Gift of the Magi 2.0

Gift of the Magi 2.0

“Don’t forget to take sweets when you go to meet your uncle and aunt. Both of them have diabetes, and they are not supposed to eat it…but that does not matter.  You should take sweets with you when you meet them”, Prem remembered his mother telling him. It was that practice that had made him unprepared for his current reality. He came from a world where there were only occasions, and there were prescribed gifts for prescribed occasions. Recipients did not matter, and a gift as inappropriate as sweets for the diabetic was deemed appropriate. In his current place and time, people took themselves seriously, and there was every chance of offending them by not respecting their individuality. Choosing the perfect gift – after all – is the ultimate act of recognising and respecting such individuality; and you are always expected to give the perfect gift.

It would soon be March 24, and he had to get a gift. “I hate the fact that they keep adding these special days. We already have special days for love, friendship, fathers, mothers, human rights and whatnot! Why this new one?” He felt a special kind of tiredness that one gets when one searches online in vain. The eyes became hot, the body stiff and the mind, empty. He flipped from one webpage to another in search of the perfect gift.

“March 24 is it?”, asked his colleague sensing his anxiety.

“Yeah. I just don’t seem to be able to find the perfect gift”

“What are some things that she likes?”

“umm… stuff she can wear…”, said Prem sounding unconvinced. He had been rather preoccupied with his work and himself, and had not managed to watch out for the things that she would love to have as a gift. “I have to get her the perfect gift though”, he said as an afterthought. “I have to show her that I understand. It’s March 24 of all days”.

A few years ago, March 24 was been declared as the day for cross-cultural couples – a day on which such couples are expected to demonstrate understanding. It all started two years ago, or one could say 10 years ago, depending on one’s perspective. Peace activists worried by the prospect of wars in an era of growing cultural misunderstanding had started a day of understanding for people across cultures. That was 10 years ago. Enterprising marketers discovered the day two years ago and realized that they could sell a thing or two if they focused on the growing market of cross-cultural couples. The relentless advertisements began two years ago, and that is when March 24 became significant for most people.

Show her that you care said the first ad and he ignored it. The next picture was of a dejected woman who had just learned that he does not care. He tried to ignore that as well. The advertisements then started following him everywhere. It was in his inbox, his newspaper, phone, GPS, radio, TV, road and everywhere he went. Respect. Care. Love. Despair. Joy. Dejection. Oneness. Abandonment. Words kept tumbling onto the screen, and his anxiety increased with every word.

“Did you try AGiftWithInsight.com?”, asked his colleague.

“What is that?”

“Dude! It’s the coolest new app in town. Can’t believe that you do know it.”

“What is it?”

“These guys, they track everything you do. Based on that they can suggest you the top three gifts for anyone. It’s amazing. They will be bigger than eBay. Trust me”.

The website sounded impressive. We track every product that appears on your loved one’s screen, the website announced.We analyse the products that people browse most and spend the longest time looking at. Based on this, we get unprecedented insights into just the thing that your special one wants to have, but feels like she does not deserve it i.e. the perfect gift.

“That is convincing… but does it work?”

“Do you know your girlfriend better or does your computer?”

“I guess, the computer”

“Of course, that is a no-brainer. It gets to spend more time with her, it gets to know her most intimate thoughts, and it gets to know things about her that she will not allow anyone else know”.

Somewhat unconvinced, he searched for a gift coupon instead. An advertisement appeared on the search screen: Gift coupon: the perfect way to show that you do NOT care. AGiftWithInsight.com. It was watching him. There was no escape.

Della in the meanwhile was looking for insightful gifts as well, and from the same source. It recommended three gifts for him, and the top of the list was an earring. “That is one terrible piece not worth wearing”, she thought to herself. “Why would he want an earring…he does not wear one”.

“Could it be that he was reading about it to buy one for me, and perhaps the silly computer imagined that he wanted it for himself?”

“Is he seeing someone else?”

She glanced at the second option, and it was a service to send money to India to the ones you love. “I am not the only one, am I?”

The third suggestion was a subscription for a dating website. She was now ready to break down. “I never really thought that it would come to this”, she said to herself. I really want to spend my life with him, she thought. “I have somehow got to convince him not to leave”.

