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.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

2000 Indian Rupees

That there is evil in this world is clear from what he did to her.

I've struggled with words on this one. Even my outrage is numb. So I've mostly read and listened.

The most sordid of all the ugly details is about the hush money.

What's 2000 Indian Rupees? A couple of pizza lunches? Or a night out with friends in Mumbai?

I paid more for a round trip on Heathrow Express to Paddington last week. My room service for dinner cost almost as much.

I've seen an Indian lady pay 75,000 Indian Rupees, in cash, for shoes at a high-end Delhi mall.

Then it hits me. 2000 Indian Rupees is the price for leftover lives.

The policeman who offered this sum to the parents of that beautiful little girl didn't conjure it from thin air. He has no doubt offered the same to countless others to hush up their rage.

She's only a poor little girl, he must've reasoned. She will soon forget. For her parents, this is a month's worth of income.

T S Eliot wrote of lives measured in coffee spoons. Leftover lives in India are not measured at all.

What did he see in a five year old? It's inconceivable that it was lust. 

The instruments of brutalization suggest, instead, an impotent rage. He couldn't stand her innocence. So he violated her and tortured her and left her to die.

Then, predictably, he ran back home.

She, miraculously, refused to be treated as a leftover life. All I can feel is awe towards her.

She is a tough girl and will survive this.

But can we say the same for the unequal, uncaring, and unconscionable world she will grow up in?

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Gross National Grace

In his classic novel, Shibumi, Trevanian describes "the ineffable quality" as follows:

Shibumi has to do with great refinement underlying commonplace appearances. It is a statement so correct that it does not have to be bold, so poignant it does not have to be pretty, so true it does not have to be real. Shibumi is understanding, rather than knowledge. Eloquent silence. In demeanor, it is modesty without pudency. In art, where the spirit of shibumi takes the form of sabi, it is elegant simplicity, articulate brevity. In philosophy, where shibumi emerges as wabi, it is spiritual tranquility that is not passive; it is being without the angst of becoming. And in the personality of a man, it is . . . how does one say it? Authority without domination? Something like that

Shibumi has stayed with me ever since I read it years ago. 

Spiritual tranquility that is not passive. Being without the angst of becoming. Authority without domination. Do these words not remind us of Gandhi?

And not just Gandhi. Such strength (and beauty) through grace has been the Indian tradition.

Maa Nishada Pratistham Tvamagamahsāsvati Samaa
Yat Kraunchamithunaadekam Avadhi Kaamamohitam

Our first poem was a graceful protest against senseless violence.

I also think of Shabri's ber and the grace with which Ram ate them. And the Bodhi tree under which Siddhartha found his own grace.

I think of the persecuted Parsis who arrived in Gujarat and gracefully made it their home. I think of Somnath that our people built up again and again as a graceful counterpoint to a marauder. I think of Akbar whose Din-e-Ilahi was a nonpareil act of grace.

I think of the universality of Yoga and the syncretic notes of Bismillah Khan.

I think of Ghalib and of Guru Tegh Bahadur.

I think of Rahul Dravid and I think of Irom Sharmila.

Shibumi may be a Japanese word but it is a thoroughly Indian ideal.

Modernity has made us less graceful alas.

Our cacophonous republic sees grace as weakness and vanity of intellectuals.

We mistake violence for strength, aggression for assertiveness, garishness for grace.

We pin gallantry medals on police officers who force pebbles inside hapless women.

Our cities are noise, our streets are sewers, our arguments are abuse, our politics is personal destruction.

I quite think that grace has been and should remain the eternal idea of India.

It is through grace that we will find balance at home and a place in the world.

We can be humble without being timid, simple yet sophisticated, vocal without being argumentative.

We are better off building reserves of strength, not brandishing the little we have. Indeed, when India eventually achieves Shibumi, she will find she has also become a superpower.
Lest I am accused of hypocrisy, let me hasten to note that I don't claim to be personally anywhere near this graceful ideal that I write of. It doesn't make me proud but that's how it is.

I do think it is worth striving for. Our reach may far exceed our grasp but at least we can reach for grace.