Saturday, February 07, 2015


Freedom is indivisible; the chains on any one of my people were the chains on all of them, the chains on all of my people were the chains on me

Nelson Mandela

When I came to America, I found others like me here. Children of poor or middle class Indian families, we had found our way into high education and higher occupations by dint of ability, hard work, and ambition.

The Indian CEOs of global corporations we now take pride in came from this background.

Middle class Indians were unlike Pakistanis and most other foreign students at elite universities. These others came from among their local political and business elite. They had means, we had none. Yet, we found ourselves in the same classrooms and boardrooms.

How did this happen?

If prosperity is the foundation necessary to advance in life, we should not have advanced at all. We did because we felt free to chase our dreams. Freedom gave us the edge, not our means.

There is a notion now with considerable currency in India that we must place primacy on prosperity. If only India were prosperous, all other ills of conscience would somehow fade away.

How is India to become prosperous? Through markets freer than they have been, through industry and commerce, entrepreneurship, and individual empowerment.

I believe in all this. These, after all, are also the ideas that made America where I now live.

Where I struggle is on the notion that freedom of commerce is somehow more important than freedom of conscience.

I'm told I'm old fashioned. The only thing I'm told that matters is the weight of one's wallet, not the wake of one's ways.

Is it possible for a unfree people to participate in a free market?

A free market, after all, is not merely a place where the supply side means of production are free, but also where the demand side is energized by the freedom of choice.

In other words, it can't be a free market if the buyer can't choose freely where to spend and where not to.

Freedom to choose matters. Choice is a manifestation of conscience. A free people have the freedom of conscience.

If one isn't free to think and dream freely, associate with and love who one wants, worship or deny the existence of God, read, write, & speak as one chooses, and - yes - choose what to buy and what to dismiss in the marketplace of ideas and things, can one really be free?

A coerced choice is no choice at all. An intimidated man ain't free.

Freedom is ebbing away in India, yet we talk boldly of free markets.

I'm afraid, we have it exactly the wrong way around. Freedom of conscience must precede freedom of commerce. Absurd to argue otherwise.

Let me close with words from the introduction to the 1958 classic "The Beat Generation and The Angry Young Men". They were written about the nothingness of modern man living under the mushroom cloud. Their context is different but they are eerily resonant in our present condition where prosperity is being sought at the gunpoint of social coercion.

On the surface of life, it seldom protrudes: the cop blows his whistle, the street crowds move, business goes on from nine to five in a hundred thousand offices. But, the facade of this present seeming normalcy shows signs of weathering; every day the mortar crumbles a little more. Man, behind the masks with which he plays his daily roles, can not be totally blind to the continuing collapse; the consequence is an increasing self-division.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Dear India, Your Windows Are Broken

New York City in the early 90s was rife with crime.

Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Bill Bratton, his police commissioner, famously used the "Broken Window" theory of criminology to make the city safe. Today, New York is the safest large city in America.

There is much to learn for India from the Broken Window idea.


The idea is simple. Small crimes beget big crimes.

Broken windows in a neighborhood show a couple things. There is likely vandalism going on and that neither the residents nor the police care very much.

These windows are an invitation to other criminals. More homes are vandalized and more windows are broken. Drug dealers and gangs move in. Abandoned buildings become their den.

Violence follows. People walk around fearful. Boys are bullied in the street and girls assaulted in hallways. Stores are routinely robbed and visitors viciously mugged.

Murders happen.

The neighborhood becomes disreputable. No one wants to buy homes here or set up businesses. Restaurants flee, grocers arm themselves, taxis no longer want to take anyone here.

This is how neighborhoods die. Blight and chaos is what a solitary broken window leads to.


You want to keep neighborhoods safe? You must fix every broken window.

This was the small idea with big consequences.

Crime was tracked and statistically analyzed, neighborhood by neighborhood. No crime was too small to be tracked. Every broken window was taken seriously.

Community policing began. Forgive the mixed metaphor but police officers from the community knew exactly how to nip the broken window in the bud. They were no longer chasing headline crimes - they were rewarded for cleaning out the smallest crime in their neighborhood.

Safe and clean neighborhoods became attractive to young families and small businesses. The flight to the suburbs reversed. The local economy strengthened from small business investments.

Criminals were no longer welcome. They had no place to hide.

