Wednesday, December 24, 2008
Having got that off my chest let’s move on.
There is a nip in the air which is enhanced by an anticipation of festive Christian times such as Christmas and New Year. It always causes me some crisis of identity because, as a resident Hindu, Christian festivities should be alien; this, it is not. Perche? You may ask in Italian if only because Rome introduced Christianity to the world and Roman Catholic missionaries to India.
What influence drives Indians to embrace Christian festivities but not, say, Judaism or Islam? I think it is the emphasis on friendliness and the spirit that goes with it that warms our heart. In some Indian language or other the proper word that describes this warm feeling of friendship is mitra (we have so many languages we cannot be sure of the actual root of any word except that it is most time safe to say it is vedic or Sanskrit in origin although I have this intuitive feeling that Bengali would be closer). With so many festivities this mitra-giri of friendliness (as expressed in a peculiar boisterousness) should be forever in India. It is some how enhanced in December. Perche? I have asked before.
As I found out (from the net of course) Mitra or Mithra is quite appropriate to the December times. I will discuss this aspect later in this blog. Mitra-giri is spontaneous and there will be no attempt to deliberately step from one logical stone to another. I intend to just amble and ramble along hoping not to get to any point in particular but just to get a whiff of the season, a whiff of Mithra.
I continue to maintain the position that to begin one must have half-baked knowledge before one realizes that the fully baked knowledge is as elusive as ever before.
Its nice to be out on the streets though in December in Pune simply because there is a gentle glow in the sunlight and the temperature is mild even in mid-day. You can walk safely provided you do not pay attention to the traffic --- the drivers get confused and run you over if you heed traffic rules and do not jaywalk. The fruits and vegetables look good. In Pashan, where I live in Pune, we are lucky to have a large vegetable market that spreads out on the street for about half a kilometer. If you are discerning enough, you can actually get ganvran (village) vegetables grown by small farmers. This is also the season for pink-hearted guavas which you eat as many as you can when the season lasts.
Just as good food there must be a pious regimen. A famous temple in the heart of Pune’s ABC corner (appa balwan chowk) is the Tambadi (red) Jogeshwari (goddess of life) temple (centre of Fig 2). The devi killed Tamra Asoor one of twelve asooras (disciples?) of (probably) evil Mahishasoor who were troubling the devas (gods). Tamra Jogeshwari became Tambadi Yogeshwari with time. The temple was formed around a swayambhu (self-born) by a Bendre family in 1545 AD. The deity here is Pune city’s gramadevata or protecting deity. An internet story goes Shivaji ploughed the land in front of the temple at that time with a golden plough that signified the new beginning for Pune. Two deepmals (tower of oil lamps) were erected to mark the spots where the ploughing started and ended. Jogeshwari is a not a common name of goddess that continues to be worshipped The dilapidated Jogeshwari caves in Bombay is perhaps the oldest non-Buddhist cave in India. In the midst of the intense commercial activity near this temple there is always time for a prayer to the deity (nset of Fig 2) even if you have to sneak it in through closed doors and barred gates. This temple is surrounded by colourful shops (right of Fig 2) selling various items of worship.
Opposite the temple stands a pillar (left of Fig 2) for holding lamps which could be Shivaji’s deepmals mentioned earlier. From the marks on the pillar one can see that it is rather old. The pillar now supports a make-shift book shop on one side and a shop for selling wicks for worship lamps on the other side (Fig 3 left). There was a young girl sitting in this shop trying her hand at sketching passers by when they chose to be stationary for some time. If you search for this temple in the internet one would find references to the several bookshops that line the streets around the temple.
This area has remnants of old houses such as that in Fig 3 (right) which look quite quaint and definitely temporary although it looks historically permanent in the soft December afternoon. If this door was in London one could have claimed a heritage from Roman arch times. By itself, this door (with more doors behind, seen once the picture is image-processed) says so many things --- is the cycle securing the door or the door securing the cycle? --- about Pune and its Puneri manoos.
There is in Pune some newly constructed overbridges built for the Commonwealth Youth Gmes that now flies over the erstwhile University circle and forking into three when taking the road from Old Pune city. One turns towards Aundh (where IT offices are), the other towards Baner (where the Commonwealth tadiums are) and the third dips down to Pashan Road where many early prestigious government and defence laboratories are. These overbridges to Pune’s power-houses took two to three years to build and eliminated the wait for two of the six traffic lights that existed prior to their construction. The bridges thus constructed did not help much in reducing the congestion for the evening traffic which has grown so much. These bridges have been decorated by a few very quickly commissioned and executed “works of art”. A prize-winning work of art, shown above, somehow reminds me of something (at least the face) I had seen earlier --- maybe on the Berlin wall.
One of the laboratories to which the link to Pashan from the over-bridge leads to is the National Chemical Laboratory (NCL) built with much care and love by an English scientist with Italian marbles and Nehru’s blessings. A newly added visual splendour (for a short while) from the over-bridge going in the western direction towards NCL and facing the east is the huge hoarding in black with Raghunath A. Mashelkar’s face in orange symbolizing a glowing sun --- albeit a setting sun if one takes the direction into account --- of the soil of Pune. It is nice to see R. A. M.'s ever optimistic and cheerful face up there. The bill-board happily anoints R. A. M. with Padma Vibushan title. The error --- if he is a Padma Bhushan --- could be construed as minor and certainly the fault of DNA.
Coming down to earthier matters (and heading to the Mithra time reserved for plebians), the road to NCL is also a road often used by the Lambadi tribe (some say they should be called Marwari tribe as they do not have heavy bangles upto their upper arms) people who are found in the Pashan area. They are very colourfully dressed and very hard working. Twenty years ago, when I first came to Pune, they wore considerable amount of silverware and had shell bangles right upto their arms from their wrists. The silver has been replace by mirrors and they are mainly without the full complement of bangles. They work as construction labourers and they are always seen collecting dry wood from wherever they can. They do not like being photographed. They have a reputation for distilling alcohol which I have once tasted (Schnapp-like) and which one drinks quickly in gulps (Schnapp-like). Their main “distilleries” were in and around the Pashan lake. In the evenings the Lambadi ladies assemble with their alcohol in plastic packets, squat on a stone selling their liqueur, and carry on a roaring trade that starts just before twilight and continues till late in the night. This used to be at the Pashan circle but they have left for some other place now. Their contribution to the Pashan economy could be considerably more than that of NCL. They keep to themselves and give considerable colour to Pashan in Pune. They live in their own “ghettoes” in tin shacks although they should, in my estimate, be considerably well off.
The tin shacks of the gypsy Lambadis have replaced their earlier bamboo tent-like structures which should have been more dignified and definitely better looking than the burgeoning middle class apartment houses that pollute Pune’s sky line. Some buildings of the conventionally rich people in the camp or cantonment area in Pune still manage to look a bit upper class and distinctly priggish. My favourite modern building is the one at 2413 East Street which now houses the offices of Citibank and Kumar builders (figure on the left below). It did not have the steel framework on top announcing Kumar to the world. Next to it is an old graceful lady of a building which has deservingly a smooth-haired fox-terrier to go with it. It is of importance to remind ourselves that there is equal dignity in living a free life even if it is to take shelter under a tree next to a rock-turned-into-temple (figure on the right below).