Unknown to him, a gift with insight was tracking everything he did. The earring had become the talk of the town when a well-known socialite appeared on camera wearing that. Just that. It was too special a news to ignore. Prem indulged himself in it between the boredom of his work, till he indulged in the boredom of his work in between the news. A gift with insight faithfully recorded his interest in the product.

“There is just one way for me to find out if he really cares”, she thought. “I will see if he buys me the perfect gift”. She had always wanted a book series on mediaeval English history that she never dared to buy for herself. It was too costly to indulge in. “Will he buy that for me? Or perhaps, he will buy me the earring… Oh God, I wish he buys me the earring”.

I should tell you at this point, my dear reader, that our protagonist had not realised her interest in mediaeval history, whereas A Gift With Insight had accurately recognised it. But like any good web service, it had a revenue model. It would identify the top 10 products that someone wanted badly and allow the manufacturers of these products to bid to be among the top three suggestions displayed to the seekers. It was a win-win. Surprisingly, publishers of mediaeval history were not among the highest bidders. Prem would never get to realise her greatest wish. While we are at it, let me add that the only enthusiastic bidders for an Indian male age 28 were companies that transferred money and dating websites that Della was suggested.

Della started probing online to see if she could establish any connection between him and the diamond earring. A gift with insight faithfully recorded that she was reading about the earring, while she bordered on a nervous breakdown not knowing what he was up to. “I really wish that he will give me the earring”.

March 24 came and Prem gave her the diamond earring. Kisses rained on his cheeks, while tears rained on hers. “She seems happy, the website does work”, he thought to himself.

“My love”, she said, “I thought about what I should give you for a very long time. I wanted to give you something that you would love, but more importantly I want to show you that I will stand by you no matter what you decide to do. I have sent the gift to your place, you will find it waiting for you there”.

Prem went home to find an envelope waiting for him. He opened it with a sense of accomplishment that he has finally found her the right gift. He was curious to know if she met his standards. The envelope was opened and he found a membership coupon for a popular dating website.

“Why has she sent me this? Is this a signal that she’s moving on? She even said the she will stand by me no matter what I do… Was that to prepare me? Did she cry out of joy or did she cry knowing that she’s going to hurt me soon…” There was no end to his questions.

The Magi, as you know, were wise men – wonderfully wise men – who brought gifts to the baby in the manager. O. Henri believed that they invented the art of giving Christmas presents. They are said to have brought gold and delicacies to the one who went on to become the greatest apostle of voluntary poverty. I guess they invented the art of inappropriate gifts as well. And here I have related to you the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children who unwisely sacrificed for each other. But in a last word to the wise of these days, let it be said that of all who give gifts, these two were the wisest. Of all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi.

Two bizarre gates

I am sorry to disappoint you in case you came here for some gossip on our friends, Bill & Melinda.  This article is about two bizarre structures, one in Delhi and one in Los Angeles.  The front gate of the Delhi School of Economics is massive and ornate, and it is supported by pillars that hold the massive gate on either side. It is said that the two pillars are called truth and knowledge.  What is special about these gates is that they have never been opened, and people have been forced to use the rear entrance to access the school for decades.  Several theories exist on why it has never been opened, and none of them is well established.

dse-gate

One theory is that the founder of the school – VKRV Rao – had declared that the gate should only be opened when someone from the school gets a Nobel Prize.  When Amartya Sen got his Nobel in 1997 there was much excitement on whether the gate will be finally opened.  I went Bombay that year and visited the headquarters of several Indian companies.  I was able to meet many top officials without prior appointments just because I was from the Delhi School of Economics, for everyone wanted to know if the gate be opened now.  All that Amartya’s Nobel did was to open some gates for me to meet them; the front gate continued to be closed.

