Friday, October 27, 2006

Must Poetry Always Rhyme?

Whether to rhyme or not,
The poet had often thought,
What a vetti quandary,
Dum duh-da dee!

“It is a crime, nay a blasphemy,
To use sumthin’ like vetti,
That too in English poetry,
Dum duh-da dee!”

“I will take you to court”,
The pundit held a forth,
“You tender an apology,
Otherwise Dum duh-da dee”

“I earn my bread thro’ poetry,
Am a veteran licensee”
The poet replied angrily,
Dum duh-da dee, Dum duh-da dee.

“Mistaken you are surely,
For I, in a drunken spree
Merely misspelt witty”
Dum duh-da dee.

With such a victory,
In his moral kitty,
The poet continued to murder poetry,
Dum duh-da dee, Dum duh-da dee

“Should poetry rhyme?”, I thought. This was a result of a disastrous attempt such as above.

Actually I was inspired to think about poetry in the first place, because I stumbled upon this nice comic verse:

It was an evening in November
As I very well remember,
I was strolling down the street in drunken pride,
But my knees were all a-flutter,
And I landed in the gutter
And a pig came up and lay down by my side.

Yes, I lay there in the gutter
Thinking thoughts I could not utter,
When a colleen passing by did softly say
‘You can tell a man who boozes
By the company he chooses’—
And the pig got up and slowly walked away.

(I found it here)

“But isn’t writing all about letting loose, writing for yourself, a cathartic experience?”, the idle critic may ask. “And therefore, if you find rhyming poetry difficult to write, why try? Poetry which doesn’t rhyme is the hot stuff today”, the IC may continue.

That is the problem. I consider poetry that does not rhyme with suspicion. Such daring liberties are for the really good. The problem with non-rhyming poetry is that it lets the mediocre dress their mediocrity atleast for a while. It is as if the author (poet?) was lazy to write in prose, so he/she just put it in terse lines and got away citing the much abused poetic license. Faugh!

Do not mistake me, at the hands of some, these experiments produce amazing results but the chances of spurious passing of as genuine are also high.

Also, the poems that I have read that rhyme, are good fun. Who can forget Ogden Nash’s poems at school? Couldn’t find his poem on the visit to the dentist, but who can disagree with an author who says “Candy is dandy but liquor is quicker!” Other notable poems from school were the famous Lochinvar or the even more famous Highway Man. These poems were memorable primarily because of their rhyme schemes.

Speaking about peoms read at school, two poems by Vikram Seth’s spring to mind. One was a poetic re-telling of the Panchatantra story – The Monkey and the Crocodile and the other was The Frog and the Nightingale. Maybe since I was very familiar with the M and the C, I found the F and the N a better poem. I really loved the story and his ability to maintain rhyme and meter throughout. From then on a loyal Vikram Seth fan was born, a loyalty which strengthened after Suitable Boy and now, just slightly wavered after the publication of The Two Lives.

Frankly, I was disappointed with his latest offering. While it was a family story like the Suitable Boy, in fact, a real life story, it didn’t have the tautness of narration that Suitable Boy had. It was nice of him to write of his own family and maybe people could identify with the events in that book, but there was a certain flair missing … how shall I put it… a spark in the language which makes you turn the pages regardless of the quality of the plot or your sympathies w.r.t the characters. But I guess we can allow him a little indulgence, he has written good stuff before.

The master of this genre i.e the book which could entice the reader purely on the strength of the language was/is the one and only PGW. Plum’s writing is the best thing that could have happened to me. How many afternoons have been spent curled up reading, re-reading PGW’s books? Invariably the plot is same – he follows the same template. You know that All’s Well that Ends Well, yet you turn the page. Why? Because he invites you into a magically whimsical world that the highly rational conditioning of today will not allow you to enter into. A world where the absurd and the whimsical take centre stage and what follows is a delightfully breezy read. Scratch the surface and one realizes that this kind of writing is extremely difficult. Of course, I am not saying anything new, just felt like re-stating it.

