The Guerrilla fight

More important than salt…

In this post I am going to relate a story I had heard when I was a child. I had heard it a long time ago; so I might be filling in some details with my imagination. But what are folk-tales without these improvisations?

Once upon a time there was a king who had three daughters. He loved them all dearly, but the youngest was his favourite. One fine day, he decided to test his daughters’ loyalty for himself. He called the eldest one first.

“Dear Daughter. Tell me truthfully, how much do you value me?”

“I value you above all the riches of our kingdom, dear Father.”

The king was happy with her reply. He treated her to several expensive gifts and sent her back. Then he called his second daughter.

“Dear Daughter. Tell me truthfully, how much do you value me?”

“I value you more than all the wealth in heavens and earth, dear Father.”

This made him happier still and the second daughter returned with even more expensive gifts.

Finally, he called the youngest one, hoping to received the most pleasing reply from his favourite daughter.

“Dear Daughter. Tell me truthfully, how much do you value me?”

“Dear Father. I value you more than even common salt.”

The king was crestfallen and furious. His daughter compared his worth to that of salt. Common salt? Could she have thought of anything more worthless? In his anger, he banished his once-favourite daughter from his kingdom. His attendants accompanied her to the jungle on the outskirts of the kingdom and left her to her fate.

Years later, the king went hunting in the jungle and lost his way without having made even a single kill. He was famished. He spotted a woodcutter’s hut. Without revealing his real identity, he asked for the poor woodcutter’s hospitality and found him to be a generous host for his means. It took some time, but the woodcutter’s wife prepared several delicacies for him, all his favourites. She stood in the doorway, her face veiled, as her husband served the disguised king. The famished king attacked the food with gusto, but his enthusiasm went for a toss when he tasted the first curry. Hesitatingly he tried another dish, but that was no better either. Then he tasted the next, and the next. Finally he could not control his royal anger and yelled at them.

“What kind of a joke is this? How is one supposed to eat this food? It looks delicious, but there is no salt in it.”

Puzzled and intimidated, the woodcutter looked to his wife. What had come upon her? The one time they had a guest at house, how could she make such a mistake?

The wife spoke slowly, “But how could I have used something as cheap and lowly as salt while preparing food for the great king? Wouldn’t it have been an insult? I have used only the best grains, vegetables and spices.”

“But who has ever heard of… wait a minute. Who are you? And how do you know me for a king?”

“I am a foolish daughter, my Lord, who had the misfortune for inviting her father’s wrath over worthless salt. I have tried to be careful ever since.”

As she unveiled her face, the king was stunned to see his youngest daughter there. He was humbled before the wisdom of his daughter.

“Food is not edible without salt,” he mumbled.

“And without food no man can live, build and prosper, Father. There would be no wealth, no riches, no kingdom without food.”

“Salt is very important.”

“But I still think you are more important.”

The king understood his folly and atoned for it. He gifted large tracts of land and jewels and money to his daughter and son-in-law. The woodcutter also saw his fortune turned because of his wife’s ingenuity. And because of salt, of course!

Inspired by MK Dabbawala delivering paneer biryani without any salt in it.

Article of the Week: The obscure legal system that lets corporations sue countries by Claire Provost and Matt Kennard

I think it appeared as a cartoon in my facebook feed. It said something to the effect that the third world war is on and it not being fought through tanks, but through banks. The lament that corporations are the imperial powers of the 21st century has become almost clichéd. So clichéd indeed that we think these claims are exaggerated. Well – these pithy truisms are much closer to reality than the effectiveness of the latest weight-loss diet you have been recommended. The article I have selected for this week disturbingly points out one such system, using which corporations are not only able to undermine the sovereignty of nations but are turning these disputes into “asset-classes” against which they can raise money, not to fight the case, but to expand their business, while the states are so threatened that even democratically elected governments are not able to do right by their people.

The cases discussed in the article have mostly resulted in settlements or judgements that completely disregard the health, safety, social, economic and climate-change conditions of the people in these countries. And to top it all, all this has been done in the name of development. These investor-state dispute systems, one of which was created by the World Bank despite protests from almost every Latin American country, Philippines and Iraq, were supposed to help in the growth of developing and underdeveloped countries “by creating a welcome environment for international investments”. These were supposed to be “fair, impartial” mechanisms to resolve disputes. The reality is turning out to be bleak.

Corporations from developed countries are just have more support and are more adept at using these systems to their advantage than the states they are dealing with. Even in the rare cases that the state wins, the cost of dispute itself is too heavy for them to recover from. Read the complete article on The Guardian to get an idea of just how deep the rut is.