A more colourful theory is that the pillars on which the massive gates rest have a poor foundation and they will crash if the gates are budged.  In the Delhi School of Economics, truth and knowledge have a poor foundation. No one that I know of has bothered on the question of whether the massive gate might land on someone even without someone trying to open it – with an earth quake for example.  Stories are said, life moves on, and nothing really gets done about a bizarre structure.

dance_doorThe other gate rests in between a square in downtown Los Angeles.  I saw this first during my guided tour of the opera house, in front of which the gate stands.  The guide told us when the gate was built, by whom and an assorted set of statistics about it.  He told us that it was a symbolic gate, and the artist meant for it to be open at all times as a sign that anyone is welcome to that space.  The gate stands by itself and it is neither an entry nor an exit to anywhere, and it is an ornate nothingness in the middle of the square.  I am not sure how many will get the symbolism of the open gate for welcomeness, unless told by a guide. I am reminded time and again that art should not be evaluated for its aesthetic alone, but let me add that it is not a gate that captures the eye.  It is one bizarre structure in all.

The two gates are bizarre but with a difference.  The gate in India is a mystery.  No one knows why it exists, why it is never opened, and it unleashes the creativity of many a story teller even when it was never meant to do so.  The other, a piece of art, has authoritative stories about it and there is no doubt on when, where, how, who and other questions.  The creativity of the artist is what matters and we are mere consumers of that creativity, unless of course, a blog post is written on the irony of it all!

Hawa mein bath: Stories from the Indian airspace

The woman sitting next to me was travelling on air for the first time. She grew up in a small town and there was not much discussion about air travel among her friends. I did my share to make her feel comfortable. We did a round on how to buckle the seat belt, how to turn on the light, how to turn off the air vents and whether she should hold her three month old tight through the flight. After we reached the altitude she asked, “Chal rahi hai kya” (is it going?). I heard it as “Jal rahi hai kya?” (is it burning?). I had never imagined that someone will discuss a plane burning with such a bright smile.

***

We flew over a beautiful winding river that branched off every now and then to reunite again. It was a mighty river, and it had so much water that it must be rough and rapid. From my vantage, the river was one gracious picture, winding in beautiful curves, creating little river islands along the way. At times, long curvy branches led to little curvy branches of water, making it look like the river was stretching out its hand. All around it were little rectangles in varying shades of green. I have read about land fragmentation in India, but the sight of it from thousands of feet above was stunning. I guess I would not have made much sense of it had I not seen those large blobs in varying shades of green in the USA. But then, is it a story of fragmentation or concentration?

***
Landing in Los Angeles at night is an incredible sight. It is a sea of lights stretching for miles and miles, disrupted only by brief patches of darkness in the woody hills of LA. I landed in Ranchi today after the sun had set, and the lights began with barely a minute to land. Between thin streams of light were vast stretches of shadow. It was an eloquent political commentary.
***
The lounge was made lively by a crew of young women. Their smartly tailored uniforms highlighted many an attractive feature and the skirts that went just above the knees revealed beautiful legs. The smiles were effective and economic as they went about their routine. They were invariably young and pretty, and I believe that it is not an accident. “…I am the commander of your flight” said a voice amidst my distractions and went on to introduce the male head of the hosts. I liked the sweet feminine voice of the commander.

Nothing as entertaining as extremism

In a world that is deeply worried about extremism I have learned to love it. In fact, there is nothing as entertaining as it is. Whenever I am bored and need a diversion, I find extremism and its close cousins: insanity and craziness, to be extremely reliable means of getting out of my boredom quickly. That’s insane, you must be thinking. Or perhaps not, if have a YouTube view of the world, as I do. All I need to do is to go to YouTube and start typing “extreme” or “insane” or “crazy” and it will give me an assortment of options to get my mood back on track.

It started with my search for extreme acro slam dunking that led me to this video:

As I started watching it, YouTube suggested that I watch this too:

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It was entitled “crazy ping pong player”. Encouraged by this, I started looking for videos with the keywords “extreme” “crazy” and “insane”. In the process, I found the Most insane parking job ever…

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…a seven second entertainment video. I guess there is something in us that draws our attention to things that we absolutely cannot do ourselves. Greater the potential danger, greater our attention seems to be, one reason why insanity makes for such entertainment. And that which gets our attention is bound to be used by some to further their purposes, as in this case:

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Thankfully, not everything about insanity and extremism is about flirting with danger. It is also about intelligence, wit and skills. It is at times about sensible ideas that we simply have not thought about, to take an example:
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A video with many interesting aspects to it, don’t you agree? I guess the list can keep going on, but I will leave you with this video entitled extreme gymnastics. And for the New Year, I hope you shall stop worrying and start loving extremism.

