Once upon a time

A few months back, someone sent me this “pixar format” of storytelling.

While it makes sense, I have deep-seated insecurities regarding this format, going back to when I was in “upper kindergarten” (about 5 years old).

Until I was 14 or so, I had a pronounced stutter. It was very rare until then that I would win any prizes in speaking events even though I was comfortably the class topper in academics – basically I couldn’t speak. The mystery got unlocked when some teacher wondered if I stuttered because I “thought faster than I could speak”. That one remark made me conscious, and helped me slow down, and I remember pretty much cleaning up the speaking events prizes in school the following year.

Anyways, ten years before that I couldn’t speak. On top of that I couldn’t remember. I mean I could remember obscure things (for a five year old) such as the capital of Angola or the inventor of the telescope, but I couldn’t remember a coherent passage of text.

And one such passage of text that I first needed to mug up (and remember) and then speak it out (double nightmare) happened to be in the above (Pixar) format. There was a storytelling session in school for which we had to mug up stories and then tell it out in class.

I don’t exactly remember the text of the story (well I couldn’t remember it in 1987-88, so what chance do I have of remembering it now?), but it went something like this.

Once upon a time, there were four cows who lived in the jungle.

Every day, they grazed together. So if a tiger attacked, they could get together and chase it away.

One day, the cows quarrelled among one another.

Because of that, they started grazing separately.

Because of that, it was now possible for the tiger to take them on one-on-one.

Until finally, one day, the tiger attacked the cows one by one and ate up all of them.

Don’t ask me how a tiger could eat four cows in a day. I remember struggling like crazy to remember this story and speak it out. I remember that my father tried to make me mug it up several times during one weekend, after which I was supposed to speak it out in school.

I don’t remember how well or badly I spoke it out. However, what lasted was that this kind of stories started giving me nightmares. From then on, I developed a fear of the phrase “once upon a time”. Any story that started with “once upon a time” were scary to me.

I remember this one day in school when one classmate was asked to narrate a story. He went up to the front of the class and started with “one day … “. That was liberating – that not every story needed to start with once upon a time was a massive relief to me.

It’s funny the kind of things we remember from childhood, and the kind of seemingly innocuous things that have a long-term impact on us.

Breaking up sentences in the absence of punctuation

From time to time, a joke goes around that makes the value of punctuation clear. Check out this picture, for example.

Recently, I saw this on my twitter timeline (though here it’s an issue of spacing apart from punctuation).

Someone actually wrote an entire book about the value of punctuation.

In any case, I have a pretty bad track record in terms of reading sentences that don’t have punctuation. I can think of two examples right away.

Firstly, my school diary was filled with quotes from Sri Aurobindo and “The Mother“. By turns, we would have to say “thought for the day” in the school assembly. And we had a reliable way of finding such thoughts – just look in the diary and spout out the nuggets.

One of those went:

Always do what you know to be the best even if it the most difficult thing to do.

Yes, I remember that. Because I had spouted this not once but twice. Now, this is a long sentence without any punctuation. How would you read it?

For the longest time I read it like this.

Always do what you know, to be the best, even if it is the most difficult thing to do. 

So if there are many things that you can do, and you know one of the things, you do that thing even if it is harder than everything else that you might do (but don’t know how to do).

Clearly that doesn’t make that much sense. It was only when I was about to graduate that I figured that it was actually:

Always do what you know to be the best even if it is the most difficult thing to do. 

So there are many things you can do. You know one of them is the “best thing to do”. So even if it is the most difficult thing to do, you do it because you know it is “the best” (not because you “know it the best”).

Another example is from this store near my house. I don’t think the store existed for too long, but it had an interesting and quirky name (in Kannada).

ellAdEvarakrupe stores“, it said. For the longest time I read it as “ellAdEvara  krupe”, or “grace of all gods”. And I thought it was a fascinating name in terms of recognising all religions. And I’ve quoted it many times.

When I was quoting this on Twitter earlier today, I realised that I had got the name of the store all wrong. It’s “ellA dEvarakrupe”, meaning “everything is god’s grace”. It says nothing about which gods are included or excluded, or how many gods there are.

What are your favourite examples of sentences that you’ve misread thanks to the lack of punctuation or other visible sentence markers?

