Archive for the ‘Desi’ Category


Friday, May 23rd, 2014

Attention must be paid to Narendra Modi. A good place to start is the article The Emperor Uncrowned in the Caravan by a Malayali journalist, Vinod K. Jose. The story of the attack on Gulburg Society is chilling.

Modi has been compared to Ronald Reagan (small government conservative supported by the religious right), Margaret Thatcher (Iron Lady), Deng Xiao Ping (economic reform), Nixon (went to China), Putin (wears a shirt sometimes) and inevitably, Hitler. All of this is nonsense. The leader Modi most resembles is Indira Gandhi, whom he admires more than his own party colleague, Vajpayee. (more…)


Sunday, August 23rd, 2009

The Harish-Chandra Research Institute is located on the banks of the Ganga, within sight of where the Yamuna flows into it. From its magnificent gardens you can see the sand bank that marks the confluence of the two most sacred rivers of Hinduism. Everyone-mythical figures such as Rama and Krishna, poets such as Kalidasa and Gurus like Vivekananda- has been at the Sangam. Today I got to see it up close. After a trip to the city of Prayag that has existed at this point a few thousand years.

Allahabad, as it is now known, is a small city but with an exceptional influence on India’s history. Half of its Prime Ministers are from here. Of course, three of them are lineal descendants of Nehru, whose house here we visited today.

This is in the heartland of India. And people here are large hearted. If you can avoid the moneygrabbing priests at the makeshift temples, everyone is laid back and seem generally happy. A few dollars go a long way. We saw no tourists, unlike at Varanasi. This ancient land exerts a pull, a yearning to reconnect with the past that is not rational and all the stronger for it.

My Name Is Khan

Sunday, August 16th, 2009

Shah Rukh Khan, the hero of many Bollywood movies, was detained by US immigration for two hours because his surname popped up on a watch list. Khan is the most common last name among South Asian Muslims; there are more Khans in the world than Smiths. Even in the US, it is the 665th most popular name.

Khan was an honorific title of Mongol tribes, and eventually was adopted as a surname by many people who are descended from a Khan or wanted to be associated to the name. Indeed, 0.5% of all men in the world carry a genetic marker believed to be passed on by Genghis Khan. There were strong selective pressures to help propagate the Khan name when the Mongols dominated the whole of Asia.


One among the hundreds of millions of people with the surname Khan is a very bad guy: AQ Khan, the man who built the Pakistani atom bomb and sold nuclear secrets to Libya and North Korea. But the surname alone has very little value in identifying a person in this case: US immigration should have known how common it is.

On the other hand, Indians tend to be overly sensitive in such matters. Only a month ago there was a furor because Indian employees of Continental Airlines frisked former President Kalam. This was considered an indignity: all Indian airports post a list of VVIPs (Very Very Important Persons) who are exempt from security procedures, a list that starts with the President and former Presidents. Indian culture accepts such special treatment for celebrities and retired politicians. (more…)

The Entrance Exam Frenzy

Wednesday, August 12th, 2009

Here in Kerala, the teenagers are the busiest people. They start their day at 7:00 in the morning with classes to prepare them for the brutal competition in the entrance examinations to publicly run colleges. 9:30 to 3:30 is school. Then its off to classes again. Often till 9 pm. Weekends are even busier. Classes the whole day. Then homework.


The Indian Railway II

Monday, April 20th, 2009

What Went Right?

The Railway was a failure when it was a monopoly. Now it has competition from trucks plying the recently built highways. So they had to shape up to survive. The Government owned airlines are struggling due to competition from the newly licensed private carriers. The Indian Airlines (the domestic airline) has already been folded into Air India. So why did the Railway thrive under competition and not IA?

The Indian Railway I

Monday, April 20th, 2009

The Indian Railway is the world’s largest employer. The main lines were built in British times. Mostly to move the army around to quell rebellions in different parts. The Madras regiment in Punjab, the Punjab Regiment in Assam and so on. But later, it also became the common man’s mode of travel in India. For a few dollars you can go from Chennai to Delhi or from Mumbai to Kolkatta. The trains are slow and the bathrooms are–ahem–aromatic. The food is of questionable hygiene. But you will see the countryside, and most likely make some friends. In the long distance trains, if you have a sleeper berth, the journey is comfortable but not luxurious. I am not talking about the palaces on wheels meant for foreign tourists.

A Certain Swagger

Monday, April 20th, 2009

I mentioned to a colleague that Varadhan, a mathematician of Indian origin at NYU, won the Abel Prize. One of the top honors in the field. My colleague turned to the person sitting next to him, a visiting academic, and said:

In the middle of all that corruption, they are good in statistics. It must be because the British were good at it.

He was expressing a common view of India as a corrupt place where nothing works, perhaps with an occasional genius. Even Americans whose knowledge of India does not extend beyond watching “Slumdog Millionaire” feel free to pass such judgment. (more…)

An Order Or A Request?

