Category Archives: ethics

What to preserve?

Here, we will focus on our cultural heritage rather than our natural one, since the latter has been the focus of popular attention in the recent years.

The preservation of certain forms of art, architecture, handicrafts for fear of their being lost in the mists of time has been a matter that has preoccupied many a diligent individual. As is probably well recognised, it is only the form of the cultural artefact (be it art or anything else) that is preserved, not the substance. It is easy to explain the previous sentence with an example. Indians all over celebrate some or the other form of a harvest festival. This makes sense because India has been (and continues to be) a predominantly agricultural nation. Many Indians are no longer farmers and nor do they have any remote connection with farming, and yet they continue to celebrate such festivals in towns, cities and even places outside India. Thus, they continue a tradition that makes sense only in an agricultural setup even when they no longer live within such a setup. Thus, the form of the harvest festival is preserved (with some modifications maybe), but there is no substance backing it. It is similar to Christmas being celebrated in a predominantly secular West.

Most cultural traditions have an inherently multi-faceted nature: they are not purely religious, nor purely economic or purely anything else, but a mixture of all these. When the factors that underpin these traditions change, the traditions themselves must change to adapt, else die out. This is the stage at which preservationists intervene, and try to preserve a snapshot of the dying traditions for posterity.

Most cultural traditions are naturally evolutionary, since socio-economic conditions change over time. To preserve a snapshot means to pull that tradition out of the context that makes it meaningful and ‘museumize’ it. There is also an inherent bias in the preservation of such traditions: those which are aesthetically striking and appealing (like music and dance) have a better chance of being preserved than others (like how to milk a cow or how to make dung cakes).

Without taking sides as to whether it is important or not to preserve certain parts of our cultural heritage, one must still ask as to what end such preservation is directed. Most farming traditions, for example, arose in a context where there were no chemical fertilizers and pesticides or even irrigation. Now, as we realize that chemical farming cannot go on indefinitely, there is definitely value in preserving these traditions. Here, we are not only preserving certain agricultural practices, but also a world-view that appreciates the necessity of maintaining a balance with natural processes. Only within such a world-view will these agricultural practices make sense, and are meaningless otherwise.

A great example of trying to revitalise not only a tradition but also the context is Gandhi’s attempt to revitalise the khadi economy in rural India. This was to be accompanied by socio-economic reform at the village level by ‘constructive workers’ and large scale marketing in the urban areas to make it economically viable. There was also the moral dimension to it in asking the urban rich to relate to their underprivileged brethren by spinning some thread on the charkha. With Gandhi’s death and an intellectual tide that was against his ideals, this attempt was museumized as well into the Khadi and Village Industries Commission (KVIC), and only with the emergence of new organisations like Dastkar and Desi are such traditions looking to re-emerge.

It is only when cultural traditions make sense within a certain world-view can they be innovative and inventive and alive. Otherwise, they have to be kept on ‘life-support’ at a great social and economic cost. The preservationist’s attempt to create an unchanging snapshot of the same will only result in decay and perversion of the traditions, like has been done by various politicians and ‘cultural’ groups looking at gathering power by projecting themselves to be the saviours of ‘the great ancient Indian traditions’. The vitality of a tradition lies in its ability to respond to its present context. This response may lead to strange results, like handloom weavers wearing modern polyester sarees and ‘modern’ urban elites wearing traditional handloom garments, but it shows that a world-view is refusing to die and responding to changing (albeit unfavorable) circumstances.

Humanity has matured to a sufficient extent to understand what is necessary to maintain its continued existence on this planet, though it has not matured enough to act on this knowledge. It is something like learning to dance: understanding how to perform a particular step is much easier than getting your body to execute it. We know with some confidence what is the world-view that will help us live in harmony with the rest of nature. Ensuring we develop and preserve traditions that take us toward this end should serve as a thumb rule in making the decision about what to preserve, and what not to.