The man next to the rock-temple must be representing the most common but ancient life styles. Stone worship of the kind seen is very common in Pune. It is usually done by the oldest (pre-Mahabharata they say) existing communities such as the Kuruba community also known as the Dhangar community (mutiny of 1857) in Maharashtra. They dominate the rural population. This community includes has contributed great minds such as those of Kalidasa and Kanakadasa and from which the Holkar dynasty of Indore or the Hoysala dynasty of Karnataka is said to come from. This community may not form a part of the Rama-worshipping VHP or BJP agenda now; it should be remembered, however, that they continue to dominate our man-of-the street life. Their history is the history of the real kind.
This should bring us to the worship festival in December --- Christmas. Mithra would enter through the most ancient form of worship. Stone worship is, of course, one of the most general and ancient forms of worship, including the worship of sacred stones (ansab) in ancient pre-islamic Arabic worship, and in places of worship in the Old Testament among the Canaanites, for example. The shapes and materials of the stones are not important and could range from rough blocks or pillars or conical stones some which are similar to the stone in the figure on the right.
Now here is the surprising (at least for me) connection between Christmas and stone worship through Mithra-giri.
As we all should know, and as we do not care to know. the festival of Christmas has nothing to do with the actual birth of Jesus. It seems that long before the time Jesus was born, there existed a “pagan” religion with a son-of-God named Mithra. Now Mithra is a familiar name in India and is recognized as Mitra in the vedic texts 3500 years ago. The name Mitra is associated with a dear friend and as a sun god, Mitra represented the "friendly" aspect of the sun, just as the Persians regarded Mithra as a "benevolent god". An interesting interpretation of the name “Mitra” is that it is a hyphenation of Maat or Maa (mother) and Ra, the sun god; so is Mitra mother-sun? Maybe… even if MCPs may not agree.
If you scour the internet you come up with surprising statements (remember, that if you repeat it three times it becomes true, like the hunter of the Snark said):-
i) The Vatican was built upon the grounds previously devoted to the worship of Mithra.
ii) The Indian Mitra, born of Aditi, the "mother of the gods," is the inviolable or virgin dawn.
iii) Mithra was put to death by crucifixion to rise again on 25th of March … when all at once the light burst forth from all parts, the priest cried, O sacred initiated, your God has risen.
iv) Mithra had his principal festival on the time he was resurrected and which later became Easter?
v) Petra, the sacred rock of Mithraism, became Peter, the foundation of the Christian Church.
vi) Mithras was called “Theos ek Petras” or “God from the Rock” which could be the reason for the Vatican Hill with its Mithraic remains being sacred to Peter.
Rock-worship is the common feature which persists from ancient times to this day as is visible on the streets of Pune. This is the continuing religion of the original inhabitants of this land, who are now beginning to have their day whether their costume changes or not. Like the Lambadi (Marwari?) girl on the left or the Lambadi (Marwari ?) boy on the right who is spreading Mithra-ism (or friendship) as easily as he spreads Santa.
Many scientists use the phrase --- which they should not --- “whatever the truth is, one thing is certain”. I will use this phrase now when summarizing what I have found on the net (simply because I am not certain). Mithra is seen as a mediator between God and man or Sky. The Roman civilization came into contact with this religious influence because of their widespread empire. Rome was well-known for absorbing the pagan religions and rituals of its widespread empire. The great festivals of Mithra are observed in the winter solstice and the vernal equinox which would correspond, respectively, to Christmas and Easter of the Christians It is then possible that Rome converted this pagan legacy to a celebration of the god of seed and sowing, Saturn, and the rebirth of the sun god during the winter solstice period. The winter holiday became known as Saturnalia, the most popular holiday of the Roman year and began the week prior to December 25th. A description of the Saturnalia festival in the internet is as follows
"During the holiday, restrictions were relaxed and the social order inverted. Gambling was allowed in public. Slaves were permitted to use dice and did not have to work. Instead of the toga, less formal dinner clothes (synthesis) were permitted, as was the pileus, a felt cap normally worn by the manumitted slave that symbolized the freedom of the season. Within the family, a Lord of Misrule was chosen. Slaves were treated as equals, allowed to wear their masters' clothing, and be waited on at meal time in remembrance of an earlier golden age thought to have been ushered in by the god. In the Saturnalia, Lucian relates that "During My week the serious is barred; no business allowed. Drinking, noise and games and dice, appointing of kings and feasting of slaves, singing naked, clapping of frenzied hands, an occasional ducking of corked faces in icy water—such are the functions over which I preside.
This equality was temporary, of course; … "
This is the haven of freedom that Indian IT workers love to wake up to and treat Christmas as one of their own Hindu Festivals. We are not necessarily subscribing to alien beliefs when we join in on Christmas celebrations. We are just re-associating ourselves with what was our own --- Mithra-giri.
Sunday, December 14, 2008
Madhugiri baul and his instrument
So we thought we will go to Dodballapur (Lalitha’s father was born there) and then take the road to NH4 the national highway from Bangalore to Bombay. This road would have made the trip 20 kilometres longer. Taking purely geometrical considerations (two sides of a triangle being longer than the diagonal) we (which really means I) thought we will take a diagonal route to Sira (where there is a famous big banyan tree within 10 kms and some remnants of Aurangazeb’s rule) via Madhugiri (means “hill of honey”). We did not know it, but we drove past the biggest single-stone monolithic hill in Asia, when going to Madhugiri. The view of the hill (which can also be climbed and has one of the finest hill forts that was built by the Vijayangar kings, that we did not know about also) would have been spectacular on a clear day. The day was non-cloudy and should have been a clear blue-sky November day, but there was this frustrating, view-spoiling, brown haze about which we do not seem to worry even if it is a world concern. The road to Madhugiri from Dodballapur could have been avoided because the road was mostly bad. The road from Madhugiri to Sira could also have been avoided. The road itself was not bad but there were so many huge speed-breakers meant especially for trucks and other heavy high vehicles before and after every village we crossed.
Just when we thought that there would be a long, tiring and tedious drive to Madhugiri/Sera, we overtook very colourful man walking briskly down the road. I stopped the car to photograph him. The man had a happy look on him generally; but a resigned look as far his future dealings with me was concerned. I had my camera. He knew I was going to photograph him. He knew he will get some money from me. He looked as if he did not really want the money. He also looked as if he had said to himself that if he was going to put up with it, he may as well ask for some money. I think I figured out the same thing myself. He posed for a still shot. I asked him to sing. I recorded his singing with my digital camera not knowing that I was shooting something I could not set straight. I have posted it as it is after converting it to .mov or .mp4 files (see top of blog).
Unfortunately for me (and fortunately for the madugiri minstrel --- MM, as he may be called --- as well as, I suspect, Lalitha) my camera battery died. I could not record the details of MM’s instrument any further. I did not know the local language and so I could not converse with him. He, of course, was able to impress upon me smilingly, that what I was paying him was not sufficient. He said something which I understood as he was on his way to a temple or a mela or a village. He found another villager who greeted him heartily and they walked away. I think I missed something very important. I should be going back to Madhugiri sometime with his picture to look for MM and listen to him.
What Musical Instrument did MM carry?
A cursory first glance at the MM would suggest to a city-cynic like me that he is just a happy clown making a living by having interesting colours and a strange instrument. Once he started playing the instrument and plucking the strings (video) it was clear to even an untrained ear like mine that both his instruments and his voice certainly were of good musical timbre. After I reached Pune, I searched the internet. I found nothing like him. So here is a report that is licensed to speculate.