Murders fell. Sexual assaults fell. Robberies fell. Muggings fell.

The city became safe and remains so to this day.


Why am I saying all this?

There is a lot to learn from this experience for Indian Police. But that's a discussion for another day.

I want to draw a parallel to bigotry.

When a society condones small acts of racism or communal hate or gender bias, it sows the seeds for lynchings and riots and rapes.

When a minister mistreats an immigrant, or an MP questions patriotism of an athlete, or when a girl is snubbed in small ways within her family, the broken window cycle begins.

Too many of us dismiss these incidents as small embarrassments not worthy of our attention.

If experience is any guide, this is precisely the wrong response.

When a bigot can get away with small hatred, he is not content with it. Next time he will try to see what more he can get away with. Others of like-minded perspective are encouraged by the non-response to the first instance of brazen bigotry. Before you know it, you have more and more bigots pushing their luck farther and farther. Words become sharper, more hurtful, then - eventually - they stop being just words. Blood ends up getting spilled.

The only way to keep a society from becoming a chauvinistic, identity-riven, churn of hatred is to call out the small transgressions and make examples of them all. This not only discourages the original perp, it deters others from trying the same or worse, and - crucially - it creates a societal norm of not tolerating bigotry.

This is the lesson of the broken window theory.

In a time where bigoted incidents are fast becoming an epidemic, nothing can be more important.


Rudy Giuliani went on to lead his great city through the horror of 9/11.

It is a matter of singular pride that the city did not erupt into frenzied violence targeting Arabs, Muslims, brown-skinned people, immigrants, anyone. The mayor told his city to stand together and support each other. And the city did exactly that.

This was probably because we liked what our city had become and did not want to lose it. We also had a leader who did not want either criminal violence or bigotry tormenting his people.

That's civic pride and applies to neighborhood safety as much as to comfort with diversity. And that's leadership.

Something  I think India - whose windows are sadly very broken - has a lot to learn from.  

Thursday, February 13, 2014



Of screaming babies in the parliament, Of perspiration
In air cooled auto rickshaws glued to unmoving highways,
Of pleading eyes of the man about to be lynched, Of tea
That still smells of the garden of mostly evil, Of Patribal
And Kalahandi and places like Kokrajhar that only exist
In newspapers between stories of starlets and paid blah blah,
Of caterwauling 99 percentiles in boards who still missed the cutoff,
Of grand narratives and great games when the future stands
On the crossroads panhandling at tinted windows and your
Proud heartbeat doesn't skip even once, Of art trapped in sterile
Airports where entry requires a passport obtained through high crimes,
Of being a refugee wrapped in a flag that has long since stopped caring,
Of being only our surnames and the flatness of our noses
And which superstition we will call out to when dying.

Of small men and scared women.

Of the beautiful everything that stayed up all night, every night,
For a decade to earn a green card and run away.

Of sinning so much that the suffering began before we were in hell.

Of words.


(I am up very very early and I am already tired)

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

India's Holiday From History

Just at the moment when American political debate had reached a nadir of frivolousness ... the nation's decade-long holiday from history came to a shattering end | George Will, September 12 2001

I love India but no longer like much of what I see, I lamented in October 2011.

The 80s and the 00s can't be any more different in Indian consciousness.

80s was when fate switched off the light. We were riven by identity, suffocated by air, vulnerable to theft. Bluestar, Bhopal, Bofors. And most of us were poor.

00s was when fate shone on us. The earth became flat, India became young, the world accepted our bomb. Davos, Demography, (nuclear) Deal. And some of us became prosperous.

On the surface, this is a great narrative. And, yet, something seems amiss.

80s, as I wrote, was when fate switched off the light. It was our decade of despair.
Then the Berlin Wall fell. India may have had to pawn her gold but fate had rolled in her favor. America's heady holiday from history swept over Indian shores as well. We thought, at least for a while when the money was easy, that we had overcome those Oh So Twentieth Century divisions on caste and faith and language and race and economic status. We were all getting rich so none of this mattered.
Yes, Babri Masjid, Mumbai, Kargil, Kandahar, Sabarmati Express, Gulbarg Society, Akshardham, Mumbai again, Kokrajhar, and Muzaffarnagar all happened. But the overarching story was more about BRICS, Bangalore, Chandrayan, Commonwealth Games, and GDP than the tales of murder that we wanted to move beyond. Everything became about the vibrant economy that would soon make us a superpower.
To understand the depth of our delusion, just look at the current political discourse. One party is defending its economic record, another is running this down while boasting about its own record, and a third is fretting that some (corrupt) people became too rich while everyone was becoming rich.
We get it. It's the economy, stupid.


