Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Proud of the Fatherland!

Why is it that when any well-meaning criticism is placed on Indian topics, people would rather point fingers at the critic? Usually the retort is that the critic doesn't love the country, or that he isn't proud of his country.

Well, you know what: I love my country, and am proud as a lion about it. Can't get enough of Hariprasad Chaurasia, Vada pavs, Pav Bhaji or the Kama Sutra. Still love the feeling of travelling in India, by Indian railways, and meeting completely unfamiliar people, all without needing a passport.

All this is fine, and nobody doubts an Indian as far as he is singing praises of Hariprasad Chaurasia and Vishwanathan Anand. But it is the minute you point out how Bheja Fry is a shitty copy of the French movie, Le Dîner de cons, that you transition from being a loved fellow Indian to a clumsy, foreign, NRI, outsider, spoilt by your love for all things Western, or Eastern, or everything non-Indian. Soon your entire life is called into question: were you really born in India? Maybe you're too rich, too poor, too smart, too dumb. Maybe your parents spoilt you rotten, or maybe they left you in an empty room to play with the light-switch.

Can this get any more retarded? Why must we equate love for country with blind devotion to a fascism where no dissent is tolerated.

I once was part of a conversation where Indian movies were being discussed. This conversation happened in a moving car, so I was not free to leave it if I wanted. One of the people asked me what Indian movies I had watched recently, and I blurted out that I had not watched any Hindi movie recently. Immediately her reply was to question my Indian-ness, my love for India, and how I must be ashamed of my country. Admittedly, this person was not the brightest spark, but her reaction is typical of some Indians I have met.

How the hell did that kind of mentality come to be tolerated?

Not keeping in touch with Hindi movies for a period of a few months immediately disqualifies you from being Indian these days. The central question in the Indian passport form must be the names of the recent Hindi movies, along with the life history of Aishwarya Rai.

Then, if you actively criticize something, then you're bound to get your mailbox filled with hateful speech. Say if you were to complain about some Indian Institute, you're bound to get blasted to little bits. Even worse if you actually compare that institute to some foreign institute.

This isn't pride, this is fascism. If you cannot meaningfully discuss basic things like the state of our education, you don't live in a democracy. Kiss up to Stalin, and better love everything Koba did for his subservient followers.

Democracy, and true love for the country demands that you bring to notice the wrongs that you see. Criticism of Sati led to a gradual change of attitudes. Would you question the Indian-ness of the people involved?

Without critical thinking, there can be no change.

1. Yes, all Indians are not like that. Many Indians are fine individuals, who accept, challenge, and aspire for better. Clearly these people are not being blamed here.

Dowry, the scourge of Indians

Dowry is prevalent, despite being illegal. Two persuasive stories tell of new brides who were tortured for more dowry. These two stories are additions to a growing statistic of dowry related crimes. Combined with the poor literacy of girls, dowry makes brides powerless and vulnerable.

Let's not turn our minds away from this. The glamour, the glitz, the booming economy mean nothing to these two women (and many more) who are preyed upon for dowry. Let's not be so smug in our achievement that we forget basic human rights.

The deeper root of dowry is the lack of women's education. If a boy doesn't study Engineering or Medicine, he is considered a failure. After all, how will he provide for the family? But a girl is not encouraged to academic achievement, they are rather trained to be good housewives, discouraged from being financially independent. Subliminally, girls are repeatedly told that their marriage is not something they can have a say in. (Unless they are over educated, in which case they're spoiling their own chances at marriage.) This has got to change. The problem of dowry exists because a girl isn't expected to be skilled at the time of marriage. Her education and job prospects don't figure into the equation, either because she isn't educated, or is not allowed to work after the marriage.

All this is specific to the poor or the rural setting. Things are changing in the cities and among the educated, but even here, dowry isn't completely absent.

Let's eradicate dowry in our lifetime. हम मिल कर दहेज की प्रथा को मिटा सकते हैं ।

[ Clarification on Wednesday, March 26 2008: What is specific to the poor or rural settings is the lack of women's education.

Dowry itself is rampant, and perhaps the worst when the groom is educated, accomplished, and believes that he must exact his worth from the bride's family. The only glimmer of hope is among marriages out of love, or marriages between working professionals, where the wife has equal rights as the husband.

Dowry is rampant, and it is a rare marriage where it isn't involved. If the marriage was arranged, dowry was involved. Despite the rhetoric, and the illegality, little has been done to combat it.

Educated, rich people see nothing wrong in accepting dowry, and that is what makes this practice all the more shameful.]