The way MM moved with his belonging wrapped in cloth, a stick, and caressing his cradled instrument he could not be anything but the free-est of men --- a wandering minstrel with a song in his heart, stars in his eyes and music on his fingers and holes in his sole. He reminded me of the bauls. Not exactly the romanticized stereotype images of the modern baul, but the bauls I first heard performing for their living in a local broad gauge electric train (new for me at that time) from Rishra to Howrah in the late fifties or early sixties. My late elder bother --- he was in IIT Kharagpur at that time --- was with me at that time and it was he who educated me on bauls, as he did on so many things.
There were two performers in the train. One of them played on a single-stringed instrument, ektara (ek = one, tara = string), which is a (Fig 1a) a sound box made from a shell of a coconut clamped between two bamboo sticks held together at one end. A string from the bottom of the coconut shell is stretched to the joint bamboo at the top and tuned by a wooden key. The notes are produced by simply twanging the string. The notes can be changed by squeezing the bamboo strips held in the palm of the hand. The other played a khamok-like small drum (maybe one should call it a gabgubi) which was held under the player’s left arm while a small brass drum was pulled slightly to control the tension of the two strings (Fig 1b). The fundamental tone of the melody was set by jerking it very slightly and subtly. The strings were plucked by a wooden plectrum held on the right hand.
The music they played was divine to me at that time and their image is etched in mind forever. Their lively faces have been always an unconscious source of consolation throughout my life since then. The madhugiri minstrel (MM) reminded me of them and he has been unconsciously added to my unconscious list.
MM’s instrument was not an ektara, not only because there were two strings instead of one, but also because it bore no resemblance to the ektara (Fig 1a or 1c) commonly used. There were instead, first of all, two strings so that it could have been a dotara (do as in doe = 2) (Fig 1d). It seems that the number of strings does not determine whether an instrument is an ektara or dotara, especially if you are in the parts of Bengal. In the typical Bengali tradition of arguments, a dotara can have four strings. The four-stringed instrument, which resembles a sarod¸ is known as rahr Bangla and could indicate western (Persian?) influence if only (in my unsubstantiated but licensed opinion) because the begatters of the rarhi kulin families, now setteled in the south of Bengal, hailed from kanauj which is to the west of India.
As I mentioned earlier, MM’s instrument is decidedly unique, at least as far as my very limited experience goes.
There are usually designs of animals, peacocks, birds either on the main body or on the neck of the instrument. MM had a peacock/bird at the bottom of his instrument (Fig 2a). The main body was of bamboo just as the hollow body of any lute. Unlike the ektara MM’s instrument had frets of an unusual kind. Another of the more important features in MM’s instrument was that it had three resonators. Maybe one of the resonators was for his voice. If I remember right, the white-pumpkin-shell resonators were cut open at the bottom. One of the two strings was strung over a bridge so that it must be the melody string. Quite strangely, one bridge seemed to be at the top (Fig 2a) of the instrument and another was at the "normal" position. The other string was perhaps a drone. The rounded bridge (Fig 2a) at the bottom of the instrument satisfies Raman’s description of the bridge in the veena which “…set aside the validity of the Young-Helmholtz law and actually to manufacture a powerful sequence of overtones including those which ought not to have been elicited according to that law …”.
The way two of the dried gourd resonators are located and fixed to the bamboo tube may be thought to be similar to that in the rudra-veena (Fig 1f) which has a tubular body about the same length. Two large-sized, round resonators, made of dried and hollowed gourds, are attached under the tube in the rudra veena. The rudra-veena has raised metal-fitted frets as in MM’s instrument even if the raising of the frets may be a bit exaggerated by MM. The extreme resonators (one big and the other small) have some resemblance to the shruti veena and also to the saraswathi veena.
madhugiri baul 3
Another feature is the pipe-like object coming out from the top. It is fitted into the main tube-like bamboo body of the instrument. I have not seen anything like that before. The way it is fitted into the main body gave me impression that there was an acoustics purpose. I gave it the name “pipe-resonator”. It has occurred to me that the purpose of the pipe perhaps serves the purpose of a muffler in a car exhaust, muffling out some of the undesired (defined by the dimensions of the pipe) sounds/vibrations.
How did MM arrive at his instrument which is certainly not unwieldy or inconvenient? It is unlikely that he knew about the physics of it. When C. V. Raman carried out his experiments on Indian stringed instruments, he had the advantage of his father being a violin player and knowing about Helmholz resonances from Helmholtz’s book “The Sensations of Tone” which re-inforced Raman because of his interest in the physics of the violin.
In that very short and lively book by G. Venkataraman on “Raman and his Effect” (Orient Blackswan 1995) the experiments of Raman on ektara was illustrated (Fig 3). Raman had said
Strange as it may seem, there is in actual use in India, a musical instrument, a rather crude one, it is true, the working arrangements of which, are in essentials, the same as in the figure (a). It is styled the gopijantra or oftener ektara [literally meaning single string], and is chiefly used, I find, by vocalists --- those of the poorer sort --- for striking key notes and marking time. The users of the instruments are apparently totally unaware of its characteristics.
It is a mute point on whether the world lost out because the “poorer sort” (read baul) were unaware of the characteristics (physics) of their instruments or whether the world may have lost out when physicists imposed their learning on the instrument. It may have worked for western instruments but the truly free spirit does not and should not depend on the bounds set by current knowledge of physics. The Madhugiri Minstrel represents that freedom and I yearn to meet him and listen to him once again and perhaps get to know him well enough so that I can ask him about his instrument.
History of Ektara.
As usual, I should have stopped here, but speculation on ektara is a world pastime. It may as well be mine and, hopefully, yours too. There’s much more to Nebuman and hyksos that I have written below. That will be for another day.
Remember, that the earliest recorded image of a lute-like instrument if not an ektara is from an Egyptian king, Nebamun’s tomb (Fig 2b), which dates back more than 3350 years. This was during the reign of the Hyksos, who were dark-skinned semitic tribes who came from the “east” which could have been from or through Ethiopia or Somalia. The hyksos ladies had oriental Jamini-Roy-like eyes with long hair. The ladies had long hair (Fig 2b and 3). One can see a resemblance between the appearance (Fig 2c) of Parvathy Baul (the figure has been taken from her homepage) the modern Brahmin lady who became a baul (if that was necessary). The lady baul of Fig 2c is dancing with an ektara (Fig 1a) which is different from what the ladies of Fig 2b are playing. But wait!
There is a Egyptian hieroglyphic which is a combination of symbols for windpipe and heart and means “beautiful, good, perfect” . The hieroglyphic for nfr resembles the dotara of Fig 1d. This character is seen in the top corner of Fig 4. The hieroglyph (if it is a hieroglyph) next to the two nfrs resembles a flute that the lady on the right of Fig 4 is holding. The hieroglyph next to the “flute” could look like a banjo or a guitar with four tortoise-like legs and (with my licence) I now claim that is close to the kachapi veena of Fig 1e. The kachapi veena it seems has played in the vedic age for geet or samgan and the speculation (not mine) is that geet + tar = geetar = guitar?
So what is the Persian setar? It has three strings and looks like what the ladies are playing in Fig 2b. It spread to Persia around the time of the spread of Islam when contact with Arabic traders with east of India (Chittagong port) because of silk trade was increasing. The setar is supposed to resemble the four-stringed dotara or bhhawaiya which originated in rahr Bangla (where else?). So did the somaliann/Ethiopian hyksos people of 1350 BC (with the “setar” in Fig 2b) bring the ektara or dotara or setar to India? Or were the hyksos people of Egypt from Mohenjodaro? or vanga or Bengal? Did they migrate (remember my licence?) during the great drought around that time?