 

Ending a 33-year-old wait

When I was in upper kindergarten (UKG) in 1987-88, my teacher Chandrika Aunty had shown me how to do thread painting. It was a fascinating exercise. Cover a thread in paint, and then let it lie in a random pattern inside a folded piece of paper, and then pull out the thread. It creates a beautiful and symmetrical (thanks to the folding) pattern in the paper.

To my dismay, Chandrika Aunty failed to repeat this exercise, instead spending time to teach us other kinds of painting such as dipping ladies fingers in paint (I’ve always loathed ladies finger as a vegetable, so you can imagine my not being enthused by using it as a block-print).

Somehow my mother (who was generally interested in painting) wasn’t interested in doing this either. So as much as I loved it, I never ended up doing thread painting again as a child.

All that changed a few days back. With the lockdown on, my daughter’s school has been sending her “assignments” to do at home. Now, I find most of these assignments rather stressful. Sometimes they make me wonder what’s the point of sending her to a Montessori at all, if they are giving here homework that I have to supervise (thankfully none of these need to necessarily need to be turned in. They’re more for keeping her occupied. But looking at them as “pending” on the Google Classroom irritates me).

However, there was one assignment that I was rather excited to see. Thread painting! We sat on it for a few days without doing (basically NED happened). However, it was my wife’s birthday yesterday, and when we sat down to make a card for her on Tuesday, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to do thread painting.

And so we did, using a small string and water colour tablets (I was so excited by the idea of thread painting that I didn’t bother following the school’s instructions). Apply water to the colour tablet, put the thread on it (and use the brush to make sure the paint was coated on the thread). Then put it in a random pattern between the folded sheets. And then pull it out carefully (the last bit was done by the daughter with great interest).

This was the result:

I’m rather excited by this. For someone artistically challenged like me, this is a nice way to make nice-looking images.

I don’t intend to do a Chandrika Aunty. I plan to do thread painting on a regular basis with the daughter. It’s both fun to do and produces nice results, like what you see here.

The rest of her school assignments can remain undone. I don’t care.

The Puritan Topper

This was an idea that sort of got ingrained in my head at the turn of the millennium – around the time I was transitioning from school to undergrad. That you would be a topper if and only if you led an otherwise diligent and disciplined life.

For starters you needed to be a nice person (among the things this entailed for a potential topper was to liberally share notes and clarify people’s doubts when called upon). You weren’t allowed to have any character flaws. You weren’t supposed to get distracted with things like hitting on someone or being in a romantic relationship. You would talk to, and be polite with, people of the opposite sex, but “nothing more than necessary”. “Bad habits” like smoking and drinking were out of the question.

These were just the necessary conditions. On top of this, of course, you had to work with single-minded devotion towards becoming the topper. You needed to be diligent, be rigorous with all your assignments, study more than anyone else and all that.

I don’t know how this view of the “puritan topper” got formed in my head. Maybe it was pattern recognition based on the profile of people who used to top in my schools (this was after I had all but given up on doing well academically, apart from entrance exams), especially in undergrad.

I’m also wondering if this image of the puritan topper had something to do with my own giving up – while I might have had the enthu to work hard at academics and do well, this sort of a puritan lifestyle that I had come to associate with toppers (I didn’t smoke or drink, but being nice to everyone all the time was well beyond me) seemed rather daunting.

In any case, this image of the puritan topper didn’t last long. At IIMB, for example, there was this guy who lived a few doors away from me who spent most of his time drinking and hardly any time studying, but aced all exams. Another guy quickly found himself a girlfriend, but continued to top. Suddenly, I found that “normal people” could be toppers as well, and that my view of the puritan topper had been formed mainly on a small number of data points and didn’t hold.

Yet, the number of years that this puritan topper image stayed in my head means that it’s one that has been hard to shake off. A couple of years back, for example, the all india topper in the IIT-JEE, while talking to the press, expressed tribute to his girlfriend for her support. While it’s normal for a class 12 person to have a girlfriend, this comment sort of threw me off – it didn’t fit my mental image of the puritan topper.

Sometimes it is possible to form an irrational belief based on a small number of data points, and irrespective of the number of data points you see to the contrary, it becomes hard to let go of these beliefs. And that makes you more irrational. But I guess, there’s no logic to a lot of these beliefs. Maybe as Rory Sutherland puts it, it’s all “psycho-logic”.