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

There is an apocryphal story about Gandhi, said to have taken place when he was working as a lawyer in London. It was unusual for an Indian to have an Englishman working under him, but Gandhi had an English assistant. One day Gandhi asked him to do something and the Asssistant asked,

Mr. Gandhi, is that an order or a request?

Gandhi replied:

If you do it, it would be a request.

Gandhi did not have to ask a second time.

Hard to know for sure if it really happened.

India Gets Spy Satellite From Israel

Saturday, March 21st, 2009

So that is the payoff. A few months ago India launched a spy satellite for Israel, using its PSLV rocket. So why take the risk of doing a favor for Israel, when the political situation in South Asia is so inflammatory?

Indian Rocket Launches Israeli Satellite

Now we know. Indian satellites lack the Synthetic Aperture Radar that can see through clouds and at night. The Mumbai terrorist attack highlights the importance of being able to track small vessels in the Indian ocean and to watch terrorist training camps within Pakistan. The two countries can fill the gaps in each other’s capabilities. And then there is the whole enemy of my enemy thing happening also.

It is not something either side wants to talk about much: (more…)

Fatwa On Demand

Friday, December 26th, 2008

Ever since the Salman Rushdie incident, the word Fatwa has had a negative connotation. Perhaps no word has been as misunderstood, with the exceptions of jihad and madrassa.

It turns out that a fatwa is a kind of judicial opinion from an islamic religious authority. In nations that have adopted the Shariah as part of the legal system, a fatwa could have the force of law. But mostly, it is guidance for the faithful. Because Islam does not have a hierarchy like the Catholic Church, each religious authority has to rely on its own reputation as the force behind its fatewa.

Outside of the Middle East, the most respected school of Islamic studies is Darul Uloom, located at Deoband near Delhi in India. It was founded in 1866 after the defeat of Indian forces by the British. The school played an important role in the Freedom Struggle of India. It opposed the creation of Pakistan, and asks its followers to participate peacefully in Indian democracy. Its influence extends well outside of India. The mainstream of Islam in Pakistan is historically of the Deoband school. After Partition, certain logistical difficulties clearly exist and Saudi Arabia is playing an increasing role in providing support to the madrassas. (more…)

Who Is On The Line?

Sunday, December 7th, 2008

Hoax phone calls used to be funny. As a teenager, Steve Wozniak, the inventor of the Apple computer, figured out the Bell System technical protocols- he and Steve Jobs had found the manual at the SLAC Library. Woz used this knowledge to call the Pope, pretending to be Henry Kissinger. His fake German accent was good enough to get the Holy Father out of bed. But before he took the phone, an aide figured out that it was some California teenager pulling a prank. (more…)

Who Attacked Mumbai and Where Are They?

Wednesday, December 3rd, 2008

Lahore Country Club

The Lahore Country Club in Muridke

The US National Intelligence Director has taken the unusual step of placing blame in public: AP

The same group that carried out last week’s attack is believed to be behind the 2006 Mumbai train bombings that killed more than 200, National Intelligence Director Mike McConnell said Tuesday during a speech at Harvard University.

McConnell did not identify the group by name. However, the Indian government has attributed the 2006 attack to Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Pakistani terrorist group based in Kashmir, and the Students Islamic Movement of India.

Hard to know how to evaluate this information. The Bush Administration just isn’t that credible after the epic failure of intelligence on WMD in Iraq. They could be right this time: the boy who cried wolf was right one time too. Whether or not the LeT are behind this particular attack, it has already been designated a terrorist organization based on its previous record.

At first one may think that the LeT is a secretive organization, operating out of some cave in the mountains. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Although it is banned, the LeT actually operates freely in Pakistan: it just changed its name. It runs schools, hospitals and provides social services. Its headquarters is in Muridke: a suburb of Lahore, Pakistan’s second largest city.They even have a website in English. and in Urdu ( the national language of Pakistan.) (more…)

What Next?

Tuesday, December 2nd, 2008

Anger in India is currently focused on its own Government. The mindless bloodbath that followed some previous attacks has not happened. What we see instead is a quieter rage, one that can be channeled to something constructive. For, rage has its uses too.

Every one, the US Sec State included, seems to be counseling the Indian Government against an overreaction. Certainly, no one wants a war between two Nuclear-Armed adversaries.

But what of the dangers of under-reaction? What will be the consequence to India and to the world if they are allowed to get away with it?

There seems to be consensus that Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) is behind this attack: (more…)

The Obama Criteria

Sunday, November 30th, 2008

President-elect Barack Obama is about to announce his foreign policy team.No matter who is on it, Obama promises that the policy will be set by him. Nowhere is his intellect more needed than on policy towards Pakistan.