An article in the internet on "Plucked, fretted instruments in Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque Scotland" begins with
"Determining exactly what instruments were played anywhere during the medieval period is never an easy task. One writer's gittern is another writer's cittern. And poetic imagery may be just that - a product of the imagination."
The image of the Madhugiri Minstrel should suffice.
Tuesday, December 2, 2008
As older people we can only recollect from our Brahmachari days when, as aliens in our own country, we conversed and read in a foreign language without being alienated … strangely! In the context of the images of recent terror, Eliot’s “Game of Chess” comes to mind where bottles of perfumes (read flames from grenades)
That freshened from the window, these ascended
In fattening the prolonged candle-flames,
Flung their smoke into the laquearia,
Stirring the pattern on the coffered ceiling.
Huge sea-wood fed with copper
Burned green and orange, framed by the coloured stone,
In which sad light a carved dolphin swam.
Above the antique mantel was displayed
As though a window gave upon the sylvan scene
I believe with perfect faith that the Creator, Blessed be His Name, is One, and that there is no unity in any manner like His, and that He alone is our God, who was, and is, and will be.
How does this terror attack affect the ordinary people who have been burnt? We have our maa-kalis and the tandav of Shiva; as a result we live comfortably with the notion of the union of creation and destruction. We have been a bio-degradable country that has perhaps (it is impossible to be categorical) been based on a fearless faith in the infiniteness of our lives and a respect for all form of animal and plant lives --- even if it may be based on our (the people of the subcontinent) ingrained, native, religion-independent belief in retributions through reincarnation.
I could stop here. I have gone way beyond the 5 minute forty second attention span that one may expect at best. I refuse to believe this should be so or even be encouraged, not only because I am not an advertiser, but because I think people who terrorize are those who benefit from such short attention spans.
The unforgivable image of sloppy short-cuts (a modern Indian idiom) is the crash-landing of our flag on the moon. We should have treated our flag more gently. The next time we will announce our conquest of foreign-controlled territory by landing our national flag on it using fire-power of Bofors gun! Why couldn’t Kalam restrain himself from imposing his rank on (terrorizing) ISRO? More importantly, why did ISRO allow Kalaam to try to steal their thunder.
Our non-military security systems do not fare any better. There is now a talk from security managers of top private companies that they should be allowed to have all the paraphernalia (AK47, grenades, satellite communication, the works) of government security systems. Is there any guarantee that these companies, which failed to see the stock-exchange collapse their financial securities, would do any better than the goondas they would hire. They do so in any case for their physical security and in eliminating competitors?
Why was our television coverage so shallow? The television images survived on irresponsible gossip. There was a cacophonous screech for attention that focused solely on the misfortunes of the rich and the famous. There was no original in-house of the attacks. Except for the bravery of its nervous inexperienced young reporters, it did little to remove doubts about the facetiousness of the lifestyles of the main TV players jockeying solely for TRP ratings.
"What shall we ever do?"
The hot water at ten.
And if it rains, a closed car at four.
And we shall play a game of chess,
Pressing lidless eyes and waiting for a knock upon the door.
There is comfort still as long as we remain what we are, or could have been, for centuries. As Tennyson’s Ulysses said
Tho much is taken, much abides; and tho
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are,
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
In the meanwhile, if you must play games and pass time, figure out the paths and number of terrorists involved on that night from the details given (from a news paper) given at the top of this blog (hint: use Google Earth).
Wednesday, November 19, 2008
The drive from
The chikkis of Lonavala are famous although one has to be a connoisseur to pick the good chikki shop. The more famous one has been started by Maganlals four generations ago. The chikkis are usually made from peanuts or ground nuts --- that’s the only chikki one should have --- but with the quick stock-market-type money that used to be available to everybody (except people like us, I guess) the chikkis are now made from all kinds of expensive nuts including almonds and pistas or cashewnuts. I cannot immediately pick up an equivalent food item in the western countries except perhaps nougats. The one nougat that immediately comes to my mind is the Hazel-nut torrone or nougats made with honey and Hazel nut (with almonds; see internet for the Torrone di Benevento) and bound by well-whipped white of egg and tons of expertise.
The first chikki Maganlal sold at the railway line at lonavala which was being laid sometime in middle of the nineteenth century. The important and older chikki shops remain close to the railway line in Lonavala even now. The chikkis are flatter versions of the well known ground-nut or peanut balls which are called kadalai urundai in Tamil, or gurdana in marathi condensed from gur and sheng dana to some. These ground-nut balls were made with molasses and are considered to be a very healthy and very affordable food having the essential amino acids (if one wants a technical reason). The flattened chikkis (evolved probably from some British whim or for convenience in packing large quantities in smaller volumes (for the same reason that the Japanese would later make cubic watermelons). A more exotic variety in western countries is the hazel-nut or almond torrone made with honey and white of an egg as binder.
What I will describe in this blog is a chikki made from simple varieties of cereals which have been around for thousands of years, and should be around for ever (despite this recipe, one could add). You may say that the motivation for this recipe came from wanting to sound like the Western seven grain bread since all good things Indian require to be derived from good things Western (just look at the TV channels and their attitudes to the very sensible utterances of the health minister Mr. Ramdoss).
The seven gain bread most times contains besides wheat, malted barley, toasted seeds, sunflower seeds, flax seeds, sesame seeds and poppy seeds. In this recipe for seven grain chikki I use ragi (African millet), jawas (flax seeds), jowar (millet), bajra (sorghum), rice (rice, fully organic from the
The next step is to choose an appropriate amount of molasses (the darker organic variety is compulsory if you want the feel good factor) which you take in a thick kadai (picture 9). The amount of molasses taken in Fig 9 is sufficient if one takes one- to one-and-a-half table spoons each of the cereals). The molasses are heated with continuous stirring till caramelization (if that is the word) is initiated (Fig 10). A tea-spoon of water may be added for the inexperienced. Note that adding sugar or glucose is strictly taboo if you like the feel good factor unless your feel good factor is inclined towards what is seen in advertisements.
The molass is ready for use if it looks like Fig 10 as a rough guide; if you are doing it for the first time it is usually safer to wait just a little longer than when you think it is ready; alternatively you may ask your grandmother (especially if she is of the hep traditional type) who will tell you to see the way the syrup drips after it is taken out with a spoon--- the last drop must solidify on the spoon.
Once the molass is ready, the puffed cereals are poured in quickly stirred to a consistent paste and poured onto a oiled plate which is mildly pre-heated. It usually spreads slowly and uniformly with little coaxing by patting with the ladle. It is allowed to cool a bit and desired markings are made with a knife (picure 11). In this case, the molass was considered ready a bit too early. The pieces (chikkis) were taken out (with a broad flat knife) or rolled into balls (urundai) before fully solidifying (see Fig 12).
I used our dog (there was nobody else at that time) to test the tatse. So I gave him (Fig 13) different biscuits along with the chikkis. Like a proper thoroughbred fox terrier he saved the best (the chikkis) for the last. He seemed to eat them (Fig 14) with great relish.