I recall that we had a poem by PGW about a reporter who experiences anything before writing about it. He shoots into fame for his ‘Reality Reporting’. However, his rising career is brought to an abrupt end when he tries to write about the effects of arsenic! While trying to locate that poem I stumbled upon the “Pig in the Gutter” poem earlier on.

But often breezy poetry/prose is dismissed as not literature. That leads one to compare the status of Literature with that of Economics; if Economics is the Dismal Science, then Literature must surely be the Dismal Art. The most celebrated books seem to be maddeningly sad and well what do you know, THAT’s why it is great!

One can picture two critics talking to each other.

“What do you think of this new Kid on the Block”
“Oh! He just writes for the plebs, a panderer!”
“Exactly! Among his other faults… he makes me laugh!”

The irony is that what they say IS correct. It is the ability to bring out emotion which is the power, the essence of writing. But there does seem to be a bias towards sadness, as if happiness were a quality to be suspected.

The point I am trying to make is that often authors seem to dwell on dark issues because that’s what the masters do, but they are not equipped to do so as they don’t have with the sensitivity that they masters have, and the end up sounding unauthentic. By authentic I mean, the ability to put down something as it occurs to you without any thought for anything else. After writing one must worry about the audience’s reaction but while writing it must be you and the thought!

For example, I often find writing by Indian authors in English authors lacking in authenticity. Such writing arises when the intellect unnecessarily interferes in an arena where the heart must rule. This was brought home to me recently when I had the opportunity to read two differently written pieces back to back. One essay by Jerry Pinto titled Death at Varanasi, and the other, a translation of a Dalit story called The Poisoned Bread by Bandhumadhav.

The essay by Jerry Pinto was in my opinion, clich├ęd and laboured, artificial. It was as if the author was forcing his intellect to write what it saw instead of just letting the heart write itself, instead of Varanasi just writing itself.

The essay itself starts with an italicized “Burrning is lurrning” and it is in a sense italicized throughout – italicized by the dictates of the mind. Let me hasten to add that I have not read his other works and in no way do I judge the author, just a judgment on this essay.

On the other hand the translation of the Dalit story had an authenticity, in the sense the emotions were accurately conveyed with simple words. For example, there is an instance in the story where the main character eats bread upon which there was cow dung. Now this incident is treated as evidence, a stepping stone, an argument to prove the unfairness. But it is not dwelt upon in any depth. The emotion with which this scene is dealt defines its authenticity. However, one may imagine the italicized writer to deal with this in some sort of voyeuristic detail and missing the correct emotions. That is when an author ends up being short on authenticity.

(The End)

Monday, October 09, 2006

Ever noticed...

Ever noticed that, in addition to the cardinal hierarchy in numbers there is a social hierarchy as well. As in, the numbers with zeros at the end of them are somehow special or cooler. These numbers are used as milestones, or people really want to get to these numbers, or if you get these numbers then you are given some credit.

It is understandable if 100 is given special importance over 99 because there is one whole digit more and the number is like bigger and all that.
But why should 274 get the raw deal with respect to 200 or 300. They are ALL three digit numbers. Heck, even 250 is more attractive than 274.

The 50 guy is like the freeloader.
Why is 50 worthy of mention?
Because it is half of 100 as if that half were magical in some sense.
Oh and why not 60? After all it is 3/5ths of 100.

But it is not enough that you have a 0, you should have it at the right places. So 304 has a 0, but,"Tough Luck kiddo, 310 is what the people want. It's all PR". All this is really unfair! I can imagine the following scene:

Mr. 51 and Mr. 52 are waiting to get into the newest, most happening pub in the town.

Mr. 52: Hey why is there such a long queue for a damn pub?

Mr. 51: This is THE most happening place in town! ALL the hot chicks come here. (Then with a wink and a secretive expression) Rumour has it that they got Paris Hilton to do it here for the opening!

(Suddenly someone cuts the line and goes in)

Mr. 52: Hey who is that mot%^$#@ who cut the line?

Mr. 51: Shhh! (In a reverential tone) He is Mr. 50!

Mr. 52: Well, what's he got that I ain't?

Mr. 51: Oh! He has got it! And at the right places!