Monday, March 24, 2008

चोखेर बाली

हाल ही में किसी व्यक्ति ने मुझे चोखेर बाली के बारे में बताया । यह एक प्रभावशाली चिट्टा है, जो भारतीय नारी की नई आवाज़ है ।

Lately someone told me about Chokher Bali, which is a very nice blog: a liberation of women. It is all in Hindi.

Note to self: Got to practice Hindi typing.

How the IITs can suck less

It is a general observation that if you allow comments on any online forum, it usually degenerates into a cesspool of filth and dung. My blog doesn't fit this observation, probably because it isn't as much a forum as it is a vent for my viewpoint. Plus, nobody reads it.

Last week saw some remarkable filth and dung on one particular post, though some comments were surprisingly insightful. For the record, I haven't deleted any comments, and all comments are still available for all to see. In places the comment author (not me, the blog author) has decided to delete their comments.

A heartfelt thanks to the person who posted anonymously saying the following:
The strange thing one can easily notice about IIT UGs is their un-necessary superiority complex(there is exception). They think, cracking the exam (where our education system is read, re-read, and reproduce) entitles them to be a creative genius like Einstein or Schrodinger.
Remarkably true, and I think you've put it better than I could. This post comes from a person who teaches at an IIT coaching institute. Instead of thinking deeply about what was said, a variety of clumsy comments were posted, railing against this person. Most comments were ad hominem attacks on this person being a tutor rather than an Aryan JEE graduate. These comments pointed out what I was saying all along: we don't know how to react to criticism.

Another beautiful comment was again anonymously posted, and quoted a snippet from an Indian magazine Outlook.
SOURCE:OUTLOOK April 30,2007

Tata Steel MD, B. Muthuraman, an IIT Madras graduate, says IITs are now thriving on their "past reputation" and TISCO is "not likely to recruit" IIT graduates any longer

Many IIT professors too find the present crop of students lacking in creativity, and the spirit of innovation and inquiry

They blame the students' blinkered, robotic approach to their studies on the fact that a large majority are products of coaching factories.

They call for reform of the joint engineering exam (JEE), and of the IIT curriculum as well, to develop the students' societal awareness, communication skills and knowledge of the humanities.
This is an understandable development, and was bound to happen given the skills of the graduates. I am glad that TISCO is honest and forthright in their opinion of IIT graduates. Even if the IITs are world class, not addressing such concerns is a remarkable failure.

To the person who pointed out the insignificance of my blog: Thanks, I already knew that. Yet, here you are, reading it, and writing a comment on it.

Finally, someone decided to rail on me personally by asking what my suggestions were. Thank you for you very inflammatory attack and your obvious anger. First, realize that if you are asking me for suggestions, you admit that the institution is broken. We can't fix something that is perfect, so at least you agree with me on that part. That alone was the point of the post where I was pointing out how the IIT Bombay was broken. Now let's go on to the suggestions, which are put into categories on N's suggestion.