I promised to keep the blog short at least once. Because of this I cannot go on any longer. I have, however, got to adhave a moral in the tale. My interest in this really stemmed from my search for finding a cheap substitute for oats for my breakfast, not only because it is expensive in this present stage of retirement but also because I refuse to believe that what had been reserved for horses should now be promoted as proper food for the upper strata. I may not believe in the famous definition in Samuel Johnson’s dictionary that oats is something that is eaten by people in Scotland and fit only for horses in England, simply because the retort of the Scots seemed to be prefect: “That’s why England has such fine horses and Scotland has such good men!”. But I certainly believe in the strength of the Maratha manus brought up on the traditional food of bajra, jowar, sprouted lentils. They are lean and str ong. It seems that after the rest of the Indian army have failed to make a break-through in their wars with
Before I close this blog there are two common sense points I would like to make:-
The first of these is that the cereal grains are of different size and shapes so that the particles do not pack well in the jaggery or molass syrup. The chikkis could crumble easily if there is not optimum (conditions could be obtained from fluid dynamics of granular material if one wants for whatever reason) amount of stirring.
The second point is that cane-sugar molasses may not be as good for the health as sorghum molasses. The Americans knew about sorghum molasses from the early Africans who settled in their country and the Indians probably did use sorghum molasses until, say, the creative destruction (see my blog on Shiva’s Dance) of sugar-cane cultivation came in.
Tuesday, November 11, 2008
“O mama! O mama! O mama-mama-mama!
Yahoo! Yahoo! Yahoo-yahoo-yahoo
The household is in a spin
Because of us and our din
Don’t get lost in the racket within.”
Now we yahoo for Obama’s win! As they say: Maan! He is Kewl! But what about the spin and the din and the racket within?
The Obamania confronting us every evening at prime time is becoming a little difficult to bear, what with the Saas-Bahu serial being withdrawn, and the ever-controversial Ganguly retiring from the cricket team.
It is good to see Bush off. What are we getting in turn? Does anybody know?
Obama has promised CHANGE. What CHANGE for what malaise?
As we all know subconsciously, the world is too complex for any single world leader to run it wisely and independently. Decisions are made for world leaders by smaller and smaller groups which are more and more dependent on computer projections from necessarily incomplete/untested computer programs. Scholarship, in any case, is a hindrance in making quick decisions regarding corporate profits as all governments must now do in this age of globalization.
Considerable faith has been put on Obama’s ability to deliver because of his colour and not because of his spoken record. He is in danger of being regarded as a Methodist hymn-singing Uncle Tom; as well-behaved (WASP-ish) African-Americans, such as Colin Powell or Condolezza Rice has been.
Times may have changed since the time (1852) when Uncle Tom’s Cabin was written. The attitude of the colour-independent masters towards colour-independent salaried slaves in various ways from workshops to HR to IT to research may some times still be described as in Uncle Tom’s Cabin (chapter 19):
… I may steal all he has, and keep it, and give him only such and so much as suits my fancy. Whatever is too hard, too dirty, too disagreeable, for me, I may set Quashy to do it. Because I don’t like work, Quashy shall work. Because the sun burns me, Quashy stall stay in the sun. Quashy shall lie down in every puddle, that I may walk over dry shod …all the days of his mortal life, and have such chance of getting to heaven, at last, as I find convenient. This, I take to be what slavery is.
Independent of our colour and social status many of us have the plight of slaves (Quashy). When one is governing to consolidate monetary profits the justification of slavery is dressed in various languages of show business (Let’s Party!). The mission of Obama may just be the delivery of slaves of all colours. He may also as well say as St. Clare did in Uncle Tom’s Cabin:
… what can a man of honorable and humane feelings do, but shut his eyes all he can, and harden his heart? … … I can’t turn knight errant and undertake to redress every individual case I see.
How did Obama win? There could be two views.
The first is that the Republicans lost deliberately. In real terms the victory of Obama is more a reflection of the disenchantment with Bush than an approval of Obama’s persona.
It is difficult, however, to imagine that Bush’s Republican Party, with its army of advisers, could have willingly brought itself to such a sorry state, that a Democratic candidate could have won with so little record of public service. The Republican Party leaders backed out of the nomination race early. There was no visible support from their party to the non-Washington Candidates!
On the other hand, Bush could claim to have achieved most of his stated American objectives. He has consolidated hold on oil in Iraq; Iran is afraid to posture; he has subsumed India’s non-alignment; he has silenced the entire Arab world’s voice on Israel.
Giving the “devil his due” Bush and his cronies may even have engineered the financial crisis to mop up profits on the stock market, which has been allowed to be driven to crazy heights. Who cares about winning or losing an election when you can manage a 700 billion dollar bailout. They could have known (say, in 2006) that a financial crisis was looming. Just hindsight the way our Tatas, and Mallya and HCL were seduced into buying up big companies!
The second view point available on the net is that the Obama campaign was properly crafted using a methodology that evolved on the way to the 2004 election. At that time an Aziz Poonawalla started a blog called Deans Nation that developed for the first time a strong a network through the net (netroot) that got the net-savvy younger generation in support for Howard Dean. It made a strong impression and Dean was an early front runner with strong anti-Bush sentiments. Dean lost media support once he (loudly) sounded anti-establishment. But Dean had got the message.
Dean saw to it that he became part of the Democratic Party Establishment as Chairman of the Democratic National Committee when he used his netroot experience to raise funds from millions of small donors of different hues (the rainbow coalition). He developed a “50-state” strategy to introduce Democratic policies to voters in Republican states. His strategy to get Barrack Obama elected as a candidate for the Democratic party using the Internet surprised and ambushed Hillary and Bill Clinton’s advisers.
So who will be running the country? Obama? or Dean’s Internet? Howard Dean sounded ominously self-congratulatory on CNN after the election. Obama’s men have started taking the credit without mentioning Howard Dean.
Who really gets the credit for the happy Democratic tunes? Will it be Obama or Howard Dean?
It reminds me of that lovely song “Sam’s Song” sung (Italian) Dean Martin and (Afro-American) Sammy Davies Jr. (I never found out who Sammy Davis Sr was). The lyrics of that song can perhaps be (writing Obam instead of Sam)
Dean: Here’s a Happy tune they call it Dean’s song
Obama: I’m saying, Dean, this is Obam’s song
Dean: Obam, you’re just a ham:
Obama: But Dean, here’s the scam
The song is named after Obam
Dean: Obam who?
Obama: Obama Hussein
May I say with pride where I reside
They call it Dean’s song
Obama: And that’s quite a group you have going for you.
Dean: There’s no bigger choir that you could hire for singing Dean’s song.
The saving grace is that Obama is handsome (watchable) with a good voice (hearable) and Gandhi’s Mickey Mouse ears (see picture on top) --- he cannot be evil. He has a little bit of many nations and many religions.
Other than that there is little we know of Obama. As his wife, Michelle, says “It helps that he is cute”. Like Ronald Reagan?! Is he going to be just a coloured WASP finally?
It is what exists between the ears that will matter. Between Mickey Mouse and Gandhi, Obama will have a tough choice.
Obama has not spoken Kennedy-lines such as “Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for the country” as yet. What will the inauguration-day-one-liner be? Out-of-Africa as all learned mono-theists believe about evolution?
Friday, November 7, 2008
It now seems that the question: “Which was the pre-rig-veda civilization that gave the rig-vedas?” is not often asked leave alone being answered, at least in India. It is not the purpose of this blog to ask this question. Instead, as a Bengali or bong, I ask the question, as I must, “Where did the bongs come from?” Where indeed did the bon of the bongiyo bhasa and the bongo of the Jano Gano Mano come from? The answer that I get is a little surprising especially as far as the bon is concerned. It also helps resolve some identity crises.
