The Puneri

Pune etc. Nowadays, mostly etc

A Walk With Time

My grandparents used to stay right behind Good Luck Cafe in Deccan Gymkhana. And for as long as I can remember, my grandfather would set off every evening for a walk on the tekdis.

It used to be a long rambling walk. He would walk up the Maruti tekdi, having climbed up the path that ran alongside the Gokhale Institute, climb down onto Senapati Bapat Road, and then climb up Vetaal tekdi. The descent would be from Chaturshringi Mandir, and from there, he would make his way back home. That’s a fairly long walk, and he would do it every evening.

I would accompany him occasionally. Walking with him was a treat, and in more ways than one. He used to take hard boiled sweets with him on these walks, orange flavored, and I could count on getting some at regular intervals. We’d meet his friends and their pets on these walks, and those encounters were always fun. But the time I got to spend with him on these walks was, in retrospect, the most valuable gift of all. All these years later, I can’t remember the conversations we had, but I do remember the route, the people we met and just the fact that we spent time together.

Time and my grandfather moved on, and as with most other people in this city, walks on the tekdi became an increasingly rare activity. Once a year at best, although in truth, even that would be an exaggeration.

But this past year or so, things have changed. I am a father now, and my daughter is now old enough to take for walks on the tekdi. And every chance I got this year, we’ve been doing just that. We climb from the Senapati Bapat Road side of the Maruti tekdi and get down on the other, but apart from that, the route remains the same.

Now, on that hill, towards the Deccan Gymkhana side, lie two little rocky outcrops – protrusions from the ground, really, that look for all the world like two chairs. One is much larger than the other, and the smaller one can comfortably seat only a child. I and my grandfather used to rest for a while there, I on the small rock and he on the big one, before resuming our evening walk. I had forgotten about those rocks over all these years, until I climbed the hill again with my daughter.

But that first time this year, when I climbed the hill with her, she ran towards those rocks as soon as she sighted them, and sat on the small one, and excitedly bade me to sit on the other, much as I must have done with my grandfather.

It was the most important promotion of my life, getting to sit on the big rock. Everybody of a particular age must experience these moments, I suppose, in one form or the other, and see life come full circle. That balmy summer evening, it was my turn to experience nostalgia, pride, love and poignancy all at the same time.

My grandfather passed away in 2001, and my daughter was born in 2013.They never got to see each other, and I say that not in order to communicate an obvious fact, but convey an enormous regret.

But sitting on that rock on that first walk on the hill with my daughter, and on every trip since, is an enormously joyous, this-is-what-life-is-about kind of feeling. It reminds me of those walks all those many years ago, but also promises me so many more walks to come in the years ahead.

When I became a father three years ago, I was convinced there could be no better feeling.

I was wrong. Being a bridge between the past and the future is even better.

 

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The Growing Irrelevance of Examinations

It doesn’t matter which side of the fence you are on when it comes to examinations.

You hate ’em.

If you’re a student, you hate preparing for examinations, and you hate writing them. If you’re the teacher, you hate setting the paper, and you positively loathe correcting them. So if you think about it, one way of defining the education system is to say that it collects money from one group of people and gives it to another and makes both do something they would rather not do.

Which doesn’t add up, you might think, and you’d be right. And yet here we are. All that the education system does is make students write papers. Dozens of them.

And it’s not just the fact that students have to write examinations. It’s that they have to write examinations. This is the sixteenth year of the twenty-first century. We have driverless cars in California. They talk of sending people into space for tourism. Oculus Rift is about to be launched to the public.

And we still have answer any four of the following in detail (15 marks each). Students still draw margins on the right and the left, and underline important words and all that jazz. They are not, you understand, going to be ever again doing anything like this. They will sit in air-conditioned offices, in front of sleek, gleaming computers, and work out, collaboratively, answers to problems.

Collaboratively is a big fancy word that means, in UGC parlance, copying. If, in a modern corporate organization, you don’t copy, you are shunned as a lone wolf. Why then do we insist that every student memorize, and write out in detail,  the nine tasks that the FSLRC set out for itself in its draft report? Who exactly does this benefit?