Holidays as focal points

I don’t like Christmas holidays. I mean I have nothing against Christmas and New Year – they are wonderful festivals. I don’t like Christmas holidays because it’s one week in the year when pretty much the entire world has holidays.

And this makes it difficult to plan a holiday. Unless you’ve planned British-style and booked your hotel three months in advance, it is not easy to get room in quality hotels anywhere at this time of the year.

It is similar with the holidays around Dasara in October. It may not be a worldwide phenomenon like Christmas is, but it is a phenomenon that affects a large portion of India. And that makes it hard, once again, to plan holidays and go to places that are not going to be inundated with tourists.

In contrast, I love summer holidays because they are so long (between two and three months depending upon your school) that not everyone goes for vacation at the same time. Consequently, unless you go around long weekends (such as Easter or May Day), places are easier to get and not as crowded as well.

Until we had a kid, we tried as much as possible in being contrarian with our holidays – go when nobody else is going. Now that we have a kid (though not too big, but she goes to school), we tend to look at the school holidays as anchors as to when to go for a vacation. The last two holidays (the Dasara holidays in October and the Christmas holidays starting later today) have been a bit of a washout on that count because on both counts we didn’t plan early enough (and even if we did, we can expect pretty much every place to be choc-a-bloc with tourists in these times).

On the other hand, in August, the daughter’s school gave a week off at a time when pretty much no other school in the country had given vacations. That was brilliant, and we did a beautiful holiday then, booking less than a month in advance but getting a great but non-crowded place. Then again, I guess my daughter’s classmates who have siblings in other schools would have faced problems at that point in time.

In any case, going forward, we’ve decided to do what parents of other young children tend to do – not bother about child’s classes or “attendance” and go for holidays whenever.

We should simply stop planning holidays when everyone else is planning holidays!

Coordinated and uncoordinated potlucks

Some potluck meals are coordinated. One or more coordinators assume leadership and instruct each attending member what precisely to bring. It’s somewhat like central planning in that sense – the coordinators make assumptions on what each person wants and how much they will eat and what goes well with what, and make plans accordingly.

Uncoordinated potlucks can be more interesting. Here, people don’t talk about what to bring, and simply bring what they think the group might be interested. This can result in widely varying outcomes – some great meals, occasionally a lot of wasted food, and some weird mixes of starters, main courses and desserts.

We had one such uncoordinated potluck at my daughter’s school picnic last week. All children were accompanied by their parents and were asked to bring “snacks”. Nothing was specified apart from the fact that we should bring it in steel containers, and that we should get homemade stuff.

Now, for a bit of background. For slightly older kids (my daughter doesn’t qualify yet) the school has a rotating roster for lunch, where each kid brings in lunch for the entire class on each day. So parents are used to sending lunch for all the children, and children are used to eating a variety of foods. A friend who sent his daughter to the same school tells me that it can become a bit too competitive sometimes, with families seeking to outdo one another with the fanciness of the foods they send.

In that sense, I guess the families of these older kids had some information on what normally came for lunch and what got eaten and so on – a piece of information we didn’t have. The big difference between this picnic potluck and school lunch (though I’m not sure if other parents knew of this distinction) was that this was “anonymous”.

All of us kept our steel boxes and vessels on a large table set up for the purpose, so when people served themselves there was little clue of which food had come from whose house. In that sense there was no point showing off (though we tried, taking hummus with carrot and cucumber sticks). And it resulted in what I thought was a fascinating set of food, though I guess some of it couldn’t really be classified as “snack”.

The fastest to disappear was a boxful of chitranna (lemon rice). I thought it went rather well with roasted and salted peanuts that someone else had bought. There were some takers for our hummus as well, though our cut apples didn’t “do that well”. I saw a boxful of un-taken idlis towards the end of the snack session. Someone had brought boiled sweet corn on the cob. And there were many varieties of cakes that families had (presumably baked and) brought.

What I found interesting was that despite their being zero coordination between the families, they had together served up what was a pretty fascinating snack, with lots of variety. “Starters”, “Mains”, “Desserts” and “Sides” were all well represented, even if the balance wasn’t precisely right.