There are two major contradictions that confront a young Bengali. I will take up others in other blogs. The first crisis is that he has to know whether he is a ghoti or a bangal; the second is whether he is kulin or not. I will address myself first to these two aspects, before I go to the bon of the bongs.
The ghotis (predominantly from West Bengal) and the bangals (predominantly from East Bengal or what is now Bangladesh) have distinctly different culture, traditions, cuisine (see blog on Jhol and Jhaal at http://www.kolkatamirror.com/ by Ms Sushmita Sadhu) and accent. Simply put, the ghotis like prawn, mustard, and Mohan Bagan club while the bangals like hilsa, tamarind (tetul, if you are good people a small tetul leaf can accommodate nine) and East Bengal club.
The ghoti Bengalis of the learned kind that I know quibble about trivia, giving rise to the irritating (for the ghotis) saying that three of them would form three communist parties. Indeed, it is possible that their unique style of reasoning could have led to the well-known (Bernard Shaw?) arguments on why ghoti is actually to be pronounced as fish (gh = f as in laugh; o = i as in women; ti = sh as in nation). I have no problem with that. Being a little garrulous could be a good way of burping or whatever after a good meal.
But it should not be as simple as that. The point of interest is that East Bengalis (bangal) should be identified phonetically more with the Bengali name than the ghoti name is for west Bengalis. There must be a lesson in that.
The kulin/non-kulin division of Bengal into West/East Bengal is perhaps more serious. The kulin system is unique to Bengal. It is, to be safe, at least in my reading of it, part of the ethnic cleansing resorted to by Aryan invaders. A little condensed history (there is no exact history) is required and obtained from the net.
As far as Bengal is concerned, it has always been regarded as the last post for resistance against Vedic invaders. The early ‘Kol’ (root of the name Kolkata?) dark-hued people of Austrasian origin lived in water-logged areas and cultivated rice. They are different from Dravidians and are related to Kolerian tribes in Chattisgarh, Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, and Jharkhand. They were replaced by or intermixed with Tibetan mongoloid people about two-three thousand years ago. Some sort of Buddhism flourished in this region for more than a thousand years resisting all Aryan or Vedic influences. A kind of Hinduism prevailed around 4th century AD.
Because of this lack of Aryan influence unlike the region westward, the region of present day Bengal did not have the rig-Vedic caste system, unlike the regions westward. Bengal became the final place for long drawn confrontation between Vedic Brahmanism and Buddhism. Nearly anarchaic conditions prevailed around 750-850 AD. The Buddhist controlled the south and south-eastern Bengal and the non-indigenous Aryan Guptas colonized north and West Bengal.
The lack of Brahmins was felt by the kings of that region on some pretext or other. Five Brahmins were imported from Kanauj (in UP) apparently at different times. The exact dates are uncertain. According to one source, five Brahmins (Moitro, Sanyal, Bagchi, Bhaduri and Lahiri) were imported by one Adisura (of uncertain origin) in 8th-9th century AD while the five Brahmins (Chatterji, Banerji, Mukherji, Ganguly and Ghosal; Bhattacharya is a title given to Pandit Brahmins) were imported by king Ballalsen in the middle of the 12th century.
If the above chronology is correct (there does not seem to be a consistent description or reliable chronology on the net), the Adisura Brahmins were imported during the reign of the Pala kings of Bengal. The Palas, being indigenous to the region, were benevolent rulers giving fresh lease of life to the Buddhist reign for nearly four centuries, renovating during this course important centres of learning such as Nalanda and creating new centres of learning such as those at Vikramasila. It was during this rule that Muslim contacts were made through the arrival of sea-faring Arab traders at the flourishing port of Chittagong. These Arab traders and the accompanying Sufis spread the first words of the newly emerging caste-less religion of Islam that struck a friendly chord with the local people.
The weak point of the Pala kings was that they became dependent on the powerful landed and official Brahminical influences that were carried over from the Gupta period without the intermediacy of other castes such as Kshatriyas and Vaisyas. The Brahmins also usurped traditionally kshatriya posts in the royal court and the army. When the non-Bengali Senas finally took over under Ballal Sen, it was considered to be a great triumph for the Aryan/Vedic rulers. The Senas behaved as invaders and would not follow the liberalism of the indigenous Palas. They oppressed the Buddhists and encouraged vedic Brahminism.
It was during this time that the Kanauj (kanya kubjya) Brahmins as well as other non-Brahmin imports were given the kulin name. For nearly seven hundred years, till the middle of the nineteenth century, the kulin populace had the sole and very profitable function of a stud or Shiva’s bull, marrying hundreds of girls and raising their progeny according to Manu Smruti and thereby increasing the arya vamsha.
It is of interest, as an aside, that there were rules about the way marriages could be made including one in which the persons being married should be the same number of generations down from the original members of the list. This led to the maintenance of extended family trees in kulin houses.
Ballal Sen, it is said, divided the Bengal region into four for establishing the Kulin system. Two of these were under the kanauj Brahmins. The region of East Bengal continued to be called as Vangal or Vanga. The population in the east especially was frustrated by the tyrannical rule of the foreign Sena invaders.
As they do so often in Bengal, mystic poets such as the Baul singers who have many songs in their memories but cannot read or write, express themselves in poetry with verses that resemble the Haiku poetry of Japan. There is no way you can appreciate the baul music, however, if you do not sing it, “… for thereby its movement and colour are lost and it becomes like a butterfly whose wings have been plucked.” (Tagore). I have written two such poems expressing frustration (see Islam in Bangladesh, by Razia Aktar Banu, p11) in forms that could resemble Haiku (5-7-5 syllables, each poem in one line)
My house is in town, No neighbour no rice in pot, I must serve always.
He who will be wise, Is foolish and must be thief, To be seen honest
The indigenous kulin-ised people could not go back to Buddhism. They accepted the Sufi preachings and converted to Islam voluntarily without the initial help of Muslim invaders. The baul Fakir singer would continue to sing of Radha and the Vaishnav singer sing in praise of Allah. It is said that because of their long Buddhist ancestry the muslim retained their shaved heads – nede muslims.
The West Bengalis on the other hand had the weight of the kulin system on them. The vedic Brahmins only begat them leaving their mothers to bring them up in what they deemed to be an upper strata but to which they did not really belong. There was no way that the ghotis could be called bangal.
This would explain the residual but persistent hostility between ghotis and bangals even today.
Of interest, as far as the new point of this blog is concerned, is a possible interpretation of the origin of the phonetic sound used for bongs. I have not read or heard this description elsewhere. So I suppose this interpretation is new. This interpretation comes from my readings of the pre-Buddhist Tibetan bön religion, which is now followed with renewed interest outside India.
The bön religion is still very much in practice in modern Tibet and among Tibetan exiles despite (http://china.notspecial.org/archives/2008/01/the_people_in_m.html ) Chinese restrictions. It is claimed to be the origional religion of the Tibetan people being founded by one Tonpa Shenrab 18,000 years ago, so it has been said.
Just like Gautam Buddha, Tonpa Shenrab also gave up his worldly life style at the age of 28 or something like that, sat under a tree, and achieved enlightenment or Buddha. It seems many other Buddhas followed with almost identical enlightenment history. There may have beeen a long line of Buddhas of which Gautam Buddha was the last; just like there is a long line of Vishnu-avatar of whom Kalki is the last (Buddha was the last but one?); just as Mohammed was the last of the prophets (Christ was the last but one).