This is not, by any stretch of the imagination, original thinking. That the educational system isn’t working, and that examinations in particular just don’t make sense is something that everybody knows, but inertia. There are hajjar things wrong with the way we conduct examinations, but today, I want to focus on one positively fatal flaw.

And that fatal flaw is this: in examinations, teachers frame the questions, and students answer them.

So obvious, so matter of course, so banal is this statement that it takes a little time to realize how horrible a system this is. All we’re doing, when we ask students to do this, is learn the subject well enough to be able to answer whatever question we throw at them. And therefore, when they get out there in, y’know, the real world, they ask for a problem, so that they may solve it.

But in the real world, more often than not, you’re paid to frame the question.

Because in today’s collaborative world, knowing how to solve the problem isn’t the challenge. Identifying a set of problems, and prioritizing them, for that moment, in that organization – that’s what makes your bank account go kerrchinnnggg on the first of every month.

And until we help students get the ability to do that, in situations that approximate what their eventual jobs will look like, examinations will continue to be little more than what they are today: a process that nobody wants to, but everybody must, go through.

So what can change? Well, here’s something I tried out in a course I taught this past semester. My final take home assignment was something like this: “Set the final question paper for this subject. Ask any five questions that you think are appropriate, and in each case, explain why you chose that particular question. Also explain why you left out the topics you did”.

Students were free, in this case, to speak to each other, to me, or to whomsoever they wished to while researching this assignment. They could look up stuff online, consult textbooks, do pretty much whatever they wanted. The idea was to make each of them think about what was important enough to be asked, and what could safely be excluded, and why. In other words, learn how to frame probing, comprehensive questions.

I’m not for a moment suggesting that  this is a one-size-fits-all solution, but it is (to me, at any rate) a step removed from the path conventional examinations take. And the farther we move away from answer-any-four-in-detail world, the better the education system will be for it.

That’s a journey of more than a thousand steps, and a single blog post isn’t the place to detail every one of them. But this post was, for me, a place to state what everybody knows to be true: exams are pointless, and they need to change radically.

How exactly this might be done is a story that I’ll attempt to flesh out in coming days.

But first, this is the third installment in a five part series about what’s up with education these days. Part one and part two are here, and in the next post, I’ll try and tackle part four: pedagogy.

Textbooks have become (mostly) pointless

Imagine you lived in a Google-less world.

Or, if you’d like an alternate phrasing, imagine its pretty much anytime before 1999. If you wanted students to have a reasonable amount of information about a subject that you were going to teach them, it was incumbent upon you to recommend a textbook. And anytime before 1999, this made perfect sense.

You could say that if you wanted to have beginner/intermediate/expert level knowledge about Subject A, well, then, boning up on textbook B was de riguer. You could, on the other hand, dig up fifteen to twenty papers by different authors, which collectively would be the Bible of the subject in question. But dragging up the papers would take time, arriving at a consensus on exactly which papers to read would be a huge exercise, and in any case the list would have to be updated every now and then. Plus, and this is a well known fact, papers are drier than groundwater reserves.

It would not be possible to read up-to-date musings of industry experts for free (blogs), it would not be possible to interact on a real time basis with the acknowledged experts in the field (Twitter) and updating the textbook would be an exercise that resulted in a new edition, which essentially meant higher prices for next to no reason.

But in a class conducted this year, I was able to recommend podcasts featuring Nobel Prize winning economists, blogs written by people from the same exalted category, Twitter accounts of people who were in the industry, applying the very theories we were discussing in class, and a whole host of papers that were online, for free. I was also able to conduct entire courses without once having to open a textbook – and that was a truly wonderful thing.

I have developed, over the last seven years or so, a visceral hatred for textbooks. Its not that textbooks are all that bad – they’re limited, they’re expensive and they’re straitjacketed in terms of content and structure, but all of this together isn’t why I hate textbooks.