The number of families involved here (upwards of 30) meant that perfect coordination would’ve been nigh impossible, and I’m not sure if a command-and-control style coordinated potluck would have worked in any case (that would have also run the risk of a family bunking the picnic last moment, and an important piece of the puzzle missing).

The uncoordinated potluck meant that there were no such imbalances, and families, left to themselves and without any feedback, had managed to serve themselves a pretty good “snack”!

More power to decentralised systems!

Bangalore trip update

The recent inactivity on this blog was mainly due to my inability to log on to wordpress from my phone and write a post.  I had gone home to Bangalore for an extended weekend (taking Friday and Monday off) and the only source of net access there was my phone, and for some reason I wasn’t able to log on to NED from that. During the trip I had several brilliant insights and brilliant ideas and wanted to blog them and finally such NED happened that I didn’t even twitter them. Deathmax.

The main reason I went to Bangalore was to attend Pradeep (Paddy)’s reception. I think this is an appropriate time to share the funda of his nickname with the world. Before he joined our school in 9th standard, there was this guy two years senior called Pradeep, and for some reason not known to me he was nicknamed Paddy. I vaguely knew him since I used to play basketball with him, and after he graduated there were no more Paddys in school. So when this new guy came from the Gelf, it presented a good opportunity to get back a Paddy into school. It turned out to be such a sticky nickname that not even IIT could change it.

Friday was Ugadi – yet another reason to be home in Bangalore – and was mostly spent visiting relatives. When they heard about my impending market entry, all of them brought up stories of not-so-successful marriages of people they knew well, and put fundaes to me about avoiding certain pitfalls. These fundaes were liberally peppered with stories. Mostly sad ones. Mostly of people who have chosen to continue in their marriages despite them clearly failing. It is amazing about the kind of stuff people I know have gone through, and yet they choose to not run away.

Saturday morning was rexerved for my first ever “market visit”. I was taken to this bureau in Malleswaram and asked to inspect profiles. “There are profiles of hundreds of girls there”, my uncle had told me “so let us go there before ten o’clock so that you have enough time”. The profiles were mostly homogeneous. The number of engineering seats available in Karnataka amazes me. Every single profile I checked out over there had studied a BE, and was working in some IT company. Things were so homogeneous that (I hate to admit this) the only differentiator was looks. Unfortunately I ended up shortlisting none of them.

One of the guys I met during my Bangalore trip is a sales guy who lives in a small temple town without any access to good cinema. So he forced me to accompany him to watch Slumdog (in PVR Gold Class – such an irony) and Dev D. I agree that Slumdog shows India in poor light, but filter that out and it’s a really nice movie. We need to keep in mind that it was a story and not a documentary, and even if it were the latter, I think documentaries are allowed to have narratives and need not be objective. Dev D was simply mindblowing, apart from the end which is a little bit messed up. Somehow I thought that Kashyap wanted to do a little dedic to his unreleased Paanch.

There is this meet-up at Benjarong which is likely to contribute enough material to last six arranged scissors posts. I’ll probably elaborate about the discussions in forthcoming posts but I must mention here that several arranged marriage frameworks were discussed during the dinner. The discussions and frameworks were enough to make both Monkee and I, who are in the market process, and Kodhi who will enter the market shortly to completely give up in life.

One takeaway from Paddy’s reception is that if you can help it, try not to have a “split wedding” (and try not to have a split webbing also) – where different events are held at diferent venues, on disjoint dates. In that case you won’t have people lingering around, and you will lose out on the opportunity to interact with people. Note that there is zero scope for interation during the ceremonies, and the only time you get to talk to people is before, and after, and during. And it is important that there is enough before or after or during time to allow these interactions. In split weddings guests are likely to arrive and leave in the middle of an event and so you’ll hardly get to talk to them.

One policy decision I took was to not have breakfast at home during the length of my stay. I broke this on my last day there since I wouldn’t be having any other meal at home that day, but before that visited Adigas (ashoka pillar), SN (JP nagar) and UD (3rd block). The middle one was fantastic, the first reasonably good except for bad chutney and the last not good at all. Going back from Gurgaon it was amazing that I could have a full breakfast (2 idlis-vada-masala dosa-coffee) for less than 50 bucks. Delhi sorely lacks those kind of “middle class” places – you either eat on the roadside or in fine dining here.

