “once I started appreciating that correlation doesn’t imply causation, it’s very hard for me to believe in religion”. Thinking about it now, a lot of other common practices, which go beyond religion, are tied to mistaking correlation for causation.

Take, for example, the subject of the post. “Good things happen to those who wait”, they say. It is basically intended as encouragement for people who don’t succeed in the first few attempts. What it doesn’t take care of it that the failures in the first few attempts might be “random”, or that even success when it does happen is the result of a random process.

Say, for example, you are trying to get a head upon the toss of a coin. You expect half a chance of a head the first time. It disappoints. You assume the second time the chances should be better, since it didn’t work out the first time (you don’t realise the events are independent), and are disappointed again. A few more tails and disappointment turns to disillusionment, and you start wondering if the coin is fair at all. Finally, when you get a head, you think it is divine retribution for having waited, and say that “good things happen to those who wait”.

In your happiness that you finally got a head, what you assume is that repeated failure on the first few counts actually push up your chance of getting your head, and that led to your success on the Nth attempt. What you fail to take into account is that there was an equal chance (assuming a fair coin) of getting a tail on the Nth attempt also (which you would have brushed off, since you were used to it).

In my comment above I’ve said “selection bias” but I’m not sure if that’s the right terminology – essentially when things go the way you want them to, you take notice and ascribe credit, but when things don’t go the way you want you don’t notice.

How many times have you heard people going through a happy experience saying they’re going through it “by God’s grace?”. How many times have you heard people curse God for not listening to their prayers when they’re going through a bad patch? Hardly? Instead, how many times have you heard people tell you that God is “testing them” when they’re going through a bad patch?

It’s the same concept of letting your priors (you see God as a good guy who will never harm you) affect the way you see a certain event. So in my friend’s case above, after a few “tails” he had convinced himself that “good things do happen to those who wait” and was waiting for a few more coin tosses until he finally sprang a head and announced it to the world!

Now I remember: I think it’s called confirmation bias.

Silencing the temple

The temple across the road from my house has really started annoying me. The priest has one tape, of supposedly “devotional” songs and this morning he thought it appropriate to play it on the loudspeaker at 5:30, startling me and waking me up.

This is not the first time he has done so, either. He has been a consistent offender. Earlier, the tape would go on at around 7:30, after we had woken up so it didn’t really affect me so much – I’d put on my own music to drown the offending noise and all would be fine. Of late, though, the bugger seems to be getting to his temple early, and he considers it his sacred duty to wake up the locality with his noise.

Polite attempts (by the wife) to ask him to turn down the volume have had no impact. I’m told over ten years back my grandmother-in-law (known in her time to have been an extremely strong and clever woman) had tried her own methods to silence him, but had failed and given up (one of her rare failures, according to the wife). One of the things she had apparently tried was to threaten to call in the cops. It didn’t work.

As we lay tossing and turning in bed this morning having been rudely woken up by the temple noise, we thought of strategies. One was to write out a police complaint, get neighbours to weigh in with their support and go to the cops. Another was to get in touch with the local politicians (corporator, MLA, etc.) and see if they can do something about it.

One thing bothers me about either approach, though – no there is no risk per se, but I don’t think any of this will really work. The problem is the Indian definition of “secularism” – which is not “each citizen will practice his/her own religion in private and the state will not interfere” but instead is “each citizen can make a big loud show of practicing his/her religion and the state will not interfere”.

And so if I go to the cops or the politicians asking them to intervene, one question that will invariably come up is why the temple priest should shut up when there are no restrictions whatsoever on the muezzin’s call. And if you go to the muezzin and ask him to turn down the volume, he’ll agree on the condition that the loudspeakers at the Ganesh pandals be turned down. And thus we will set off on an infinite loop.

This is the sad story with religion in India. Anything goes in the name of religion. If you oppose something done in the name of religion itself, you are being anti-religion, and that is blasphemous.

Anyway, I still have the conundrum of how to deal with the hooligan priest in the temple across the road from my house!