Its because we have students who demand a textbook in every single course. Over time, we have reached a mentality that says that a course must have a recommended textbook. Instructor must assign chapters from said textbook. Students must read chapters and solve end-of-chapter problems. Instructor will design paper on basis of said textbooks, students will write exam having prepared accordingly, and all is right with the world.

Except of course, all that has happened is students have gotten better at knowing part of one specific textbook about the subject.

It does not amount to knowing the subject. The blinkered approach that textbooks invoke in students is what has made me hate textbooks with a vengeance. Because the impression that students, teachers, colleges, parents and everybody else associated with the educational system  have is that the-textbook-is-the-subject.

And in a world in which the Internet exists, not only is this untrue, it is dangerously limited, restrictive and frustrating. There is so much to be learned out there, for free or otherwise, that limiting yourself to a textbook just makes no sense. Use it as a reference, use it as a handy tool to help you understand stuff that needs clarification, but do not, for the love of god, pretend that the book is all there is to it.

And it gets even worse with the “end of chapter problems”. The expectation that the examination will have the same “type” of problems as does the textbook might be convenient in the short run, but it doesn’t teach you how to adapt to problems as you might encounter them in real life. Worse, and this is a point I’m going to write about at length in my next post, this approach simply helps you solve problems, not identify them. And in my opinion, identifying problems is a far more important skill today than having the ability to solve them – but more about that in a later post.

In short, then: textbooks are static, limited and structured ways to learn about a subject, and it is entirely possible, and desirable, that we enrich students knowledge about subjects by giving them much, much more to learn than just a textbook.

Technology and Education

What is education all about? It’s about learning, and it is usually involves a person delivering knowledge to another person.

What is the education industry all about? It’s about signaling to the world that a student was good enough to get into a particular college, that a person was good enough to graduate from said college, and is therefore (probably) good enough to do work in the real world.

Technology has changed both education and the education industry, but I’m going to try and argue in this piece that it hasn’t yet figured out how to do both at the same time. This might become clearer by the time I get done with this post, but here’s a one line summary: there’s LinkedIn, and there’s Coursera, but we don’t, just yet, have LinkSera.

It’ll take a while, but I’ll end up circling back to that point, because that’s the Holy Grail of tech in education, right there.

When I was finishing my Masters degree, OHP slides were still in vogue. We used to photocopy notes, textbooks and academic papers, and the internet was a way to use Orkut.

Today, I routinely get students who walk up to the lectern and place their phones there with the voice recorder on. I have students create Google Docs documents and work on collaborative note taking. Students are more than willing to look up stuff as I speak, and help the class along by supplying the latest, most up-to-date statistics in whatever subject is being discussed at the moment. I use free, online resources like Gapminder World to help students understand the beauty of data, or to help them uncover the mysteries of monetary policy. Collecting data and validating theories is increasingly easy, and not just for American data.

Simply put, used correctly, technology is a fantastic enabler of more relevant, more interesting methods of teaching. I can speak with authority about the fields in which I have taught, but I have no doubt that all fields of study are reaping the benefits of technology.

But technology isn’t just about an aid while delivering lectures in a physical classroom. It also allows you to conduct classes virtually (think Coursera, Udacity or Marginal Revolution University). It allows you to verify whether students have in fact learnt everything that is being discussed in class, and allows you to build basic CRM’s around an educational system.To cut a long story short, the delivery of, the validation of, and the data storage and retrieval associated with the academic process is now much easier because of technology. And over time, it will only get easier, better and quicker.

Technology has also made it easier to tell the world who you are. Your LinkedIn profile is your way of telling the world where you’re from, what you’ve been doing, and what reputed people from your sphere of influence have to say about what you’ve been doing. Your Facebook profile does much the same thing, though arguably in a non-corporate fashion. Your Twitter  account, your blog (cough, cough), indeed, your avatar online is your signaling device to potential recruiters: this is who I am. And for the most part, this happens whether you like it or not.

But, in my opinion at least, technology hasn’t yet married these two disparate aspects. It hasn’t yet come up with a unified, scalable model that applies technology to both education and the education industry at the same time. We trust Coursera et al to teach us stuff, although it doesn’t always pan out the way you might think – dropout rates for courses offered online are scarily high. We trust LinkedIn to act as a platform via which we tell the world how good we are – but we don’t have a service, just yet, that does both.