Book Recommendation: Pema and the Yak by Siofra O’Donavan

Pema and the Yak by Siofra O'Donavan
Pema and the Yak by Siofra O’Donovan

Pema and the Yak was an accidental, but timely find for me. I was on a very short and hurried trip to McLeod Ganj, the seat of Tibet’s government in exile. It is a tourist place to the core, with a picturesque view of Dhauladhar range, delicious cuisine of every kind in the restaurants run by Tibetans (now mostly India-born) and Indians alike, sufficiently commercialized Tibetan wares in the shops and the exoticism of colorful Buddhist buildings standing out amongst the dingy to okay-ish dwellings available for visitors at reasonable rates.

But guilt set in quickly for me. This tourism is built on the misery, loss and exile of a whole people. It’s fine to enjoy the cuisine and wares and mountains, but one has to stop and think what the exile of two generations has done to these people? The question was gnawing at me, but unfortunately I am not the kind of person who can strike conversations easily and make people open up to me. This book, which I spotted in a bookstore in McLeod Ganj was thus a godsend. It helped that it not only covered what I wanted to understand, but was also well-written.

It is easy to picture heroic, resilient people whose sole aim in life is to get their land and country back,  waiting and struggling till eternity for it. But can that be the reality? Can the day to day concerns and ambitions of people be sacrificed at the altar of this great vision which grows more impossible and blurry with every passing day? Can you really sit in judgement over a youngster who has never seen this promised land and dreams of going even further away – to the US and UK – for a better life? What about the elders who are still fierce, or those who have lost hope and are dying?

There is a human story for each one of those picturesque, cute, exotically dressed people: the lamas, the political exiles, the traditional teachers and doctors. This is a complicated and sometimes perilous history of their relationship with the locals.

Can a society whose structure has changed beyond recognition in the conditions of exile be restored even if their land was recovered? Especially when some of those changes are actually for the better, such as the breakdown of the old feudal theocratic hierarchy.

Yet who is to decide what is a better change and what is worse. Consider these telling quotes from the book about people of nomadic tribes, who have lost their tribe.

Without a herd, a nomad cannot be a nomad. He can only be a wanderer.
Or those who had to “settle” down.
For a nomad it is a trauma to settle, just as it is a trauma for a settled person to take to the roads and live in tents, as so many refugees around the world have to do today.
Despite all the hard-core investigation, the author does have a penchant for the emotional and the mystic. It bothers me when she goes down that road. But those turns are not many and even when they are there, they don’t steal the book out of its real merit. Some of you may actually like that part, unlike me.

Book Description

Below is the book description from the publisher’s website.
Pema and the Yak is the fascinating story of a journey through the Himalaya along the Indo-Tibetan border into the heart of Tibet in Exile. Encounters with oracles, lamas, ex-political prisoners, Tibetan doctors, DJs, nomads, guerilla fighters, painters, poets, missionaries and Himalayan royalty paint a vibrant picture of Tibetans living in exile today.

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Article of the Week: Why can’t the world’s greatest minds solve the mystery of consciousness? by Oliver Burkeman

The article I have selected for the week addresses a curious question. Curious, because depending on which camp you are in, it is either the most important question humanity and sciences face today, or it is not a question at all. We know a lot about how our brains work. We understand how we learn, how memory works and how we perceive things. But despite all the progress in neuroscience and related disciplines, we don’t have an answer to the question of why “should all those complicated brain processes feel like anything from inside”. How does any of it result in Consciousness? The question has come to be known as “the Hard Problem of Consciousness” (the article describes how this phrase came to be).

But does the problem really exist? Is Consciousness really something that needs explanation? Apparently for many people, it doesn’t.

Daniel Dennett, the high-profile atheist and professor at Tufts University outside Boston, argues that consciousness, as we think of it, is an illusion: there just isn’t anything in addition to the spongy stuff of the brain, and that spongy stuff doesn’t actually give rise to something called consciousness. Common sense may tell us there’s a subjective world of inner experience – but then common sense told us that the sun orbits the Earth, and that the world was flat. Consciousness, according to Dennett’s theory, is like a conjuring trick: the normal functioning of the brain just makes it look as if there is something non-physical going on. To look for a real, substantive thing called consciousness, Dennett argues, is as silly as insisting that characters in novels, such as Sherlock Holmes or Harry Potter, must be made up of a peculiar substance named “fictoplasm”; the idea is absurd and unnecessary, since the characters do not exist to begin with.

Some think we are never going to understand consciousness, and some others have the notion that we probably already understand it, although the implications are bizarre.

in the last few years, several scientists and philosophers, Chalmers and Koch among them, have begun to look seriously again at a viewpoint so bizarre that it has been neglected for more than a century, except among followers of eastern spiritual traditions, or in the kookier corners of the new age. This is “panpsychism”, the dizzying notion that everything in the universe might be conscious, or at least potentially conscious, or conscious when put into certain configurations.