On 1 Aug 2007 Obama said:

The first step must be getting off the wrong battlefield in Iraq, and taking the fight to the terrorists in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

He said he would make the hundreds of millions of dollars in US military aid to Pakistan conditional on the following actions by the Pakistani government:

  1. substantial progress in closing down terrorist training camps
  2. evict foreign fighters
  3. prevent the Taleban from using Pakistan as staging area for attacks in Afghanistan

I have not heard a clearer analysis yet. There is more: (more…)

Mumbai Culprits

Saturday, November 29th, 2008

At this early stage, public information has to be gleaned from the Indian media: most sources here are quoting Indian reporters. Indian TV is aggressive in its reporting. But it can also be even more sensationalist and exploitive than the American media. Imagine CNN on acid and you get their partner IBN. The FOX sister channel in India is SKY-TV; the reporters are much like Geraldo Rivera only without the restraint and sophistication.

The print media in India is better, as here. The Times of India, for example, is a usually reliable source. They report that at least one terrorist has been captured alive. He is

21 year old Azam Amir Kasav, who hails from tehsil Gipalpura in Pakistan’s Faridkot.

That is in Punjab, the largest of the four provinces of Pakistan. (more…)

North Vs South

Saturday, February 16th, 2008

Raj Thackeray
North Indian migrant workers in Mumbai are being attacked by a militant organization (known by the acronym MNS) which exploits the resentment of the local population. The most odious of the political leaders egging the violent mob on is Raj Thackeray. A generation ago the same folks (Raj’s uncle Bal was the leader back then) were targeting South Indians. What changed? (more…)

What Would Gandhi Drive?

Saturday, January 12th, 2008

The Nano

Nano Nano
Nano has been a buzz word in physics for a while. Now it is also the name of a car, made by Tata Motors of India. It is cute, looking more like a toy car than a real one. It is small. I have seen potholes in Calcutta that are bigger. And most of all it is cheap. It costs less than the DVD player in the SUV that some of my neighbors drive. The Nano is unlikely to be another Yugo: India is not in danger of breaking up, destroying its supply chain. The dream is that will be the next Volkswagen Bug. More likely it will be the next Trabant. Not too bad.

Whether the Nano succeeds or not, it is part of a larger trend. This is what engineering for the masses will look like in the future. What the iPod did to the record industry and the arxiv did to costly journals is about to happen to many well-established businesses.

So what do the $2,500 car and the $200 laptop tell us? Driving and computing are not the only things that can be done much cheaper and smaller. (more…)

Drona’s Revenge

Wednesday, January 9th, 2008

Drona was the greatest teacher of his time. He had no peer in his command of the martial arts and sciences. But, at the end of many years of studying and perfecting his skills, he found himself destitute, and with a wife and son to support. He decided to pay a visit to his best buddy from elementary school, who was now King of the minor country of Panchala. Perhaps his friend would arrange for a job. (more…)

Medieval Navigation in the Arabian Sea

Thursday, August 9th, 2007

Read First: Longitude Zero

Indians call the bay between Africa and India the Arabian Sea. Throughout the medieval times it was controlled by Arab sailors. They established settlements down the East coast of Africa, as far down as Malindi in Kenya. (more…)

Longitude Zero

Thursday, August 9th, 2007

Continued in: Medieval Navigation in the Arabian Sea

One of the early achievements of Indian Mathematical Astronomy (jyotisha) was the system of latitude (aksha-amsa) and Longitude (rekha-amsa). The prime meridian passed through Ujjaini, the capital of the country of Avanti. (more…)

The Almanack

Saturday, July 28th, 2007

What is the date today? A simple question, but with a complex answer.
Poor Richards Almanack
The story of calendars is the story of human civilization itself. The millenial 1 article by Amartya Sen tries to disentangle fact from fantasy in the history of calendars. Never an easy task in history, especially hard in the keeping of time itself. (more…)

White Elephants

Friday, June 22nd, 2007

NASA claims that at The International Space Station (ISS) , “astronauts are working to improve life on Earth”. Originally supposed to cost under $10B, it has cost at least 30 billion of our tax dollars so far; maybe even $100B. It was given the go ahead even as the Superconduting SuperCollider (SSC) was shut down as too expensive. (more…)

Kalla Yoga 2

Sunday, June 3rd, 2007

Continued from Part

I need to hurry up and launch my own brand of yoga before the inevitable yoga backlash sets in. It must be distinctive, eye-catching and easily patented. More than a set of exercises. A whole way of life, which will require many accessories. (more…)

Kalla Yoga 1

Sunday, June 3rd, 2007

Yoga means `union’ in Sanskrit. It could be your union with the universe. Or it can simply mean a meeting, as in a political or cultural gathering. In mathematical texts, yoga means sum. It is a rather common word in all Indian languages descended from Sanskrit.

But in America, Yoga has come to mean a system of physical exercise. It is a mystical and esoteric word. It is also a multi-billion dollar industry, a lifestyle, even a religion in all but name. Twenty million people practice it in the US alone. Like wine for France and pasta for Italy, yoga has become India’s defining export, its brand identity. (more…)

Another Namesake

Sunday, April 15th, 2007

Mira Nair’s movie `Namesake’ is about a man with an odd name
(Gogol) for an Indian. I have my own situation to deal with.
My name is usually written as Sarada G. Rajeev.