Well, we don’t have an online service that does both. We do have an offline service that does both – it’s called a college. A college offers an education, and a college works as a signaling device. And the reason Coursera isn’t likely to replace a college anytime soon is because while it may be solving at least part of the former problem, it is nowhere near cracking even a fraction of the latter problem.

A college offers an education, and works as a signaling device, and charges you a bomb because it is able to do both things at the same time. MOOC’s offer you education, LinkedIn et al offer you a signaling device, but neither can charge you a bomb because of the marginal cost argument, and because neither offer you both at the same time.

But in the future, one of two things will happen: either colleges will offer both but at a lower rate, or tech companies in education will offer both, and charge you marginally more than free.

And since my money is on the latter being far more likely, I’d be short colleges, and long tech in education.

Next post: the scam that is the textbook industry.

Taking stock of education: 2009-2016

I teach for a living, and have been doing so since 2009. I’ve dabbled in other things over these seven years, ranging from working as a consultant, joining an organization on a full time basis for about a year, trying to start my own business, working as a trainer and what not – but the one thing that has remained constant over these seven years has been the fact that I have taught every year, and in multiple colleges.

In that sense, and maybe for my age, my career choice has been a little unconventional. I work as a visiting faculty, which means that I am not affiliated to any one college. I teach several courses in economics, finance and statistics at several  colleges, each of which is at liberty to not call me back the following semester (as am I at liberty to not go back to a particular college the following semester). I’m grateful that most colleges have in fact chosen to call me back – but that’s not the point of this blog post.

The point of this blog post is this: given that my teaching for the current semester is just about over, I’ve been thinking about how teaching has changed over the past seven years. Not just my particular style of teaching, although that has evolved, of course. I’m talking about trends that have manifested themselves over these seven years, and their implications for the field of education.

In other words, what was teaching like in 2009, what it is like today, and what it likely will be like (and, for that matter, should be like) in the years to come. The obvious disclaimer applies: this is but one man’s thinking, and one man’s opinion. All of what that entails should be kept in mind while reading what follows.

There are five broad trends that I think are easily discernible in the field of education over the time that I have been a part of it.

First, the use of technology has gone up really, really sharply over these seven years. This could be something as simple as projectors and computers becoming the go-to tools for most teachers, or could be the increasingly heavy usage of stuff such as podcasts or TED talks.

Second, textbooks have become pointless. They have always been a scam, of course, but its gone beyond that now. They’re static, unchanging, blinker-mentality-inducing wallet drainers, and the internet – that gloriously dynamic, impossibly rich, perennially beguiling temptress is the new textbook for every subject under the sun. Corollary: a syllabus is pointless. It  works as a compass at best, pointing out the probable direction you ought to take in a subject, but that’s about it.

Third, exams are pointless. They always were, but that last vestigial relevance they had to reality has also long gone AWOL. Why (and you’ll have to imagine me gritting my teeth and banging away furiously at the keyboard)… why should students write mini-epics using pen and paper in 2016? That, and a whole big caboodle of questions that come back to the same point – exams serve no real purpose.
Fourth, we still thinking of teaching as a process that tells students what we think they ought to know. Teaching today ought to be a process that tells students how they should find out for themselves. In other words, here’s the problem, here are the basics, and here is the internet. Now go play Sherlock, and figure out the answer. That’s how it should work. But it doesn’t, and we’re worse off for it. Corollary: teaching today should be about helping students frame problems. It shouldn’t be about telling students how to answer them.

Fifth, colleges as we know them today will not exist tomorrow. When I say tomorrow, I do not mean in the next 24 hours. I mean my daughter, currently all of 30 months, will not go to college the way her old man went to college. I don’t know exactly what will replace colleges, but I know their current avatar will transmogrify. College today is too expensive, too static and too dogmatic for it to survive the 21st century. And that’s a fact.