Being useless

First of all, something from XKCD that echoes my sentiments:

The mouse-over text for this panel goes like this: “The only things you HAVE to know are how to make enough of a living to stay alive and how to get your taxes done. All the fun parts of life are optional.” For some reason, this part of life is completely overlooked when trying to describe what makes an ideal human being. We seem to have internalized a fact of dubious validity that if one is useless, then it is a bad thing. Good is equated with useful (to someone/thing) and bad with useless.

It is undoubtedly true that since we live in the company of other humans, and all of us are trying to prop up a gigantic structure called society, that we need to work with each other, and for each other. It is therefore only fair that we are rewarded when we do our part, and are useful to others. Only thieves and politicians seem to think otherwise, and also those who beg and borrow without ever trying to find something useful to do. But somehow, somewhere, the fact “you need to be useful to survive” gets transformed into “you survive to be useful”.

As a personal ethic, to live in the service of others is undoubtedly a very noble thing. But problems arise when everything is judged by its utility to yourself or to society. By this standard, bureaucrats (the earnest ones anyway) are useful and painters useless. Farmers are useful and folk singers useless. If we keep eliminating useless people and things from society, then, like the cartoon says, life would not be very much fun indeed. Also, it is very easy to apply double standards: A sports person who has spent his entire life thinking about himself, his body and his technique becomes a hero if he wins a medal, though his actual contribution to society is similar to that of an orchid to a forest.

Another thing to keep in mind is that the word ‘useful’ itself has different meanings at different points in history. It is socially defined and it defines ‘The Box’ within which society operates. People of science were not only considered useless but even dangerous a few hundred years ago. Nowadays they are worshipped as saviours of humanity. Therefore, some who is very useful and maybe even invaluable at a particular point in history is so because she operates completely within ‘The Box’, and is happy doing so. If everyone thinking outside ‘The Box’¬† are eliminated, civilisations will stagnate and die out.

It is therefore important that society tolerates useless elements like beggars and philosophers. They may be parasites, but as long as they don’t suck the life-blood out of the society, like politicians, they should be allowed to survive and persist. They may harbour ideas or examples of ways of living that may lead the way for future generations, or their ideas may be eternally useless. But being different, being useless requires conviction and courage (however misplaced), both of which are rare qualities in society.

At a more personal level, being useful implies leading a life that is mainly governed by the needs of others. As experience will inevitably show, the ‘others’ are a mix of deserving and undeserving people, and you have no control over which kind you end up serving. It a very rare set of people who can truthfully say that they serve only deserving people. Also, people and things have values that are not included in their utility: beauty, inspiration, serenity — these are also things that we as a society must value, and seeing how things are progressing, maybe value more that brute utility. Being useless is something that is brainwashed out of us very early on, maybe it is time we re-learn what it feels like!

The sense of entitlement

The primary focus of economic study is what you are entitled to, given what you have and what you are capable of doing with what you have. In short, economics can be called the study of entitlement, given endowment and capabilities. Of course, many economists will beg to differ, and say study of endowment and capabilities are as important (Amartya Sen and Karl Marx, two examples from different parts of the economics universe.)

The problem economics faces is that entitlement needs to be quantified to make the subject earn a (pseudo)-scientific status. Therefore, what you are entitled to is reduced to numbers or very detailed set of services. This to me pushes a lot of questions and intangibles under the carpet, as will be explicated below.

The best place to start will be the trains in India. When you reserve a ticket, all you are entitled to is your particular seat or berth on it. On a particularly crowded day, like during festivals, it is inevitable that people will crowd into the compartments reserved as well, and request or shove (depending on which part of India you come from) you for some place. Some oblige, some don’t, but always grumbling about how they have reserved this place and they are entitled to ‘better’. It is not uncommon to see people grumbling if people even stand inside a reserved compartment. Their sense of entitlement for a reservation goes beyond an assured seat to a comfortable, non-crowded, no standing people journey.