But it's never so easy, is it?
Recall that I wrote my lament at a time Indian economy was still growing strongly. In every visit, I found a country bubbling with endless optimism and limitless energy. There were no takers for my growing unease with what I was seeing. I myself didn't fully understand it.
As India has slowed, the nascent unease has crystallized into full blown despair.
Just because we were busy chasing riches doesn't mean we had advanced into modernity.
Caste politics still dominates the Hindi heartland. Regional divisions are tearing apart Andhra Pradesh. Liberalism is in all out retreat. Religious bigotry passes for political debate. Racism - to our own people as well as towards foreign guests - is routine. Gay people may not practice love. Gated communities proliferate while children panhandle for change. Khaps are defended by all political parties and rape is blamed on victims by supposed advocates for women's rights. Even justice is accused of lust and the army is sought to be divided by faith. Soni Sori is tortured by an officer who India then decorates and Irom Sharmila still starves.

All this ugliness has been here all along. Dazzled by wealth and blinded by hubris, we willfully denied what was right in front of our eyes.

Well, India's holiday from history is over and the time has come to deal with the ghosts we thought we had left behind.
Some will say that all will be well if only we could return India to economic growth.
I am not so sure. Economic growth, as the past two decades showed, is too small a band-aid over a vicious oozing wound. It can't hold back the bleeding any longer.
For all the conversation about governance and growth and fight against corruption, the real political issue at hand is discovering who we are as a people. My wager is that we will spend the next decade sorting this out. Indian energies will be spent more on settling identity issues than creating the infrastructure of modernity.
Breakneck growth will likely have to wait.
This is not all bad. India has to settle these matters at some point. This is as good a time as any.
For India's teeming millennials, who have mostly seen good times, this back to the future sojourn into the our incomplete 80s will be jarring. Maybe, just maybe, this will teach them some humility.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Great Undeceiving

Had they deceived us,
Or deceived themselves, the quiet-voiced elders,
Bequeathing us merely a receipt for deceit?

T.S. Eliot | Burnt Norton

I am one who doubted AAP all the way to its crowning. Still, I couldn't help smiling when it won.

There is nothing about Mr Kejriwal's populism that appeals to me. I believe in the conservatism of doubt. When I hear the phrase "this time it's different", I usually head for the hills.

But, I must confess, this time does feel different.

By merely winning, Mr Kejriwal has arguably achieved more than his larger political rivals would have were they to complete entire terms in office.

He has shown a path to power that is not laced with the usual cynicism. Middle class India can see for the first time that it can participate in politics in a real way - not as acolytes of a strong man or by complicity in India's patronage system, not by division or corruption, but by activism.

If, as a consequence, good people consider politics as a career choice, that's a huge win right there.

In a country where as much as a third of the national parliament has been criminally charged, what could be more important than this?


Sometimes we are too cynical. We dismiss idealism as inexperience. We parse ideology as though its an astral chart. Let me raise my own hand as being guilty on this.

How does one talk of ideology, though, in a country that's been systematically impoverished by corruption, divided by politics of caste, faith, & superstition, and routinely terrorized by the State?

If ideology were to be the shibboleth, few Indian politicians would pass muster. Their only ideology is rent-seeking patronage. Their only difference is who they extract these rents from and who they patronize.

So what if Mr Kejriwal's economic ideas are absurd? One of our leading parties stands with quacks who peddle superstition. Another bans literature for fear of offending those who will never read it. Yet another watches young children freeze to death because apparently "no one dies of cold". And everybody snoops on everybody else.

Is Mr Kejriwal's populism any worse than their superstition or narrow mindedness or callousness? And their all-corrosive cynicism?


Mr Kejriwal is likely to fail in delivering his populist promises. Most of these are not affordable or practical. His opponents are gleefully waiting for him to fail.

This is where this time it's different. Many in the middle class are desperately rooting for him to succeed.