Each of these is a separate blog post in and of itself, of course – maybe more. And now that I have some time on my hands, I’m going to go ahead and write those blog posts. One idea at a time.

J1, The Flying Duck and Pal@table

Every single day of every single week, I remain besieged by one central question. It is a question to which I give a great deal of thought, and it is a question that gets increasingly difficult to answer with every passing year. Said question is this:

Where shall I eat today?

Not for your author, gentle reader, a life in which one eats so that one may live. The antimetabole applies in my case, and so I live so that I may eat. For if a good meal is not the point of the whole thing, than it is scarcely worth doing.

But a good meal is a tricky thing, and devilishly difficult to guarantee. It involves thinking very carefully about many things at one go: one must consider the weather, the cuisine one is tempted by at the moment, the restaurants in the vicinity, the time available at hand – there are very many things that go into the choosing of an appropriate restaurant. A disappointing meal is one of three opportunities in a day wasted, and the good lord has allocated but a limited number of days for me on this planet. These are not, in short, decisions to be made lightly.

Since my job involves traipsing all over town, I get to try out a lot of new restaurants, and I want to share with you two newish restaurants that I think are worth trying out. The food is excellent at both places, although the places are different, as are their (in my opinion, at any rate) raison d’etres.

The first restaurant that I end up going to quite often these days is J1 (or Jevan). This is located just opposite to MM Joshi Hospital, off Apte Road, and is where Papa Johns used to be earlier.It offers fine dine Maharashtrian cuisine, and does a very, very good job of it. Whoever the owners of the restaurant are, they have certainly put a lot of thought into every aspect of the restaurant, right from the old school switchboards on the wall to the fairly authentic accompaniments they provide to the meal.

Virtually all of the dishes I have tried over here have been worth the money, but the kheema and the Kolhapuri mutton deserve special mention. The breads are also remarkably good, including the vade and the tandlachi bhakri. A meal here will set you back by about 500 rupees per person, but it is value for money, considering what you get in return for your hard earned cash.

What really interests me about the place, though, is the fact that this is, to my knowledge, Pune’s first truly fine dine Maharashtrian restaurant. Put another way, this is the kind of food that your grandmother or aunt or mother would have made for you on a Sunday, or on a special occasion – it’s that good, but served up in a very sophisticated way. And to me, this says two things – one, that people are willing to pay top tier prices for local cuisines (increased demand) and two, the ability and willingness to pay top tier prices is an outcome of more members of a household being out at work through the week (reduced supply). Put another way, you’ll likely see more restaurants like J1 pop up in the future, but the price the average Punekar will pay for this is a reduced probability of getting this kind of food cooked at home.

The second restaurant that I have really enjoyed eating out at is The Flying Duck. Located on the Baner Pashan Link Road, it is a really small place, and very easy to miss. Run by an Assamese couple, it is a restaurant that seems to chug along on passion more than anything else. They don’t even have a PoS machine for example, and it is painfully apparent that they are understaffed. But don’t let that deter you, for the food is truly exceptional. Everything I’ve eaten over here so far has been very good, but the pork dishes (and the ribs in particular) are worth all the time and trouble.

This restaurant fits right into the mould described by a book that I truly enjoyed reading, called “An Economist Gets Lunch” by Tyler Cowen. He describes places that are likely to spring up in the outer suburbs of a city that attracts a lot of people from outside – these places, he says, are likely to offer authentic but exotic food, reasonable prices and above all, truly interesting food. The Flying Duck, I’m happy to report, ticks all of these boxes and more. I hope they settle down and more than break even, because Pune needs many more places like this one.

Which brings me to the third of the troika of things I wanted to talk about in this post – an app that I think is an excellent idea. This app is the brainchild of a blogger I have been following for a long time: Shantanu Ghosh, author of Traveller’s Tales. The app itself is called Pal@table. The idea is fairly simple – use the app to host a table at a restaurant, and invite like minded people to join you at a predetermined date and time. It allows you to try out new restaurants, cuisines and dishes in the company of people who will, hopefully, share some of your interests – a way to socialize over a meal, essentially. I haven’t gotten around to trying out the app just yet, both in terms of hosting a table or joining one – but I do hope to do so soon enough.