  1. Fire all the Nazis running the administrative offices, and the administrative section of the departments. I never understood what the role of the administrative people in the Mathematics department was. They did nothing useful when I was there, and only served to impose a strict power structure over the students. Move administrative tasks online. Make the administration accountable to students.
  2. Fire the clowns doing security. They wouldn't notice if someone steals their furniture. There's very little worth stealing, so stop running the place like the Manhattan project is under way. Bolt computers and screens down, and leave the labs open.
  3. Stop treating the boys and girls like they were cherubs. These are young adults, and they will engage in mammalian behaviour. Hint: the sign-up system in the girl's hostel has never worked.
  4. Decrease the feudal nature of the institute. Have you see how big a house the director lives in? Have you compared it to the lodgings of normal faculty? Get rid of this fawning feudal organization, and you might just see change. This sycophantic nature carries over to the departments, where the department chair has way too much power, all the way to the security setup. Everyone and his dog wants to assert their control and their position. Nobody helps the students out unless they kiss up to this power structure. Realize that the institute is primarily for research and for students, and treating students like crap isn't a good strategy.
  5. Remove the thought control headquarters that censors access to the Internet. Students already have all the porn they could ask for, so clearly the Gestapo isn't working. Legalize the local network that has all the unmentionables.
  6. More openness in the running of the campus. How much money do we rake in, and where does it go?
  1. Do something useful with the teacher evaluations rather than throwing them into the fire each year. Get rid of the bad teachers. Allow students to anonymously post their grievances. Take videos of all lectures, and put them up online. You'll know in a week who the poor teachers are.
  2. Increase the pay of the professors, and give good incentives. Faculty housing needs to be improved. Give faculty more control over their research, and allow them to hire students with start-up funds. Give faculty more control over their teaching, rather than the strictly regimented teaching load.
  3. Allow students to sign up for more classes than they need in a semester. Allow students to drop classes after the semester has started.
  4. Decrease the crushing workload on students. Focus on learning and not coursework. Give students time for rest, thought, and flirting.
  5. Strike up partnerships with industry. Allow industry funding to sustain research. Give professors generous cuts of the funding they bring in. Allow industry representatives to attend classes, collaborate in research projects, and mentor students. Allow industry to subsidize needy students by sponsoring fellowships.
  6. Post the syllabus of courses online in a wiki. The difference between the published course info and the actual course info is immense. When you think you're learning Mathematical Modeling, you're actually learning what Nazi Germany must have felt like. Let the wiki reflect this.
  1. Stock some general books in the library. Allow individuals and institutions to donate books for use in the library. There is Western literature beyond Shakespeare, you know.
  2. Increase the fees to allow for a humane living environment, and then clean up the hostels. There are some new hostels but the old ones are abysmal. Journalists who claim that IITs are a prestigious institute should be forced to live in the old wing of Hostel 4 for a month, preferably in May.
  3. Much of the surrounding area needs to be scrubbed clean of the damn mosquitoes. It is nearly impossible to go for a walk, or to study if there are so many mosquitoes all around. The area near the lake needs a very good scrubbing: the filth really clogs up, especially after festivals where trash is dumped in the lake.
  4. Herd the cows together, and launch them off to Mars. I don't think the dogs are that bad. Some of them were very close to me, and a source of honest companionship. A big exception is the rabid, angry mongrel near the staff quarters. Donate him to the local ultra-nationalist party.

Let's welcome criticism

When I started this blog, it was with the grand design of exposing hypocrisy and lies. Thus the grandiose name, "The Truth about India". I have not always covered what I think is significant, and I am not averse to cheap pandering either. I have also held back discussions on some topics that are critical, but are bound to get me death threats. All in all, I'm a pretty average guy with a pretty pointless blog.

Yet, the one entry that consistently gets comments are my post on how IIT Bombay sucked so damn hard. A small aside: I would appreciate if people flaming me wrote in English, Hindi, Marathi, Urdu, Spanish, or Japanese. You're only proving my argument if you write in half dead SMS, which makes you come across as a drunk chimpanzee.

Back to the criticism, which falls cleanly into two piles.

  1. Now that I'm abroad, I criticize.
  2. I must be jealous of everyone else at IIT.

The first issue comes up repeatedly. Not just in this post, but my entire blog. It is central to my entire point, so I'm going to sharpen my knives for this. Yes, I am abroad, and yes I do criticize, but those are the plain facts. What is missing is that I criticized and challenged when I was in India, and even before I joined the IIT. This criticism is not a feature of my location. At IIT Bombay, I once gave a piece of my mind to the security guard at Main Gate, with my last statement being, "come by my Hostel sometime: I'll set you right" (of course said in spicy Hindi for maximum effect). There are countless incidents that I could relate that support my nature.

Since people aren't aware of all this, I hope this prompts smarter criticism. Further, I haven't achieved anything spectacular in the years that I've been away from IIT, so success surely isn't getting to my head. If it isn't success, it might just be failure! So this leads to the second criticism, that I'm a failure.

This second point is subtle: it is that I have an MS, a Dual Degree, or an MTech, thus immediately making me inferior to all those that came in through JEE. For the confused: there are a few types of entrance tests at IIT. The JEE is the all-important test that gives you a rank called the All India Rank (or AIR). Apparently, because I'm not full of AIR, I am jealous of the people who did better at the JEE. The implication is that my not getting through the JEE disqualifies me from constructive criticism.

Yes, I did not take the JEE. My route was to take the entrance test that the Mathematics department administered; which has since been made a national test. And I admit I didn't do well in this test either. If only fifteen people had been admitted in the program (instead of twenty), I wouldn't have fit. Sadly, I'm a failure, and jealousy keeps me from appreciating IIT Bombay for the cherub infested heaven that it is.

Even if the JEE was the definite test of a pure-bred IIT Aryan, this argument is very weak. There is nothing special about the JEE. Students who get in through the JEE were housed alongside us failures. We ate the same food, and suffered under the same professors. I did not take identical classes as a four year track B-Tech student, but I did have some classes in common. If anything, it gives me great relief that I was not in the asylum for four years. Two was plenty for me.