Religion, yet again

I think religion is an exercise in finding loopholes. Religious people I think will make great tax consultants.

So this evening I was at an uncle’s place where he had organized a Vedic recital. Some fifty or more people from the Vedic school he goes to (after having retired after an outstanding career as a space scientist) were there and they were chanting the Vedas. Now, today is a Saturday in the Hindu month of Shraavan (bastardized as Saavan), and the devout are supposed to keep fast (which I discovered only this evening) . However, given that it is not nice to not serve food to people whom you’ve invited home, my uncle had arranged for what people in Bombay term as an “upvaas feast”.

It absolutely beats me how rice is considered to be “food” while avalakki or “beaten rice” (which, as the name suggests, is made from rice), is not! No, I’m not joking. So this evening I learnt that as long as you don’t eat rice, your fast is still maintained! So you had the rather devout gurus of the Vedic school who were supposed to keep fast tonight gorging on Bisibelebhath and Kesari Bhath (among a rather long list of items) – just because the former wasn’t made out of rice, and the latter doesn’t contain rice anyway.

I’m reminded of the time some six years ago. My father had just died and (much against my will) I was being forced to perform a hundred post death ceremonies. Now, protocol for these death ceremonies is that you do it on an empty stomach. You only eat once that day, and that is a rather late lunch after you’ve offered the pinDa (cooked rice mixed with milk and curd and black sesame seed), first to your departed ancestors and then to crows and cows. However, during the course of time, people have made exceptions. Apparently you are now allowed to have coffee or milk in the morning before you perform the ceremony. And over the course of time that has come to be understood as “milk with additives”. And so I was fed cereal with milk (lest I revolt on an empty stomach) as I made my way every day for five days to one dirty “tithi hotel” to supposedly ensure my father’s soul went to heaven, and was tied to those of his ancestors.

Oh, and needless to say, that “only one meal in the day” rule for death ceremonies has been relaxed, too, in the course of time. Now you’re allowed to have dinner also, as long as (surprise, surprise!!) you don’t eat rice!

Then there is the concept of maDi or ritual cleanliness. This evening, my uncle took pains to announce to his guests that the food had been cooked under “strict maDi conditions”. Yet, when I happened to walk in to the kitchen, it was hard for me to walk any more as the floor was insanely sticky, with spilled food, I would guess. Ritual cleanliness I think doesn’t really imply real cleanliness. More significantly, maintaining the conditions or ritual cleanliness gives you an illusion of cleanliness and since you’ve followed the rituals you don’t see any need to keep your kitchen actually clean. It reminds me of what a friend maintains – that the religious are less likely to be moral than the irreligious.

And then I have mentioned on this blog earlier about how during religious functions hosts don’t really bother with serving lunch/dinner on time. For the record, this evening’s dinner was at 9:30, which I’m not sure is a particularly healthy practice (and which is probably I’m still awake).

So the net effect of this is that every time I attend a religious function I get further repulsed by religion. That people don’t answer my questions doesn’t help (I must mention that I’ve stopped asking questions, for I seldom get satisfactory answers. The only person who I still bombard with questions on religion is my mother-in-law who makes a patient and honest attempt at answering them more often than not). It is probably due to my upbringing (I might have mentioned here earlier that my father was atheist. I do one better than him in that I regularly wear my sacred thread, though I probably over-compensate for it by eating meat), but sometimes it actually amazes me that people believe in the kind of things they believe in.

I must consider myself lucky that my long-term gene-propagating partner is quite okay with my lack of religiosity (huge sigh of relief considering that on our first date she had demanded to examine my sacred thread), though occasionally she suddenly declares that we must resurrect our lives and we should “start praying”. Nothing concrete usually comes out of this.

Oh, and this evening my uncle castigated me for serving food while wearing jeans (as the wife remarked later, it was a good thing I was wearing jeans. Wearing a dhoti would have exposed the risk of my dhoti falling into people’s leaf plates). 