Ever noticed how people have a tendency to coin nouns out of verbs or verbs out of nouns or adjectives out of verbs and so on. To use the present trend, people have a tendency to 'noun'ify verbs, 'verb'ify nouns and so on.

There is this Online Community called Orkut where people sign up and generally show the world how attractive, successful they are, what are their likes and dislikes and how they want to meet and keep in touch with friends and all that. The way to communicate on Orkut is by leaving messages on a notice board called a scrapbook.

This has led to some new terms. A scrap (noun) is a message left on your scrapbook and the verb is to scrap.

My friend joined and quit just as quickly, when one day his boss said,"Oh! I WILL definitely scrap you"


Sunday, October 08, 2006

Oru Chemical Engineerin Kadhai (A Chemical Engineer's Story)

(This is a prospective movie script. People interested to be producers can contact the undersigned ;-)
Oh and suggestions for the roles of hero and heroine are also welcome!)

(Addition: Turns out that a lot of people who are not familiar with Tamil movies find this blog vague. Well, explaining these things spoils the fun, so just read it as some sort of surreal piece or something.)

A young man returns to his native village after completing his PhD (in chemical engineering,of course) in the US. Immediately on arrival he starts flirting with the more good looking of the village ladies and goes from lake to lake to see their daughters bathing, as these heros are wont to do. (These rural heros have all the fun I say) Then one day while checking out Thenmozhi, his former mathematics teacher's rather buxom daughter, he sees her suddenly turn red and fall sick. He is shocked.

On investigation he finds that the local soft drink factory is responsible for releasing more than the admissible levels of monosodium-arseolate. Shocked, anger written on his face, he storms the manager's office. Since he is just out of college he speaks politely, but the manager insults and sends him away.

He drinks local arrack to drown his sorrow. Unknown to him the factory also makes that same arrack as a by product! Tch tch.. speak about irony.

(Sad song - Oora therinjukutaen ulagam purinjikitaen kanmani en kanmani... An interesting feature of this song is that this is the only part of the film where the hero changes his costume to a cut banian and lungi. Throughout the film, to show that he has returned from the US, he always wears a Red Lacoste T shirt and Lee Jeans.)

The next day, our hero decides to show them who is the boss and he goes and beats up the factory people and gets to the main computer where the process information is kept. However, it is all stored in excel and MS-OFFICE has as usual cupped.

Hero: Oh What can I do? I left my copy of HISYS at the USA. I could not even design a MER HEN* for four streams in my undergraduate how can I do this... boo hoo...

Then suddenly as if to answer his prayers, something comes falling through the roof. It is so powerful that the roof falls off completely.

Huge Mass: Why fear when Captain Vijaykanth is here!
(Whistles, trumpet sounds, the sound of Thenmozhi swooning in delight!)

Hero: Dei, adhunaala thaan da fear. Normala entrance vazhiya vandhirukalaam illai! Kooraiya oduchundu vara... the^%@#!
(that is why the fear! Like anyone else you could have just come through the entrance. Like a maadar, you broke the roof. Now I have to factor in that cost as well. LKB, KS, TPV2K #@!!*&^)

Captain: Ha ha ha. You insult me without knowing my powers. Wait! Your problem is that you cannot open the Excel files.

Hero: And I don't have HISYS, you son of a what-not. What will you do? Write software for it? (Mockingly)

Captain: Wait and Watch!

He clicks on the file, Right Click.. Open With...Paint and simultaeneously says JHOOOM.

That is all, it immediately gives the optimized plant layout, optimized for waste eduction to meet environmental laws!

(Hero's face turns red in shame and falls at Captain's feet)
Hero: Oh great one! Sorry for having underestimated you! Do I have vimochana in any janma?

Captain: It's okay! When I can make Paint do Image Processing, what is Non-Linear Optimization, some Kuhn Tucker conditions. Peanuts... Poof.. Never underestimate the Tamizh Genius
(Whistles and kisses from Thenmozhi's ugly sidees also.. sometimes it just doesn't pay to be a superhero!)

Anyway, seeing the hero's exploits, all the women of the village offer themselves and our hero lives polygamously and happily ever after...