They are unlikely to blame him for his failure. He will point to cynical opponents and obstructionist bureaucrats as the villains preventing him from doing what he intends. My bet is that he will succeed in this and voters will stand by him.

The more his cynical opponents fight him, the more heroic he will appear.


I believe in the conservatism of doubt. Doubt illuminates understanding. The conservative wants to understand.

When doubt is finally dispelled, however, and a new narrative becomes necessary through the force of moral truth, historical inevitability, or social acceptance, the conservative adopts it with dignity.

Indians have long been deceived into thinking they exercise political choice. In reality, they merely choose a different variant of the same toxicity each time. Perhaps there are good people in this maelstrom but they too have deceived themselves about the merit of unquestioning obeisance to the powers that be.

Deception cannot be the sustainable state of being. A new narrative is necessary through the force of moral truth and historical inevitability.

What happened in Delhi shows this narrative is breaking through into social acceptance.

The great undeceiving has finally begun.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The Conservatism of Doubt

Conservatism to me means questioning the old, doubting the new, yet comfort with necessary change.


There is a common arc to all our competing histories. An idyllic universe disturbed by barbarians, vain-glorious battles to right all wrongs, an Elysian future once light has vanquished darkness. The inherited old - our tradition - is thus more theater than theology. To accept such hand-me-down tradition on blind faith, without reasoning through its validity or merit, would be herding together as unquestioning sheep. This is anathema to conservatives.

Naipaul thus is insightful for he questions our airbrushed history. Rushdie matters for he re-imagines his foundational past. Ramanujan is important for his mythology is in plural voices. Lelyveld is interesting for straying from our narrow hagiography of the Mahatma. Hussain is beautiful for liberating the Goddess from the imprisoning confines of the temple.

For conservatives, such discourse is welcome for it disturbs our kitschy sense of inherited self-delight. Without such questioning, history becomes a predetermined flow of time and tradition becomes dogma. Determinism and dogma are the antithesis of free choice and expression. That is the territory of the Marxist.

Doubt illuminates understanding. The conservative wants to understand.      


Just because a conservative questions the old, however, does not mean he embraces the new easily.

The new is seldom new. When conservatives hear the phrase "this time it is different", they head for the hills.

It may be easy to market the sizzle of revolution but, if one questioned history one would know, "revolution" is the old game of Three-Card Monte that distracts attention while shedding blood and stealing power. What revolution has not been followed by killing fields and new, even more cruel, emperors?

To conservatives, the status quo - with all its warts - is usually a better place than the untested unknown. Gradual reform is welcome, instant revolution is not. Not for us the caprice of constantly shifting public preference, we are the custodians of stability. Not for us social change imposed by unelected do-gooders in courts, we'd rather wait for society to mature enough to change itself through democratic legislation.

This is what William F. Buckley meant when he famously proclaimed a conservative as one who stands athwart history yelling stop. And, if I may reference it, this is also the core message of The Dark Knight Rises - where a conservative Batman defends his broken city from the shadow of Bane's anarchic revolution.  

When doubt is finally dispelled, however, and a new narrative becomes necessary through the force of moral truth, historical inevitability, or social acceptance, the conservative adopts it with dignity.

There is this great story about the end of the American Civil War. In Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy, there fell a pall of gloom and confusion. At a Sunday service in a prominent church, where the defeated elite had come to God's house, the priest called on the worshipers to come forth and take communion. A dignified black man walked up to the pew and kneeled down, much to the consternation of the shocked audience.

Then, an equally dignified bearded white man rose and walked up next to the kneeling black man and joined him for the communion. He was the defeated General Robert E Lee leading his people into a new post-slavery age.

Perhaps the story is apocryphal, and there are variations on the theme out there, but it is a great story about societal redemption that captures the essence of conservatism.

Another great story is that about John Profumo, the disgraced conservative British defense minister from the 60s whose dalliance with Christine Keeler cost him his job. His fall from the top of the heap was epic. He retreated into the shadows and toiled for forty years in a home for the poor in London's East End, washing dishes and cleaning toilets among other acts of service. He asked for nothing in return and when queried what he had learned from the experience, he simply said: humility.