Most of the politics that happens is due this sense of entitlement that cannot be captured within economic frameworks easily. Reservation is such an issue. Those demanding reservation say they are entitled to justice for historical wrongs, whereas those opposing it speak a very ‘economics’ language of efficiency and meritocracy. It is not surprising that the debate normally goes nowhere. Reservation has economic implications, sure, but it does not stop at that. The same goes with the debate on climate change as well. Though we say big things about economics driving the world, there is little economics at the core of climate change debates, which talks about the entitlement of countries to pollute like the West did historically and continues to do.

This non-tangible part of what you think you are entitled to makes all the difference in your attitude toward other people in general. It is not uncommon to hear idiots trying to gain the upper hand in an argument by invoking their past and family and qualifications. They somehow feel that getting a Master’s or being a Manager in a company entitles them not to deal with ‘incompetents’, as they would put it. Similarly, someone dining in an expensive restaurant would be mortified if the waiter was not ultra-polite, unfolding napkins and capable of an intelligent conversation about their food and liquor range. They believe that their paying that ‘extra’ justifies having an attendant who just stops short of kissing their feet. You would give ugly stares at that neighboring table who just can’t keep their voices down, since of course you are also entitled to a certain etiquette from all the other customers in the restaurant. However, since none of this is printed on your bill, economics cannot really play any role in determining it.

The other extreme would be people who think they are entitled to very little, and take away from an economic transaction even lesser than what a traditional economic analysis or policy would put in your pocket. This is typical of how the poor are treated, which is well documented is the case of the MNREGA programme. Whatever they get is a blessing and nowhere is this better observed than in the general compartment of a train. 6 people on each seat, 6 on the luggage rack, 5 on the floor between the seats and a very large number on the aisle, it sometimes seems that the ticket they buy has no value at all. They seem to be entitled to only going from place A to B, without any consideration as to how. In fact, the more spectacular acts of kindness and generosity comes from the people in the general compartment, not those in the 2AC, which is strange since economics would say that only the rich can ‘afford’ to be generous and kind. This is simply due to the fact that each views what they are entitled to in a very different manner.

The rich get richer and poor, poorer. This is because those who have tend to overestimate what they are worth and those who don’t consistently underestimate the same. More than economics, culture and social norms play an important role in determining one’s sense of entitlement. However, one should not forget that this has important economic implications. An artist feels he is entitled to earn lakhs for a painting is indulging in the inexact science of translating those intangibles into a price, which is why there are so many poor artists for every one that makes it big. This inexact science depends on luck, where you live and who you know, none of which are economic variables.

In the long run, we are all dead. Can’t we take the opportunity to be kind and thoughtful without trying a rational analysis of our entitlements? Apparently not.

Metaphysics of Cooking

Before looking at cooking itself, one must look at the ultimate aim of cooking — eating. Eating is one of those rare things that is both spiritual and material at the same time. A well fed person is at peace with himself and the universe, overflowing with ‘the milk of human kindness’, so to speak. He is suddenly very generous and jovial, and feels a strange oneness with the universe. This lasts, of course, until he begins to feel hungry again. A perfect meal is a close approximation to the ideal state of moksha.

If moksha can be attained, if only for a brief while, by eating, then obviously cooking is the path leading toward it. It is very easy to take cooking for granted, since it happens so often all around you in all shapes, colors, smells and tastes. On a gross material plane, cooking implies both the knowledge of storing food and the creation and control of fire. The former is common to many living beings, but the latter seems to be unique to humans alone. Therefore, the very fact that we can cook puts us at a very advanced level of cultural development. Cooking at any level of sophistication implies the knowledge of what is ‘cookable’, and at what time of the year, and how to cook it — some foods are actually poisonous unless cooked properly. Thus, purely from a materialist perspective, cooking is dependent on the knowledge of plants, animals, seasons and how to access, control, harvest or adjust to them. This, as should be obvious, represents a huge body of knowledge passed on almost unconsciously from generation to generation.