But to my mind, each of these three are an example of Pune’s eating out scene changing, and for the better. Whether it is authentic Maharashtrian cuisine being made popular and haute cuisine, North Eastern cuisine being introduced to Puneri palates, or an opportunity for like minded people to socialize over a meal – all are very welcome additions indeed.

At Face Value

I got a facial done yesterday, for only the second time in my life.

The first was not, as one would have expected, on my wedding day. I got ready for my wedding by shaving twice – once in the morning, and once in the afternoon. That was the extent of my wedding preparations (and if I may add, understandably so. Polishing gold is a largely pointless exercise).

No, the first time I got a facial was after I got a haircut – this was during the days when such an exercise was necessary – and realised that I had forgotten the keys at home. Upon finding out that the missus would not be home herself for at least an hour, I had sixty minutes to spare, and the barber, having overheard the entire conversation, suggested that I try a “phasial”.

Now, in the barber department, I’m pretty well served if there is a chair, a comb and a pair of scissors at hand on the premises. Not for me the contraptions that seem to be mandatory in most modern establishments, and the facial was of a similarly basic nature. The barber slapped some cream on my face, scrubbed around in charmingly untutored fashion, and declared the routine over after about three rounds of the same steps.

The reason I tell you all this, dear reader, is because without this background, I could simply not have begun the tale of horror that follows. And horror, as you will find out anon, is not too strong a word – quite the opposite, in fact. Here goes:

I’m on holiday as I type this, with the pleasing prospect of doing nothing for days on end – a sport at which no one, bar none, can better me. And during the ante meridian hours of one such lazy, languorous day, the wife suggested that I go get a facial done.

She does this, the missus, bless her heart. She’s always giving me advice that she truly believes will be good for me (“try Amul Lite, it’s good for your heart” or “don’t have another round of desserts, you’ll get a stomach upset tomorrow”). And in this case too, she truly believed that the experience would do me good. I had no reason to not believe her – my first experience as a customer of a facial wasn’t all that bad, and what’s more, I have regularly observed female members of my family fairly salivate at the prospect of getting a facial done. And so, without giving another thought to the consequences, I assented and made my way to the nearest parlour.

Except that this time around, we were in Delhi, and not Pune. Which meant it was not my regular barber who would be slapping on the creams, but so, I reflected, what? How different, I idly wondered as I settled in to the chair, could a facial possibly get? And to be honest, in some ways, I figured this would be an improvement – the place was air-conditioned, with reclining leather chairs and what not. Exactly the kind of treat one should subject oneself to on a holiday.

And even half way into the experience, I was still smugly congratulating myself. Creams had been expertly massaged on to my face, water had been dextrously sprayed and hot and wet towels had been interchanged more often than politicians change parties – all in all, I was being pampered on a suitably large scale. And so there I lay, half asleep, idly wondering what treat was next, when those fateful words were uttered.

“Just get me the blackhead remover, will you, please” said a person in my general vicinity. And I remember, even now, wondering without being overtly curious what exactly a blackhead might be, and why its removal was necessary.

I’ll tell you what blackhead removal is. I know now.

Blackhead removal is what the Spanish Inquisition stopped short of. It is where the Gestapo drew the line. It is the point beyond which the henchmen of the KGB would not go. It involves using a slim, slender, unbelievably pointed object to poke holes around the tip of the nose. And when I say poke holes, don’t for a moment think I’m using metaphors. That blasted man actually poked holes into my nose, even when he, more than any other person on the planet at that point of time, could see that I had two rather large and perfectly operational nasal cavities working just fine.

At one moment I was inching close to slumber, and at the next I was bucking about in the seat like a rather plump gazelle, tears of pain in my eyes, ready to tell him whatever it was he wanted to know; ready to give him anything, including all of my kingdom and more, if he would just stop poking holes in my nose.

But he was made of stern stuff, this person who ran a salon by day and auditioned for the post of India’s Chief Torturer by night. “I know its painful, Sir” he said, as he continued to construct s series of tiny borewells around my nostrils, “but you have a lot of blackheads.”