Regular service on this blog should resume soon. My mom has stayed back in Bangalore for the summer so I’m alone here  and so have additoinal responsibilities such as cooking and cleaning. However, I think I should be having more time so might be writing more. I can’t promise anything since blog posts are generated by spur-of-the-moment thoughts and I never know when they occur. Speaking of which I should mention that I put elaborate fundaes on studs and fighters theory in my self-appraisal review form last week.

The Perils of Notes Dictation

Thinking about my history lessons in schools, one picture comes to mind readily. A dark Mallu lady (she taught us history in the formative years between 6th and 8th) looking down at her set of voluminous notes and dictating. And all of us furiously writing so as to not miss a word of what she said. For forty minutes this exercise would continue, and then the bell would ring. Hands weary with all the writing, we would put our notebooks in our bags and look forward to a hopefully less strenuous next “perriod”.

The impact of this kind of “teaching” on schoolchildren’s attitude towards history, and their collective fflocking to science in 11th standard is obvious. There are so many things that are so obviously wrong with this mode of “teaching”. I suppose I’ll save that for else-where. Right now, I’m trying to talk about the perils of note-making in itself.

Before sixth standard and history, in almost all courses we would be dictated “questions and answers”. The questions that would appear in the exam would typically be a subset of these Q&A dictated in class. In fact, I remember that some of the more enthu teachers would write out the stuff on the board rather htan just dictating. I’m still amazed how I used to fairly consistently top the class in those days of “database query” exams.

I’m thinking about this from the point of view of impact on language. Most people who taught me English in that school had fairly good command over the language, and could be trusted to teach us good English. However, I’m not sure if I can say the same about the quality of language of other teachers. All of them were conversant in English, yes, and my schoool was fairly strict about being “English-medium”. However, the quality of English, especially in terms of grammar and pronunciation, of a fair number of teachers left a lot to be desired.

I can still remember the odd image of me thinking “this is obviously grammatically incorrect” and then proceeding to jot down what the teacher said “in my own words“. I’m sure there were other classmates who did the same. However, I’m also sure that a large number of people in the class just accepted what the teacher said to be right, in terms of language that is.

What this process of “dictation of notes” did was that teachers with horrible accents, grammar, pronunciation or all of the above passed on their bad language skills to the unsuspecting students. All the possible good work that English teachers had done was undone.There is a chance that this bad pronunciation, grammar, etc. would have been passed on even if the teachers didn’t give notes – for the students would just blindly imitate what the teachers would say. However, the amount by which they copied different teachers would not then be weighted by the amount of notes that each teacher dictated, and I think a case can be made that the quality of a teacher is inversely proportional to the amount of notes he/she dictates.

Teachers will not change because dictation is the way that they have been taught to “teach”. The onus needs to go to schools to make sure that the teachers don’t pass on their annoying language habits to the students. And a good place to start would be to stop them from dictating notes. And I still don’t understand the value of writing down notes that you don’t really bother to understand when you have a number of reasonably good text books and guide books available in the market. I agree that for earlier classes, some amount of note-making might be necessary (I think even that can be dispensed with), but in that case the school needs to be mroe careful regarding the language skills of people it recruits in order to dictate these notes.

why is the level of English in North India so low?

I had sent this mail to a mailing list of 60-odd super-intelligent people. unfortunately, in their fondness for Savita Bhabhi, Vidarbhan farmers and child-eating, they weren’t able to come up with any convincing explanation for this. So I thought you super-intelligent readers of my blog might be able to help. I begin.

Three months back I moved to Gurgaon from Bangalore. And one thing I’ve noticed is that here practically no one can speak English. I’m referring to service providers here, people who are typically from the lower middle class. Taxi driver. Electrician. Waiter. Accountant. etc.

None of them can speak a word of English, and  I mean that almost literally. In Bangalore and Madras, we can see that people in these professions at least make an effort to speak English, and even if you don’t know their local tongue you will be able to communicate with them and get your work done. Here, unless you know Hindi, it is impossible. There is only so much you can communicate in Dumb Charades, right?

I suppose one argument will be that people in the North would have never had the need to learn English since most people they come across can speak Hindi. And that since linguistic regions are much smaller in the South, there is greater incentive for people to pick up and learn new languages. And since they know that a knowledge of English helps get them more business, they make an effort to pick it up.