This was "remorse of conscience" as epic as his Icarus like fall. Let me quote from (Reagan speechwriter and conservative) Peggy Noonan's essay to describe what happened next:

Nothing quite said what needed saying like what happened at Margaret Thatcher's 70th birthday party, in 1995. To show their countrymen what he'd done—and what they thought of what he'd done—they invited him, walked him through, and put him in a particular place. They seated him next to the queen. People wonder about the purpose of establishments. That is the purpose of establishments.      

This possibility of human remorse and societal redemption is also a conservative virtue. A Marxist would have thrown his distinguished life into the dustbin of history and made a forever example of his decadent bourgeoisie fall. Only the conservative establishment could have lent him a hand up all the way to a place next to the Queen in applause for his astonishing humility.


Indian conservatives, in my humble view, are full of too much certainty  and too little doubt. Furthermore, they champion idealized illusions of the past, display a (revolutionary) anti-establishment zeal, and have no will for remorse or reach for redemption. Someday, one hopes, this will change for India does need a vital conservative movement.

Friday, April 26, 2013

The Wisdom of Humility

Who writes the extraordinary dissent?
The West Wing, Season 5, Episode 17

He was old school Wall Street, the kind who smashed phones when trades went wrong. People were scared of him, he didn't like math geeks, and he couldn't quite comprehend my Indian accent. Walking into an angry lion's den is not how your first day on the job is supposed to go!

He wanted to talk about options. So, I mumbled about delta and gamma and vega, boasted about how I could do integrals in my head (which, at that time, I kinda' could), and raved about IITs.

How do we price options, he snarled? Black-Scholes, of course, I offered.


You think it's your fancy math that prices options? You are arrogant and haven't the faintest clue about how markets work.

Tell me then, I pushed my luck.

It's people like me who haggle and bluff and negotiate and wager who discover the price of options. Black and Scholes were merely trying to model what we do. Their math is imitation. What we do is the real thing.

Don't get me wrong, he went on, math is important. But it won't make you money. Any dumb old computer can do the math. It's understanding of human psychology that will give you the edge.

Your math is a necessary 30% of the game. But this anyone can learn. The remaining 70% cannot be taught. That's where the magic is.

Talk about a humbling first day at work!

There are some in India who believe that disciplines like engineering and medicine are somehow more valuable than social sciences and liberal arts.

To such people, life is a series of problems to be analytically solved. Whatever the problems, an army of left-brain quasi-robots can be deployed to write programs to solve them. There must be a process for everything, every process must be six sigma certified, and the outcomes must be deterministic.

One can empathize with this worldview. India is a swirling lava of pure chaos; thirst for order is understandable in this maelstrom.

We absolutely need the engineers to lay the pipelines and pathways for information, energy, water, transportation, sewage, and money. We need the doctors to decode DNA and smother disease. We need scientists and mathematicians to advance our knowledge by falsifying superstition.

But this is not all we need. This is the 30%. The 70% will have to come from elsewhere.
I don't remember very much at all of what I learned in the lecture halls of IIT.

What I haven't forgotten is the moment when an English Lit grad student opened my eyes to T S Eliot. There's no algorithm that can possibly replicate the beauty and wisdom in The Four Quartets.

I haven't forgotten either my classmates who killed themselves over - what now seem utterly trivial - disappointments. There is no program that could have solved their problems nor any medicine that could solder back their splattered brains. Psychological counseling might have saved their lives.

Any suggestion that literature and psychology are lesser disciplines is arrogant in the extreme. 

Myron Scholes (who subsequently won the Nobel Prize for his work on options pricing) went on to wager and lose an astonishing fortune in the summer of 1998. Wall Street was brought to its knees.

All the formulas in the world couldn't put Humpty Dumpty back together again.

It was also financial engineers whose deterministic certitude brought down the world in 2008. The collapse came as a rude shock to them (although it shouldn't have) for reality did not track their math.

There were dissenting voices sounding the alarm. They understood the fancy models and financial legerdemain, but they also remembered lessons of history and the psychology of markets. They knew about tulips and amnesia, arrogance and humility.

It is in these extraordinary dissents from mechanical models that huge fortunes were made. That's the 70% the old fox wanted me to understand on my first day at work. That's where the magic was.

Let me return to Eliot and close the final loop.

The only wisdom we can hope to acquire
Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless

I can only wish they taught humility at IITs and every other engineering school in India.