And I want all of them, every single last one, I wanted to scream, but couldn’t, since every single nerve ending was yelling more than Arnab has managed to in his entire lifetime. And still he continued, the Grand Pasha of Pain, on his relentless march of unceasing torture. It couldn’t have lasted for more than five minutes, I suppose, but every single second felt like an eternity, thrice distilled. At the end of which he leaned back, obviously satisfied with his handiwork, and raised the chair so I could look in the mirror and appreciate his skills.

I looked in the mirror, and Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer stared back at me.

My skin, I noted in passing interest, looked cleaner than it had ever been. But my eyes were mostly drawn to my nose, which at that point of time was the brightest celestial object in the visible sky. They could have stood me in stead of one of the towers during a day night match at the Eden Gardens, and nobody would have noticed the difference. Ray-Ban could have sold sunglasses in my vicinity and increased their profits twice over.

“Its because you are getting this done for the first time, Sir,” said the Grand Pasha, having stared at my reflection in politely horrified fascination. “If you do this once a month it’ll get better with time”.

“Or whenever you want next”, he hastily amended, as he noticed me turning towards him, menace writ large on my face.

Here’s the worst part, however. The entire experience, after a fifty percent discount, cost me seven hundred and fifty rupees. A meal at Barbecue Nation, to give you one of many, many counterpoints, costs about the same. That restaurant also has air-conditoning and comfortable chairs.

And here’s the clincher, I said to myself, as I and my newly obtained halogen lamp walked back home: the good folk at that fine restaurant don’t come anywhere near your nostrils for the entire length of time you’re there.

Going, going, gone

WASTED YOUTH

The raindrops pinged off the dirty windows of the darkened bedroom – the last refuge in a city which was slowly being washed back into the sea from which it had been stolen. Powerful gusts of wind cut through the narrow alleys and produced an eerie shrieking sound that drowned out the sounds of the city altogether.

Inside, the atmosphere was just as foul. The two of them lay in bed together – him on his back and her chest pressed into his side as she laid an arm across his midriff. She loved the quiet time that followed their lovemaking, but today was different. Gone were the lingering smiles and the way he’d trace the path that the beads of sweat took as they rolled off her chest and slid, down her side, onto the crumpled bedspread. These loving gestures were replaced by a sullen silence devoid of any…

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Light my fire

Of the few things that your author thinks he does rather well, he prides himself the most as regards his ability to think things through.

He’ll be the first to man up and say that he doesn’t always implement whatever it is that he’s thought through, and in fact, this would be edging towards the top of the considerably longer list of things that he doesn’t do well, but let’s just harrumph and move on from here, shall we?

The thing is, even the undersigned, he of the keen intellect and incisive reasoning, remains befuddled by some things that he sees on this planet. He fails to understand, for example, the reason behind the enduring popularity of the song “My heart will go on”. He cannot comprehend, for another, exactly what the Pune Municipal Corporation hopes to achieve by constructing the monstrosity known as the Bus Rapid Transport System. Come to think of it (and you see what I mean about the ability to think things through?), he cannot comprehend the Pune Municipal Corporation altogether.

But of all of these things incomprehensible, there is one that has remained firmly beyond my ken for years on end. I speak, or attempt to, at any rate, of the decorative candle.

It has always been, and I suspect always will be, a thing of utter mystery. Why does anyone buy the damn things?

Consider the evidence against them – they perform no useful function. Thomas from Menlo Park perspired well over a century ago to come up with an invention that, one would have thought, would put candle makers out of business more or less permanently. And his original invention is now magnitudes better due to years of research and development. Strike one against the d.c.

Second, they are a safety hazard. One of the chief reasons behind Thomas’ invention zooming up the popularity charts was the fact that light bulbs hardly ever cause your house to go up in flames. It may have done so in the past, I grant you, but I would submit, m’lud, that the chances of a bulb being an undercover arsonist are vanishingly small today. Strike two.