But then, cooking has not purely been about survival. It is only a minority of low-lives that eat (and therefore cook) to live. Even more so than eating, cooking is a celebration, an act of creation, and an expectation. Cooking not only creates food, but also an atmosphere, emotions and modes of thinking, and in turn is influenced by them. A depressed person can only produce depressing food in the long run. Spices used reflect the personality of the society as a whole. It is not a coincidence that spicy food and emotional Indians go together. A person that I know, who has lived for quite some time in the US, mentioned once that ‘Indians kill the taste of meat by adding spices to it’, meaning that we never really taste the meat itself, but mostly how it is flavored. It is only a boring utilitarian view that can say that what is meant to be tasted is the meat itself. This is the view that can produce something like a rare steak. Fortunately, Indians will never be partial to this view, and my food will be ‘killed’ by spices for as long as I live.

What assumptions does one cook under? what view of the person who eats what is cooked is taken? Cooking, though mostly performed by a single person, is rarely meant for that person alone. However, the preparation must be appealing at first to the cook itself, and it is assumed that the persons who are being cooked for will find it similarly appealing. You do not go asking for everyone’s opinion during cooking, but only afterward. Thus, there is always assumed a continuity, a oneness between the cook and the eaters. It is expected there will be minor differences, but never major ones. One of the best ways to insult or show displeasure toward the cook (for any reason) is to complain loudly and/or refuse to eat, like all our movies and serials show us. The breaking of a social or emotional bond is thus best symbolized by the drama at the dinner table. Similarly, it is because we assume a continuity that we only ask strangers as to their culinary preferences before the preparation of a meal.

Cooking and consumption of its products remind us that the social universe is dominated by non-textual, non-lingual signs. Displeasure, happiness, amity, love, irritation can be so easily communicated without even saying a single word or writing elaborate theses or love letters. Food, again, is not just the mixing of specified ingredients, but also the physical manifestation of a specific mental and spiritual disposition. This is the reason why you can only do that much by following a recipe book. The ‘extra’ that every cook hopes for does not reside in any recipe read or listened to.

Both cooking and eating normally begin with prayers, which reminds us repeatedly of what assumptions go into cooking — thank the farmer, the rains, the earth, all which take the form of God in prayer. In this sense, cooking is also an acknowledgement of our dependence, mostly on things over which we have no control, and thus for whose suitable working we must be thankful. Cooking can also be an instrument of domination, and is particularly useful over those who go soft-headed after a great meal. It is only those who do not realize the power of cooking who can condemn it as a symbol of subjugation, just like they condemn motherhood or anything that applies to a certain gender, normally female.

Cooking, performed in an appropriate amount, is therefore as much a pleasure as is eating, and the possibility of creating not just something that tastes good, but also influencing individual behavior and by implication the mood of those around those individuals also puts a certain responsibility and a duty on the cook. Those who eat implicitly assume that those who cook will not poison their stomachs or their minds.

The greatest appreciation of a cook’s work does not lie in enthusiastic applause, but in a contented silence which seems to say ‘Everything is perfect. I am at peace. I am in heaven’. That cooks around the world can bring about this state of mind, rather than body, on a regular basis is something remarkable, and a true hallmark of a civilized people, regardless of their being rich, poor, urban, rural or tribal.

‘Anna’lyzing Hazare

I rarely worry about current affairs, since they are not my interest, but the situation in Delhi has some historical precendents that prompted me to add my two bits to the equation.

For the second time in recent Indian history, an honest, practically saintly man is threatening to bring down an Empire (for that is what Indian Governments for the past few decades have been) by simply refusing to eat. Indians, emotional as ever, suddenly are consumed by a nationalist frenzy that should be scary even for a hardened dictator, let alone an economist-politician.

Is it a creation of the media? in part, without doubt. But there simply is no other way of mobilising so many people that I’m aware of. But the recent spate of politicians gettting too stupid to get caught contributed to this, without doubt. Also, the new generation of Indians, growing in self confidence that comes from world-wide admiration for our IT sweatshops, who think they have analyzed the situation perfectly and know best what is good for the country, have also added fuel to the fire.

On the side of the muted minority, a few who are wary of such frenzies occluding the real issues, whatever they may be, are criticizing the new Great Indian Show as shallow and ignorant of ground realities. They believe that it simply exposes the shallowness of Indian democracy and worry that the democratic process will be hijacked by the coercion of a few capable of moving millions.