(Ending Song: Ilamai Idho - Sakalakala Vallavan)

*MER HEN refers to Maximum Energy Recovery Heat Exchanger Network. (Chemical engineering jargon :-))

Sunday, October 01, 2006

An Alternative Philosophy to Governance

Sometime ago, the Election Commission was issuing Voter ID cards . The venue for residents of my area was a Corporation school nearby. After collecting the usual identification like the ration card, and my college identity (just in case), I stepped out of my house and heaved a sigh. Like the average citizen I like to minimize my interaction with the government as much as possible for it inevitably implies delays and brusque officials. I always try to wriggle out of any work involving the Sarkar, especially the municipality. In fact, for most houses in my street, one fellow collects the telephone bills, water bills etc and pays them in return for a small fee!

As I reached the venue and got into the queue for the ID card, it struck me that the process sounded impressive. There was a web cam kind of thing which took the photo. A printout was taken, laminated and finally a hologram was stuck. The average service time, once you got to the photo, worked out to be around ten to twelve minutes. It is creditworthy that such an important document can be issued to so many people in such a short period.

However, the line was long and as usual there were quite a few throwing a fuss about the inefficiency of the process. Bollocks. It is a general tendency to criticize the government and I felt the criticism unjustified in this context. Also, the official present in the spot handled all queries politely and assuaged ruffled feathers in a pleasant manner. This has to be praised as government officials are often coarse in their dealings with “aam junta“.

However, there is scope for some improvement. For instance, a token could have been issued for every visitor. Knowing the present token number, a visitor would have an approximate idea of how long it would take for his/her turn and therefore, he/she could go out and attend to some other work or just have tea nearby instead of waiting in the queue. Seats can be laid out for those who want to sit around. But these are small details. The earnestness and enthusiasm of those involved was appreciable considering that the conditions were quite inconvenient for them. They were mostly standing and the room in which the photos were taken was perennially congested. Also there was a single fan which was rotating so slowly that it didn’t have any effect whatsoever.

While I would rate the whole system as good, overall, it lacked that touch, the finish of professionalism. I think it is high time professionalism crept into governance. With India growing at the rate that it is, the issue of governance will assume a very important status. However, barring stray exceptions, the philosophy and attitude of the average civil servant is still unfortunate. There seems to be an attitude of mistrust and unfriendliness in any government office, as if, any gesture of friendliness would end up in the public taking undue advantage of them. I think this attitude is a remnant of the Raj mentality when the British trained the Civil Servants to look down upon the natives and treat them with a certain distance. Much power concentrated in so few viz. the IAS and the politicians. This results in the bottom rungs viz. the clerk classes constantly looking up to the superiors for signals. These people posses the amazing chameleon like ability to dance to the tune of their superiors. Such behavior is a survival tactic which arises from an insecurity and fear of the powerful. However insecurity doesn’t lead to confidence. In fact, by concentrating power in the hands of so few, the system ends up killing the entrepreneurial qualities of the people at the bottom.

Why should people at the bottom have entrepreneurial abilities? Well, often it is such people who know the ground realities better and can therefore come up with better plans to implement lofty ideas.

This train of argument leads one to the conclusion that the government too has to be run like a firm. Many firms give extraordinary powers to their lower managers in return for extraordinary expectations on performance.

But are we justified in comparing the government with any firm? If the government is run like a firm, if the profit motive comes even into the government, then who will be the neutral arbiter for the society? Agreed, a government cannot and should not be run with a profit motive like a modern firm. However, why should the notion of a firm imply only profit maximization?

My own model is that of a government which is run like a firm whose objective is maximizing customer satisfaction.

Let us analyze this statement.

Who is the customer?
The taxpayer is the customer for the government’s services. In a sense, any public servant’s salary comes from the taxpayer, so there is a moral obligation to serve the taxpayer well.

How can this be implemented?
Years of training and mistrust cannot be changed in one stroke. I imagine there must be too many vested interests, unions, politicians- the usual suspects, who will not allow sweeping changes to step in. However, inspiration can be obtained from the enlightened shop floor practices taught in any industrial engineering course. In any top quality factory, graphs showing product quality as a function of various parameters are displayed. The aim is that an interested worker can look at that and get a feeling of reassurance of the importance of his job or in some cases, take initiatives.