Third, and what I say now will bring a manly tear to every battle hardened husband’s eye, they are eye-wateringly expensive. They’ll sit there, on pretentiously expensive shelves, wrapped in hideously ostentatious wraps, festooned with tiny strips of golden coloured papers, simply awaiting the next pair of hands to pick them up. Said pair of hands shall then lovingly inhale whatever miserable fragrance the blasted things are infused with. Owner of said pair of hands shall then place the offending object under the pained nostrils of battle-hardened husband. Who shall sniff dutifully, and say “Very nice.” And then shell out around a grand for the wicked dollop of wax. Strike three.

And if an object is so blatantly offensive, so obviously a safety hazard, and so blindingly useless, then why, pray, is it not in the same category as the dodo by now?

A mystery for ever and ever.

Now if you’ll excuse me. We’re going for a house-warming party tonight, and I need to submit my nostrils to some Geneva-Convention-defying exercises.

 

A Review of How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia

Keen eyed readers of the blog will note – or, strictly speaking, keen eyed readers of this blog who-also-happen-to-be-well-aware-of-the-literary-world will note that this is the first time an attempt is being made at reviewing a work of fiction.

And they will be absolutely right – your author, although he does go in for the reading thing a fair bit, isn’t racking up the miles in the fiction department. He’ll devour  books by the ton on stuff that is non-fiction, informative and thought provoking, but he’ll look like an Indian opener on foreign tracks when it comes to fiction.

Why then should I go about reviewing a book such as this – a fictitious tale about a gent who goes through a rags-to-riches tale in some unidentified part of Asia? (By the way, if you want to dazzle folks with your vocabulary, memorize this word: bildungsroman. It means the same thing, roughly, as a rags-to-riches story, but sounds so much more impressive. Helpful when you want to nail the interview . Not so much when you are on a date.)

I should go about reviewing it because while it is fiction, it is also enormously informative – not in a direct, descriptive fashion, but rather a narrative, pick-it-up-if-you-can-spot-it fashion. Trying to explain why I like the book brings to mind something the late, great critic of the movies Roger Ebert used to say about, well, movies.

“Don’t ask what the movie is about”, he’d say. “Ask, instead, how it is about whatever it is about”. Or something along those lines – the point that he wished to make was, don’t decide whether a movie is worth your time on the basis of what it is about – base your decision, rather, on how it goes about telling the tale. Does it observe more than it narrates? Does it convey more than the just the linear arc of a story? What does it convey?

And in this case, Mohsid Hamin conveys the nuances associated with living a life that begins in abject poverty, reaches relative affluence, and ends in the poverty of old age – a paucity of people, passion and ultimately, purpose. The question that Ebert says you shouldn’t be asking in the first place is easily answered – it is about a man who spends his life living the arc just described.

The question that Ebert says you should ask is, as all good questions are, a little more difficult to answer in regard to this book. Written as a parody of self-help books, and in the second person, it is a book that is an enjoyable read in and of itself. The tale is well-told (as far as I’m concerned, at any rate) and remains entertaining until the last page. It isn’t drab enough to make you give up reading it altogether, and neither is it such a page turner that you’d wish to move on to the last page.

The reason I liked the book so much is because it does a very good job of describing various facets of life in a developing country.

And the description of that one life is fairly illuminating – right from the first chapter, wherein the protagonist (“you”) is suffering from hepatitis, up until the very end, when death claims “you”, as it eventually must. In the interim, it touches and illuminates family size (and the reason it is shrinking), employment opportunities (and how cities always provide them, one way or the other), love and marriage (and why the two can grow apart in an urban context) along with corruption (and its inevitability), government (and its frustrations) and markets(and how they’ll crop up everywhere).

Hamin conveys the problems and the advantages that one is saddled with at each stage, as corollaries to each station in life that one aspires to and acquires. This isn’t, then, a book filled with great, immutable truths. It isn’t an exercise in philosophy, and it isn’t meant to reveal some deep, subliminal message. It is a book filled with a tale of life as it is in parts of Asia today, and the reason I liked it so much is because it is as much about the life here, as it is about the tale itself.