Even if I was jealous --- does this invalidate my concern? Are all the B Tech students thrilled to bits? Do you all think that the teaching at IIT Bombay was super? Did you enjoy your living quarters very much, with two students to a monk's cell, the water seeping through the walls, and the mud outside? How much fun were the summers, with the mosquitoes, and how did you find the bathrooms? If you truly enjoyed them, will you want to live in a similar arrangement all your life?

Why is criticism so hard to take? Why can't we just admit that IIT Bombay has a bit of a cow problem, that poop gets in the way of a walk, and that the official campus bird is the mosquito? Why can't we admit that the administrative staff in the main building are apathetic and unhelpful? And when a professor is a poor teacher, why can't we admit it? Why maintain this façade, this front of perfection?

Instead, it is easier to say the Indian Economy isn't doing so well, that it is fine by Indian standards, that in some way it is sufficient. That Indians are fine with this particular institute, because it is the best in the country. Why are you comparing it with other universities, why are you making our jobs tougher? Look at how much better we are than Nigeria and Ghana. Somehow the IIT itself is above criticism. The blame might lie with me, because I'm the guy who was herding all the cows perhaps. Or maybe the mud was all my doing. The broken toilets were my fault too, perhaps. Things should have immediately improved after I left.

Excuses, excuses, without admitting anything is wrong, without seeking to fix the broken parts. Let's congratulate the Emperor on his fine clothes.

Rohinton Aga, the founder of Thermax, wrote in his book "Changing the Mindset" that Indians have a crab mentality. When there are eight crabs in a hole, and one of them tries to escape, the other seven pull it back down. (For the record, Rohinton was an Indian businessman, who achieved more than I can ever dream of.) I was a young child when I read his book, and I have always agreed with this evaluation. Rather than looking outside our tiny hole, and seeing the wonderful possibility, we rather look at each other, and continue congratulating ourselves on our collective condition.

This is not how things change. This is not how we make our education system accountable. This is not how we aspire for a better education for the next generation. This is not how we can advance research in India.

Flinging dung at me is not the best way of getting clean. -- with apologies to Aldus Huxley

Monday, March 10, 2008

Mainstream Indian media versus Blogs

Recently, I set up my machine to view Hindi fonts. I've blogged about it earlier, so I won't go into very much detail. If you're looking to duplicate this setup, get yourself a copy of Ubuntu.

Onward to my main story. For this post, you don't need to have Hindi fonts installed on your computer, or know the Hindi language.

Using Linux, I've been reading a few Hindi blogs, and a few Hindi newspapers. The contrast is quite striking.

The average Hindi newspaper has a remarkably crappy layout: Here is the best possible Hindi newspaper online: Lok Tej, and you can see how difficult the layout is. Compared to that, the layout for the average Hindi blog World From my Eyes is easy on the eyes. The advertisements are few, and well placed, and the font is clean and beautiful.

Little differences like this make the page readable on a daily basis, and I'm a sucker for good layout.

But the more surprising aspect arises when you scratch the surface, and dig deeper. The amount of content for the Hindi newspapers is tiny. Even stories covered on the main page take up all of one single paragraph. This cover story has exactly one paragraph in which the main idea is repeated again and again. There is little analysis by the journalist, and except for methodically writing down what Amar Singh said, it isn't really obvious what extra value the journalist is adding in the process.

Sunil Deepak's analysis of the violence is a much better read about the mattter.

A direct comparison is lacking here, so let's look at our average Hindi blog again: A commentary on Jodhaa Akbar which has quite a deep content. It offers analysis, insight, and a very good perspective of the issues. And it is humorous too!

After a few days of reading Hindi blogs, I really cannot justify reading a Hindi newspaper. Balendu Sharma has a very nice blog: Wahmedia on the Indian media (and sometimes Western too), which points out inconsistency and stupidity in print media. We need more people like Balendu Sharma and Sunil Deepak.

Special mention

The incidence that is being reported on deserves special mention: There are some ultra right-wing nutbags who think that Maharashtra should be for the Maharashtrians, and are inciting violence against people from "outside": North Indians. Indians everywhere (not just Maharashtrians) should loudly proclaim that they do not support this ethnic bullying. We should have the courage to say that these nutbags don't represent us: they are not our leaders. These Indian-Nazis have a platform very similar to the Nazi party, and their slanderous rhetoric is not what I want to support.

Say no to our local Hitler!