Similarly, let us consider a government office which gives some sort of clearance. In such an office a chart showing number of clearances per month can be displayed. A small thing like this can make a difference to the everyday functioning of the employees. Seeing the graph, any average fellow will ask questions as to why and how fluctuations occur. This naturally leads to a sense of feeling among everyone involved that they must strive to achieve some sort of consistency.

While the comparison may seem far fetched, it is actually not. The principle is the same: empower the worker who does the actual dirty work.

There are many advantages to transforming the government into a firm. Consider the earlier example of the voting center. If customer satisfaction maximization is the goal of the endeavor, then the idea of the token dispenser would occur naturally to anyone. Another is clearly written instructions on walls of the government office and more importantly officials adhering to it. One of the biggest reasons why citizens don’t follow rules properly in India is that there is no advantage; in fact, there is a disadvantage in following stated rules as they are not followed. (At an early age itself one is taught to view the stated rules with skepticism and go and ask the official concerned!) In an environment where the taxpayer is viewed as customer these inefficiencies should reduce.

However, the biggest advantage of the government viewing itself as a firm is this: Any good firm today prides itself in its ability to achieve stated goals quickly and efficiently. To this end, Collectors would have to view themselves more as CEOs out to achieve a stated mission. CEOs rarely get involved in the implementation. They delegate most work to capable underlings. It is this functioning that I would like to highlight when I use the term “firm”. Delegating in the right manner acts as a sort of empowerment to people at all levels and this is what is sorely required. In my own opinion, too much power is concentrated in too few and as stated earlier, this gives the impression of the Indian government being some mighty father figure ruling benignly over its citizens.

With this kind of a view, the problem of the government employing excess people is not all that bad, as long as they contribute to customer satisfaction. In my opinion, the subject of government deficit is approached in a very dogmatic way. Among the middle classes the reaction to government debt is very similar to that of personal debt – an attitude of taboo, an attitude of “How can there be a debt? We need to get rid of it immediately”. However, it is perfectly justifiable for governments to draw up a debt as long as they can provide quality services to their citizens. The problem in India is that a lot of debt goes to service more debt and very little reaches the common man. Therefore, if we think of the government as a firm we can perhaps take a more sophisticated view towards debt, employment and other issues.

Having elucidated the model, now we have to analyze for the shortcomings. Most of these ideas would have been propounded by brains more experienced and capable than I. They would have mostly failed because of the lack of determination from higher quarters. Therefore, the root of the problem is apathy and gross misuse of the system and this does not address that.

I acknowledge this. In fact, implementing such a philosophy will only have a small effect. It is not likely to revolutionize the scene. However, there are a couple of points I would like to bring to notice. Governance in India is becoming an extremely challenging task and is only set to become more complicated. More and more people are traveling abroad and see processes in developed nations and are questioning the inefficiencies they see in India. Also, the recent cinematic stereotype of the politician being a ruffian, uneducated purely evil animal is wrong. In fact, they are extremely shrewd and clever people who are adept at handling the “grey” areas in policy making beautifully. A close examination of many situations reveals that often maintaining status quo is the shrewd (the game theory solution) approach and therefore, nothing is done. In such a context, my opinion is that anything to improve the public response, however incremental, will be welcome.

The issues with the model are these:
a. The problem of agriculture and the government's role in that has not been discussed.
b. The issue of inefficiency due to hiring many more people than actually required cannot be tackled by this.
c. To achieve such a transformation, we need a charismatic and determined leadership. This brings us back to step one (sigh!).

To sum up, the traditional view of the Sarkar as some sort of strict parent ruling over the fate of the people HAS to go. Such a philosophy is untenable and inefficient. Considering that the old model is difficult the idea of the government as a firm maximizing taxpayer objective is an alternative approach (the above objections notwithstanding). Of course, the ultimate Utopia would be one in which the society aims to empower the individual and the government playing a corresponding empowering role. But that would be slightly too ambitious.

(P.S: This essay is based on some reading and my personal experiences. If anyone has more information and thereby has some objections please leave a comment. It would help in refining the idea.)