Whatever may be the case, it is undeniable that this fast has fired the imagination of the country like very few events over the past few decades, including winning the World Cup and the Godhra mess. The reason for this seems simple — people can relate to and understand the anger against corruption, since they face it in their everyday lives, all the time. Though it may seem desirable, but worrying about Irom Sharmila and the AFSPA, or what conspired in Gujarat early in the 21st century or the inhuman treatment of tribals in Jharkhand or Orissa can hardly be part of their daily exertion to make ends meet. When someone raises their voice in support to Anna Hazare’s fast, they have that clerk in that department in mind, not Ratan Tata paying off the UPA government or the Birlas buying out tribals in Orissa.

If not word for word, but in spirit, the exact same debate had been carried out between Gandhi and Tagore some 90 years ago. I had described it, though with a more abstract focus, for a term paper last year. When Gandhi roused the people to join the non-cooperation movement in the 1920s, Tagore took exception to his methods, which to him depended heavily on the presence of a strong personality like Gandhi to be around to work. It would not ‘deepen democracy’, he said (though not in the same words), as some journalists have been murmuring about the Anna Hazare movement. It had the potential to degenerate into empty flag waving and slogan raising and to smother genuine criticisms and concerns, according to Tagore. For more details, have a look at the above pdf.

90 years on, Tagore’s fears did pan out, and India still requires a saintly figure to stop eating to rouse them against the Empire. The methods are still fundamentally anti-democratic, like Gandhi’s fast against separate electorates which spawned the Dalit movement of today (which hates him for it), or his throwing out of Subhash Chandra Bose from the post of Congress President. Gandhi’s political proteges chafed against the tight leash with which he held them back, to advance his ideas of a non-violent nation which they neither understood nor appreciated until the horror of the Partition. They would have gladly ignored him if it was politically feasible, and this happened during the final talks with the British before they left India.

That this debate continues in present day India is significant in atleast two ways: One, the question of how to involve the mass of the Indian population in the governance of the nation has not been solved satisfactorily. Two, the intellectual and moral legacies of those great Indians, Gandhi and Tagore live on to this day.

What model of governance would suit a country where the ‘Northie’ and the ‘Madarasi’ still cannot see eye to eye, and the Brahmin and the Dalit still cannot sit at the same table? The easier way would be to try and homogenize the people by means of an imaginary past, like the RSS actively are doing all over, or rouse people based on issues close to their hearts, however temporarily, like Anna Hazare is doing. The harder way, which Tagore espoused and which Gandhi implicitly agreed to later in his life when he resigned from the Congress and plunged head on into the Constructive Movement to help villages become self sufficient and the centre of any economic organisation in India, is to ‘deepen democracy’ so that people can in some sense rule themselves (which is after all what ‘Swa – raj’ means), and exert control over their lives.

This, however, would require a very different kind of socioeconomic organisation from the one bequeathed to us by Ricardo, J. S. Mill, Marx and Manmohan Singh, in chronological order. The British legacy in India was to fundamentally alter the material lives of people in some respects, and as I have mentioned before, to change it requires a lot of time or a lot of violence. So too for the society and economy which derive from it.

India has grown in confidence, no doubt, but it is a result of the arm twisting tactics of the World Bank and IMF (who first forced the Indira Gandhi government to asymmetrically distribute agricultural inputs to usher in the Green Revolution, and then forced the P. V. Narasimha government to implement what has come to be known as ‘Manmohanomics’) rather than any innate genius of the Indian people. Our so called ‘gifts to the world’ that Swami Vivekananda was so proud about, are only inheritances from our ancestors, which only goes to show that as a civilisation, we are stagnant in the 16th or 17th century. Like Tagore, my hope is that India can show the world that a Northie and Madarasi need not see eye to eye to build a prosperous nation, that a Hindu and a Muslim need not dissolve their individual identities to forge a strong country. That will be her greatest contribution, a mark of her genius.