It appears difficult to agree on even the question where consciousness is concerned, much less the answer. The views on the question almost seem a matter of faith rather than of understanding. Everyone seems to find their position to be the obvious one and nobody seems to have argument enough to convert people from other camps.

Read the complete article on The Guardian and let us know where you stand on the Hard Problem?

Article of the Week: Slaves of History by Jori Lewis

Let’s play a word association game.

South Africa

Did you follow that with “America”? That’s alright. Most of us do. The narrative around slavery is very US-centric, and not just in the US. That’s why I found Slaves of History by Jori Lewis worth a read and picked it up for article recommendation of the week.

Not all slaves from Africa were taken to the new world. Many remained in Africa and this article talks about their descendants. Unlike in the US, the stigma of slavery continues to hound the descendants of slaves in West Africa, particularly in Senegal from where the writer reports.

Black Americans do not feel shame about slavery; they feel anger or sadness or any number of other emotions. The shame is for others; it is the collective shame of the US. Slavery is our history, but it is not who we are. In Senegal, the stigma of being a descendant of a slave still holds strong. For people of slave origin, their history is an open secret, one that is often difficult to speak out loud.

The hierarchy still exists. And although it is breaking in piecemeal ways, it isn’t quite gone yet.

We know that there is an inequality between us and that they are above me. There is an unwritten code of conduct. I know my limits. I know what I have the right to do and what I do not. And I don’t need anyone to teach me a lesson.

People of slave descent cannot become the village chief or imams in the mosque.

Even running for political office, which is theoretically possible, is a bit off-limits in his mind. ‘Most of the descendants of slaves know their limits and they don’t even try to become candidates for elected office, even if they have the right,’ he said. ‘It’s not possible to stop the sea with just my arms.’

A presidential candidate was called by his opponent to be a ‘descendant of slaves’ and to have ‘come from a family of cannibals’. It was the former comment that caused the real stir. If you are thinking how the ‘chaiwallah’ comment meant to degrade Narendra Modi ended up biting his opponent instead, you will be disappointed in Senegal. The candidate there was insulted by the ‘descendant of slave’ charge and hired a traditional West African storyteller to articulate his lineage proving that he came from a family of respected warriors and not slaves. Turns out, it isn’t politically incorrect to use the term  ‘descendant of slave’ as a derogatory accusation there!

There are other anecdotes from the oral history of slavery, people who managed to change their identities and forget their slave past, those who are still stuck, those who are fighting it, and those who take their station in life as granted.

But we Indians need not get too smug. “Illegal” caste-based discrimination and crimes are as much a part of our present as the “abolished” slavery is of Senegal’s.

Read the complete article on Aeon.

Book Recommendation: The Outcast by William Winwood Reade

The Outcast by Willian Winwood Reade
The Outcast by Willian Winwood Reade

Have you ever been in a situation where your deepest beliefs are proved conclusively wrong? Have you been tortured by the proverbial head vs. heart struggle that ensues? Do you know that feeling when your mind cannot continue to hold on to the old ideas even at gunpoint? But letting those go would create a vacuum that your heart would burst trying to fill. Taking the bullet would seem the easier way out.

There is a cold, rational, philosophical and intellectual aspect to this situation. You are enlightened. There is a tragic, personal, humane aspect to it too. You might be broken.

The book I have selected for this month, The Outcast, by William Winwood Reade explores both these aspects. It is what is called a secularist work and it was included in the Thinker’s library, referred to in an earlier article recommendation.

It is the story of two young men, who lose their faith in the religion they have been taught since childhood. Considering the time in which the novel is set, the consequences are not only personal and emotional, but also social and economical. One becomes insane and commits suicide; the other survives to tell both tales but loses a lot in the process.

The beauty of the book is that it is like a gentle hand stroking your shoulder in assurance as you make that immense leap from theism to atheism, hoping to lose only your irrationality and not your humanity. The author appreciates what it takes to abandon religion. It is not like the threatening, belittling sermons of aggressive atheists who cannot (or  pretend not to) sympathize with why people need religion at all or how much it means to abandon something you have grown up believing in, irrespective of the rational merits of abandonment.

The inevitable, but insoluble question about who/what God is has also been discussed with intellectual rigour and personal sensitivity. The madman’s ravings makes Him out to be demigod whose drama production is called The Earth. It is produced to make an intellectual point to his peers. Too bad if the little animated creatures he made on earth are actually sentient and  subjected to cruel death through wars, diseases and natural disasters! He gets criticized for his cruelty and indifference, but he has already created what he wanted to create.