The history of the Tibetan bö religion is very similar to that around Bengal. In the early days the bön religion was thought to be shamanistic and animistic. This feature is common to East India also. The point that I will try to make in this and following blogs is that the mongoloid people who were in Bengal two-three thousand years ago were the bönpo or the people who followed the bön religion.
There are many aspects of the bön religion that strikes a chord with the bangla idiom. The word bõn is pronounced as bun so that the phonetic connection with the bun of bangla should be immediately apparent. I suppose one would require more convincing. I will try and outline them in blogs that follow. For the present, two features are of interest.
One may take the viewpoint that the bön people (bõnpo?) took roots in bongo where they lived securely and spread in different directions. Later, their excursions to the west would have been curtailed by the Aryan and other settlers. Their excursions eastward, say, into present day Burma was safer. There would have been influences after Gautam Buddha from Nepal which would have mixed with the bön language. The word ‘bhikku’ for monk in the Pali language appears as ‘pongyi’ in Burmese which is closely related to the word ‘bonze’ a priest in the bön religion.
The other “evidence” could be a little more speculative and no such connection is made in the net. It came from my examination (http://www.zhangzhung.org/) of John Vincent Bellazza. In this site one sees a rock-carving of a kiang (a horse to Chinese and a Ghor-Khar of West India (half-ass half-horse) described by Blyth (“… I published the picture in a sports magazine because I got five pounds for them.”) in his correspondence with Darwin in 1885. Bellaza’s picture of the rock-carving of the kiang is given on the left of the figure on top. The straight tail is typical of the kiang or a wild ass. The pointed ears, the shape of the body and a straight tail is also typical of the Panchmura terracotta (figure on right) bankura horse. These clay figures played a ritualistic role being offered as tokens of devotion to Hindu gods as well as being places on tombs of Muslim saints in Bangladesh.
So now we should know why the East Bengalis were called Bangals.
It is quite simple! They just refused to be identified by any other name! The boundary-less (religion or caste) bön of Bongo has to be the bon (good) thing about them.
Sunday, October 26, 2008
This wild fluctuation in productivity is the kind of fluctuations seen in some physical property at a phase transition.
I have written the blog just to acquaint myself with the phenomenon and ask some questions. As such the blog may be long even for my close and dear ones. I have therefore divided it into three parts so that one may pause in between. I think the subject is serious enough and I have not taken it frivolously.
So, is this the beginning of a change towards another model for economic growth? Is this a New Wave of economic thinking that engulfs and destroys the old. Is this the dance of Shiva symbolizing the dance of the force of creative destruction. Enshrouded in the flames of the Universe, Shiva dances the tandava creating the new destruction which resolves and maintains the new order. Shiva triumphantly raises his feet when stamping out the demon or dwarf symbolizing ignorance of the new construction. Shivas face shows no remorse or triumph. One can perhaps see in the face a firm sense of accomplishment showing that the deed that had to be done has been done.
There is a well discussed Schumpeterian model of Creative Destruction for economic growth in which an entrepreneur enters the market through a new innovation that is so radical that it destroys other entrepreneurs who, till that time, controlled and enjoyed an area of the market. There is a new spirit of creative activity to establish the new order that accompanies this transition to a new order after the Creative Destruction has taken place. This creative destruction generates the next sustained phase of economic growth measured, say, by the productivity or GDP.
The Shivas of the economic world being merely mortals now may not be able to dance the tandava with such finesse. The present destruction of the Stock markets may nevertheless have a purpose of destroying the old and creating the new. It implies that the Stock market, as we know it, may not be the same again; just as the memory cards of digital cameras may not be the same as the film rolls of the mechanical camera, or as e-mails are different from written letters, and green fields are different from genetically modified farms.
Now, as we ought to know, productivity has been a classical economic term to justify economic prosperity. Productivity or GDP is measured in terms of economic output per employed person. Among methods that increase GDP are to have capital accumulation through investments, increasing efficiency by removing obstacles to work, and wasting less materials and energy.
The Creative Destruction introduced by economically rich countries now is to outsource their work to China and India, thereby destroying jobs and skill at home. China excelled in organized and flawless mechanical production, while India contributed to the clerical work using the tradition that had sustained the British Empire. It increased the GDP of the outsourcing nation because of the reduced number of employed people and increased profits because of the reduction in Labour costs. It also divorced the requirements of the people with the centers of production. Thus In India, instead of indigenous traditional and tested foods, we have pesticide-laden broccoli, strawberries, pepperoni, and tomatoes that wont decay and wont taste. We now use western perfumes instead of fresh garden flowers. Our IT people work their best hours of their best years being instructed by external sources.
Growth based on Creative Destruction rejects most time the theory of equilibrium. Under equilibrium conditions growth could be continuous without any catastrophic changes accompanying the transitions. However, if the interval is short, there are some very heavy downsides also, as so vividly popularized in Tofler’s book “Future Shock” albeit in a different language and context. There is a shift in values of the whole society and the prevailing social order. There is no philosophy in democratic reasoning (tyranny of the masses) on why a social order should not shift or why there should not be a change in public social behaviour as long as there are justifiable pluralities including mass hysteria.
When there is Creative Destruction, it becomes increasingly difficult, both for the entrepreneur as well as the consumer, to adjust to the many new products that appear every year and keep track of the services required to maintain it. The very fact that we accept a new technological product so frequently (example, the various types of mobiles, with SMS, camera, email, Bluetooth, blackberry, GSP, that appears with increasing price and newer features regularly) means that we are showing a consumer boredom to be alerted only by the forceful jingle of the advertiser’s intrusions. The advance of modern technology has taken place without preparing our modern man for it.
Crash of Oct 08
The present position of the Stock Market (I am not an investor) may not have been designed or aimed at Creative Destruction. I get the suspicion that once we recover from the heap and dust of broken markets we may as well bring about a new order without the Stock market.
In this catastrophic and discontinuous scenario of change one requires only a consideration of basics or first-order parameters. This should be easy to obtain. What follows is what I have garnered from a brief perusal of the web. It should serve to understand the likely important points that led to the crisis. At worst it should serve to make the layman reader familiar with the jargon for future reference/study.
The main culprit in this crisis is the lowering of interest rates on well-recognized investments such as fixed deposits in Indian banks, or treasury bonds of America. The idea was that there is no point in keeping huge amounts of money as deadwood. They had to be lured out of the static mode and made more dynamic and peripatetic, garnering more profit for the banks though more attractive investments. This was achieved simply by reducing the interest rates on fixed deposits or static money (some attribute the move to Alan Greenspan).
In order to lure the investor into making risky investments they were fed with images of huge profits. One of these is the idea of subprime mortgages first introduced it seems by Gordon Brown as finance secretary in the Tony Blair government of UK. Subprime just means interest rates which are lower than the prime lending rates of banks. The prime lending rates are based on a serious assessment of the investment and the assets available to the borrower.
The “creative” part of the modern banking system was that subprime lending was given to those who could not have obtained loans otherwise. Incredible as it may seem now, there were “balloon mortgages” (pay only interest for the first years and then pay a huge sum), “liar loan” (you simply lie about your annual income), “adjustable rate mortgage loan” (where the amount lost due to a reduced initial interest is added to the principal and interest increased later), “ninja loan” (acronym from No Income No Job and no Asset). Once these safety barriers were broken there was immense competition between banks to lower standards and give loans decreasing at the same time the requirements for financial security.