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Enjoy.

Publish and perish

In his fascinating book, “The world of gold today, Timothy Green wrote about gold reserves in Fort Knox as one of the silliest ventures taken up by human beings. We slave hard to take out the gold that lies under the earth at tremendous cost of lives and resources. We refine it, transport it across the world and then bury it again under the earth at enormous cost. There can be no venture sillier than that, he argued.

I just had my Fort Knox moment. I discovered that four of the papers that I worked hardest on and got published have been cited once cumulatively in four years. While that is bad, it gets worse. I heard a statistic that the average dissertation is read by seven people in all, and that often includes the mother of the author. We devote years and resources and to bury ourselves amidst the walls, only to produce something that will be buried in turn, a venture as silly as the gold stores of Fort Knox. It is sobering to realize that the posts I do on Facebook do much better than that, and generally takes only a few minutes to do so.

My recent realisation came when I looked at the software called Publish or Perish. The software helps us to track the performance of various authors, articles, journals and gives us an indication of the “impact” that the author has had. The impact of an author certainly goes beyond the citation that he or she receives: no doubt about that. Such software tend to underestimate the citations one has received since they do not cover all sources, no doubt about that as well. After taking all that into account, it still leaves the work that we do in the academia in very poor light, and life in the academia looks like the perfect route into oblivion: to publish is to perish.

Ps. To those masochistic ones who wish to measure their oblivion or the sadistic ones who wish to precisely estimate the unimportance of your “friends”, you should download and play with Publish or Perish. It costs nothing to download and run; costs to emotions are a different matter.

Salsa in Madras: Social dance in a conservative city

Madras is one of those conservative cities that likes to keep its boys and girls at a safe distance. Parents clamour to get their children enrolled in colleges that are rather strict about this, and colleges have responded to this with enthusiasm. One famous college made a rule that girls will sit at the front of the college bus and boys behind and there will be a firewall of teachers in between. To counter this attraction other colleges have come up with separate roads and staircases inside the campus for boys and girls. In this context of competitive conservatism, I was surprised to hear of salsa in Madras.

I decided to go to this event with two schoolmates expecting to see rebellious youngsters, perhaps those from other cities with parents safely away. Well, Madras is also a city of surprises: the first set of people I saw were old mamas and mamis with their attractively clad daughters in the dance hall. Unfortunately, the mamas and mamis were not dancing, with just one exception. The rest had accompanied their daughters to protect them from the harsh city that Madras can be. The mother sat at a distance occasionally giving the daughter napkins and diet cokes during the break, and the daughters comfortably crossed the intimate world of social dancing and parental presence.

I was stuck by the sight of a protective mother watching her daughter dance with a glint of pride in her eyes. From the perspective of traditional Madrasi sensibility, protecting daughters and bringing them to a social dance like salsa are contradictory. While the idea of social dancing is not very Madarasi, the idea that one’s children should be accomplished in every sphere is very Madarasi. Perhaps, that should have made salsa irresistible to the protective mothers.

One of my schoolmates, now an accomplished salsa dancer, went to the dance ring while I settled with the other in a corner seat. It was apparent even to the untrained eye that salsa was new to the city. Some of the elementary moves were overused and you could see the dancers watching and learning on the fly from the more accomplished ones. My dancer friend literally pushed, rolled and twisted his partners and danced with intense glee; at times I wondered if he were a dancer or a puppeteer.

My other friend, now a doctor, surveyed the scene intensely and turned to me. “Look at the shape of her body…”, he said. I waited for him to pass a cheesy comment. “…she will have problems during delivery”, he completed. I was unprepared for the twist from the sensual to the cerebral. I guess that too is Madras, a city were it is more acceptable to indulge in the cerebral than the sensual.

The night ended and the trio returned. My friends were generally satisfied, the dancer having danced and the doctor having analyzed medical issues. It was a bittersweet experience for me. I would have loved to join the revelry and excitement, but not a bone in my body likes to dance. But then, not all was lost as the social scientist in me saw the grand city change and quietly shelved a research project for the future. In Madras, that is pure indulgence.