And I’m still amazed that despite the advent of writing and recordings, people still choose to expend their valuable mental bandwidth in rote learning the Vedas, rather than trying to understand the philosophy behind them.

PS: Here is a post on why I don’t do my parents’ death ceremonies any more


I had written this as a note on facebook a long time back, in an introduction to another of my blogposts. It went largely unnoticed – I claim it is because it made way too many people uncomfortable. For posterity’s sake, I thought it needs to go somewhere more permanent – like this blog, so reprising it here. 

One of the several post-death rituals in the Sanatana Dharma is called “sapinDikaraNa” – in which the “pinda” (departed soul) of the deceased is “tied” to the pindas of their ancestors. This is apparently done to make sure that the pinda doesn’t end up as a free radical and come back to haunt its descendants.

I don’t know why I’m thinking about this today, but the way they “connect” the pindas is quite funny. They just tell the gotra and given name of the deceased, and then the given names of the deceased’s father, father’s father and father’s father’s father (for women it is mother-in-law, mother-in-law’s mother-in-law and mother-in-law’s mother-in-law’s mother-in-law).

I think this is a rather poor addressing system, and not one designed for today’s populations. Maybe back in the days when this was invented, not more than one person belonging to a particular gotra had the same name. So this system of addressing worked (like in villages and small towns, houses don’t have door numbers – the postman knows everyone by name). Why is it that the system hasn’t been changed even though there are possibly thousands of people with the same given names and gotras?

If religion truly ever worked, its working would have broken down through the ages when its addressing system became obsolete. Why then, do so many people still “religiously” believe in it?

It’s all pinda wonly, I must say.

Horoscopes and Caesarean Births

The fundamental question is about what needs to be considered as a zero point in a person’s life – conception or delivery. I don’t want to start a debate on abortion here, but just wonder what Indian astrology considers to be the zero point of a person’s life. The answer to this question can determine the effectiveness of Indian astrology, even assuming that it is ok that it hasn’t been recalibrated for a few millenia.

Now my argument here is about the numerous instances in Indian mythology where the child’s future is written down by an astrologer even when it is in its mother’s womb. If an astrologer can tell a child’s future when it is in its mother’s womb, isn’t it an indicator that it is the position of stars at conception that matters more than the position of stars at the time of delivery?

The thing is that no one really knows when a child was conceived. Hence, the time of the child’s delivery is usually used as some sort of a proxy to determine when it was conceived. So basically astrology in its current form has a formula to calculate time of conception based on time of delivery, and so effectively what we have as astrology now is a product of two vectors – one that transposes time of birth to time of conception, and another that translates time of conception to position of stars at conception which then gives rise to the horoscope.

I suppose you can understand that there is obviously one source of error in this – regarding the determination of time of conception at the time of birth – basically no two kids born at the same moment would have been conceived at the same moment, right? So this introduces a fundamental error into Indian astrology.

And as if it were not enough, technology has (as usual) stepped in to hinder religion. The concept of Caesarean section has ended up playing complete havoc with the time-tested formulae of determining time of conception based on time of birth. The concept of Caesarean section has ensured that children need not remain in their mothers’ wombs for a “fixed quota” of time, and there is a very good chance they get released early.

So my argument is that Indian astrology as it stands now is inappropriate for people who were born through Caesarean section, since the error in determination of time of conception is extremely high. Also considering how discontinous things are – there are cases where a half an hour’s change in birth time can completely change a person’s horoscope – the impact of this error is too large to be ignored.

The most common use of astrology in recent times is that horoscope-match is considered by some as a necessary condition for matchmaking. Thinking about it, it is bad (and inaccurate) enough if one of the two parties has been born by Caesarean section. I wonder if it has any impact at all if both parties have been born by Caesarean section!

PS: Back when I was in the arranged scissors market, and my mother was around, this is the argument she would give to people who would demand to see my horoscope in the course of matchmaking. That it didn’t make sense given I was born through Caesarean section.