Lewis Ranieri at Salomon Brothers now thought up the idea of buying the mortgages from banks and turning them into securities, and adding to it other securities backed by “assets” such as credit cards, and auto loans to make a bundle of securities which are then sold to investment banks. Bundles of such bundles are then sold to Wall Street Firms to create mortgage-backed securities. The mortgages of these securities from pooled mortgages and packaging them into securities which are then recombined to form a collateralized debt obligation may be considered to be an Innovation. It was not yet an act of Creative Destruction.
Such camouflaging under the name of securities led to investments of the order of more than ten trillion dollars. Appadiya!!! Added to this was the new source of money from the Indian and Chinese economies as well as other economies. There was unending money in the global pool which had to be soaked up. This was the effect of globalization of economies. Chickens were counted before they were hatched. The boom in the stock market was a direct consequence.
Because the ignorant borrowers didn’t read the hidden impact of interest rate of clauses in their agreements the mortgage soon became unaffordable to the borrower. There came foreclosure. Banks were aware of this possibility. The strategy was that they would buy up the house from the defaulter at a rate lower than the prevailing market rate and this would lead to more profit.
Wall Street firms noticed they did not get enough profits, retail and investment banks suffered. When banks restructure loans without going to the original bond holder, then it is assumed that the bank owns the control of the loans along with the built-in liabilities. Because of the huge scale of the loans and the liabilities the banks had no idea about how to restructure the loans. Computer models from prime lending days (pre 2003 some say) were not prepared to address the complex financial landscape because of the fast supply of money. There were a whole range of ill-defined issues (1099, FAS 140) that prevented prompt pre-emptive action rapidly.
The crisis in the business financing or credit industry emerged. Trickle of expected modeled-in foreclosures soon developed into an avalanche. The effect was global.
Credit was stopped. Deleveraging was initiated to reduce companies’ debts by selling investments to pay back loans or to get liquidity in cash flow. Usually high-yielding assets are sold; prices of these assets then lowered forcing other investors in these assets to sell at still lower prices.
Japanese Yen and American dollars are perfect currencies to fund leveraged carry trades because of the very large banks in Japan and US and their very low interest rates, which, strangely, started the whole crisis. There was a huge global requirement for dollar and yen. American dollars can be printed without any guarantee of payment of the printed value. Federal Reserve Chairman Bernanke and Treasury Secretary Paulson print money and supply them at an incredible pace. The dollar and yen became strengthened because of this demand.
The fundamentals do not support a strong dollar. The printing of money should cause inflation since money supply is increasing.
Then came the seven hundred billion dollar (~3500 dollar per individual over-18 American) “bailout” program about which there are very sketchy details. It was supposed to prevent banks from collapsing because of lack of cash infusion by buying up bad debts, extending bank deposit insurance and expired tax breaks mainly to get Republican (some of whom had withheld support earlier) support . The amount was based on the finances require to shore up the lower value of a security because of the sub-prime mess to its intrinsic value. The Treasury buys up a certain amount of quality (with adequate credit ratings of borrowers, delinquency status) from institutions offering lowest prices nin a “reverse auction” procedure in exchange for treasury bonds.
The politicians talked about the American taxpayer. Taxpayers would face deeper economic troubles if financial markets remain clogged. This bailout was supposed to protect lost jobs, higher unemployment, more foreclosures and a contraction of the overall economy. The bailout was also intended to protect against the loss of taxes should the financial institute collapse and drive the country faster into recession. Naturally, the bailout was to be such that the executives of banks were given adequate compensation. After five years if the institutions do not pay back, the profits would remain privatized, and the losses, as usual, would be communitized among the tax payers How comfortable!
Lessons we may learn.
Is the collapse of the stock market due to a collapse of the modern way of thinking? Is it an example of Creative Self-Destruction? Or is just a just outcome of excessive greed?
In the left of figure at the top of this page, I have shown the changes in the Dow Jones index over the last twenty years or so. Between 1988 and ~1994 there were no discontinuities in the prices and shows linear increase in the index. After 1994 the Dow Jones prices increase at a faster rate to fall again around 2002-3 and 2008 as shown by the dips in the stock prices at those years. The lowest point in these dips fall on the dotted line extended from the prices between 1988 and 1994. If these dips are taken as corrections, the crash of Oct 2008 would only be that required of a correction which was long overdue. The Down Jones prices have increased nearly four times this last twenty years or so implying a compound interest rate of 8%. This is the normal rate for a fixed deposit in a standard bank such as the Reserve Bank of India. There has been no loss. Only some excess greed of some investors has been exploited and used to mop up some ill-protected funds.
If this is the case it would only show that the money has been all along in safe hands. It reminds me of an incident from my school days. I once borrowed the equivalent of three quarters of a rupee from my classmate in school who shared my bench. It was a princely sum at that time. I could not pay it back in the time I said I would. I would try to make it up by sharing some of my lunch box with him several times. He happily did it and I thought it was sufficient recompense. The boy did not ask for the money. Two years later when we were to leave school, and we were taking leave from each other on the last-but- one day in school, this boy, Vishnu, asked me for his money back (twelve annas of those days). “I come from a Marwaadi family” he said. “We worship money and it is our duty to protect it. I have to protect my god. Please return the money tomorrow. I am not asking you for any interest.” I did that. I learnt that the Marwaadi money lender is as important to the environment as any other since they don’t encourage frivolous use of money unless they get to eventually own it and protect it.
So where did all that money above the dotted line in the figure on the left go? Will it go to those institutions which gave it more protection? Will it be through the bail-out plan, for example? Probably.
Maybe the Stocks and Share Markets just mopped up the unprotected and fundamentally weak (mainly paper money, in any case) and protected it.
Will it recur in the future? Will the mopping-up game start again? Or will a new game start. Will it be a new dance of Shiva? Will there be a new wave of Creative Destruction? Will the Stock markets never recover again and be driven to obsolescence? Will there be a new division of citizenship with a class of affluent people benefiting from centralized services according to the dictates of a centralized Entertainment and Beauty industry and another class of people who provide these services? Will we finally become like the Eloi and the Morlocks of H. G. Wells’ “Time Machine?”
Will I pass away before that happens?
A second more intriguing thought is the possibility that the stock-market crash is simply a new form of Destruction. Is it similar in some way to that of the 9/11 destruction of the Twin Towers of New York? What are the similarities>
· The securities required in the subprime market were unusually lax just as the securities were at the airports at the time of the 9/11 disaster.
· It took the market regulators by surprise just as 9/11 took the air control operators by surprise. It seems that it took an unusually short time of four or five quarters between 2005 and 2006 for the mortgage crisis to actually blow up and be detected. After this, the markets were left standing helplessly waiting to fall just as the twin towers stood after the impact.
· There is an eerie similarity to the rush to war in Iraq in seven days and the passing of the 700 billion bailout bill by American law makers in seven days. “Just because God made the world in seven days does not mean we have to pass this bill in seven days (Rep. Joe Barton). Is it because they wanted to hush-hush other insights into the crash? Is it reflected in sustained increase in stock prices in Arab world despite severe decrease in Oil prices?
· The figure on the right at the top of this page shows the way the stock prices (S&P 500) changed en route to Oct 24. The take-off point was around the middle of September. Another 9/11?
If this is the case we can be sure that the crash of Oct 08 will mark a defining moment of change for the stock market as we know it. Will it for the good or the bad?
Shiva only knows!