The sane man discovers an interpretation, which comes from a well-discussed line of philosophical thought. The bigger truth, if any, about God is impossible for the human mind to decipher. We have created the semi-human God. That’s not likely to be right. The concept defies reason all too often. Whatever higher powers are there above us, they cannot be understood in anthropomorphic terms. But this disbelief in the God that religion forces on us doesn’t mean we can’t be good. It reminds me of the final realization Levin has in the legendary novel Anna Karenina, although for him the revelation was more about returning to religion than abandoning it (strange, isn’t it?).

The sane man also discovers what he calls his own religion. Be good without expecting any rewards for it – in this life or in afterlife ( echoes of the Bhagwad Gita?).

No – I haven’t summarized the book for you. The conclusions are nuanced and aren’t even the main point of the book. The point is in the process of losing faith and losing yourself with it, or surviving it.

Despite being 140 years old, this book is immensely readable and relevant today. We struggle with the necessity as well as the terror of the loss of religious faith more today than ever in history.

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Article of the Week: I Fooled Millions Into Thinking Chocolate Helps Weight Loss

The article by John Bohannon that I have chosen for this week can be thought of as a follow up to or even an initiation to the book of the month for May. What is even better here is that it is a first person account of how badly designed scientific experiments get legitimacy and popularity if they only translate into headlines that people want to believe. It is a sting operation of sorts into the functioning of a large section of scientific research and publications and into how science reporting works in popular media, even the more creditable ones.

The Bild story quotes the study’s lead author, Johannes Bohannon, Ph.D., research director of the Institute of Diet and Health: “The best part is you can buy chocolate everywhere.”

I am Johannes Bohannon, Ph.D. Well, actually my name is John, and I’m a journalist. I do have a Ph.D., but it’s in the molecular biology of bacteria, not humans. The Institute of Diet and Health? That’s nothing more than a website.

Other than those fibs, the study was 100 percent authentic.

So, if the study was authentic, how was the public “fooled”?

Here’s a dirty little science secret: If you measure a large number of things about a small number of people, you are almost guaranteed to get a “statistically significant” result. Our study included 18 different measurements—weight, cholesterol, sodium, blood protein levels, sleep quality, well-being, etc.—from 15 people. (One subject was dropped.) That study design is a recipe for false positives.


With our 18 measurements, we had a 60% chance of getting some“significant” result with p < 0.05. (The measurements weren’t independent, so it could be even higher.) The game was stacked in our favor.

It isn’t a good idea to be on cutting edge in the fields where you lack the time or competence to critically examine every new fad. So most of us would do well to avoid reading diet advice in media (or even science journals).

The key to success in popular media is rather disappointing.

The key is to exploit journalists’ incredible laziness. If you lay out the information just right, you can shape the story that emerges in the media almost like you were writing those stories yourself. In fact, that’s literally what you’re doing, since many reporters just copied and pasted  text.

Then there is more bad news. There isn’t much hope of getting conclusive dietary advice in the near future.

But science will figure it out, right? Now that we’re calling obesity an epidemic, funding will flow to the best scientists and all of this noise will die down, leaving us with clear answers to the causes and treatments.

Or maybe not. Even the well-funded, serious research into weight-loss science is confusing and inconclusive, laments Peter Attia, a surgeon who co-founded a nonprofit called the Nutrition Science Initiative. For example, the Women’s Health Initiative—one of the largest of its kind—yielded few clear insights about diet and health. “The results were just confusing,” says Attia. “They spent $1 billion and couldn’t even prove that a low-fat diet is better or worse.” Attia’s nonprofit is trying to raise $190 million to answer these fundamental questions. But it’s hard to focus attention on the science of obesity, he says. “There’s just so much noise.”

So, there! Just stick to the basics when it comes to lifestyle choices. If it sounds exotic, when it comes to dietary advice, it probably is wrong.

Read the complete article on io9.

Article of the Week: Without immigrants, none of us would be here

Let me accept at the outset, the article by Ian Goldin that I have picked up is weak. It’s call for “Fresh thinking and bold action” is based on diffused reasoning and it doesn’t look like he understands or wants to think about the motivations of the people he is addressing. Even purely on the merits of argument, it isn’t as solid, factual or fool-proof as you would expect from an academician. You might wonder why I picked this article as a recommended read, if it appeals strongly neither to  my logic or emotions.

The reason is the bold (even if carelessly made) assertion in the article that immigration has been made too difficult in present times and it should not be so. Think of it. The Europeans persecuted for religious, political or legal reasons in earlier centuries found refuge in India, the Americas, China, Hong Kong and a bunch of other places across the globe. Today Rohingya Muslims have nowhere to go. We may regard national boundaries as sacrosanct, but is it just? Is there anything natural about it?

Yes – I understand that countries cannot  give up overnight their immigration restrictions. It will bring nothing but chaos. But is making the borders rigid by the day the way to go for the human race? Read the complete article on The Conversation and think about it even if you don’t particularly like the article.