But again – even if you exclude those who haven’t gone to school, the knowledge of English here is horrible. Isn’t it aspirational in North India to send kids to English medium schools? If not, I wonder why this is the case – given that in the South practically everyone want to send their kids to English medium schools.

Ok here is my hypothesis – remember that it is a hypothesis and not an argument. I wonder if people who are native of regions where the same language prevails over a large geographical area are linguistically challenged. because everyone they need to interact with know their language and there is no need for them to learn any new language. and this affects their ability to pick up new languages. on the other hand, people from linguistically diverse regions will tend to find it easier to pick up new languages.

extending this, it might actually help if the medium of instruction in your school is not your native tongue. having learnt a new language early, you will find it easier to pick up new languages as you go along.

sometime last month I was at a high-end restaurant with a couple of friends. spoke to the waiter in English and he didn’t understand. one of my friends who was with me said “don’t bother talking to these guys in English. if they knew some english, they’d’ve been working for Genpact and not become waiters”

Of Pepsi and Perk

Can be best described by looking at the “objects” that defined our bets at different points in time. Most of those  phases seem to have faded away, but I clearly remember two of them – the Pepsi phase and the Perk phase.

The Pepsi era started with their “nothing official about it” campaign during the 1996 World Cup. It was a brilliant campaign, and had all of us 13yearolds hooked. This became our excuse for any little crimes we would commit (like i would hit someone and say “nothing official about it”). I’m not sure if we used it as an excuse for larger crimes, but I suppose we would’ve used it quite regularly as an apology.

Pepsi seemed to have done a good job of identifying itself with this slogan, as soon Pepsi too became our “weapon of choice” when it came to settling bets, and suchlike. This was the period of time when a tiny bottle of Pepsi had just become affordable by saving up on pocket money, and it was put to good use. The unofficial inter-class cricket tournament became “the pepsi cup” – the losing team was supposed to sponsor a bottle of pepsi for each member of the winning team. If my memory serves me right (it usually does), the tournament never got completed.

This phase lasted for almost all of my 9th standard, if I remember right. Maybe it was briefly replaced by other phases, but this was the defining brand of that academic year. All bets were settled with pepsi. Whenever we went out, usually to play cricket, we would refresh ourselves with pepsi. It was the time of life when people had just started courting. Budding couples would go out to have – a Pepsi.

I don’t remember the exact date, but by the time we had moved to 10th, Preity Zinta had struck. With her “thodi si pet pooja”. Perk was the thing now. Considering that a chocolate bar is a much better device for putting blade compared to aerated cola, the number of “couples” also increased. Also, in 10th standard, the number of people going for tuitions increased, and this seemed to cause an increase in the general levels of pocket money.

There were people in my class who would stay in class for lunch break (when everyone else went out to the field) because knew they knew that raiding a certain classmate’s bag would yield them a rich haul of perks (the guy was simultaneously blading some four females, so his stocks always remained high). Then, unlike pepsi, perk could be consumed discreetly. Copious quantities of it were consumed while sitting in class (i used to sit in the first bench so that I could have unhindered view to a certain junior classroom, but  that didn’t stop me from eating perk in class).

I remember that on a certain day in August that year, the shop near the school ran out of Perk stocks. It was the day after rakshabandhan, and given the quantity of unsolicited blade that was happening then, the number of rakhis tied had seen a sudden increase. And that had to be reciprocated – with Perk of course. Some rakhis weren’t acknowledged, which meant that this was probably the only day in more than a month when certain people DIDN’T give Perks to certain other people.

The first four of my five “pursuits” were low-cost (three of those were in school; and even the fourth was before I had drawn my first salary, so you can’t blame me). All four of them put together, I don’t think I spent more than a hundred rupees on blade. This included ten rupees that I had spent on a perk for #1. She had dodged me all day, and by the time I gave it to her at the end of the day, it had melted in my pocket.

I think I should incorporate this scene in one of the movies I’m going to make. Boy chases girl all day, trying to give her a Perk. She skilfully dodges him all day, and evades his offer of Perk. And each time she evades him, he is shown putting the perk back in his pocket. Finally at the end of the day, they meet. It’s time to go – in the distance you can see her father on the bike, waiting to pick her up. And he gives her the perk. She opens it. The perk has melted. And then her heart melts. Ok I must stop now.