It’s not often that I praise anything our government does.
Indeed, O patient and valued Reader, you might know that I’ve often taken pot-shots—if not broadsides—at the government; in this blog, and also in the edit-page columns of the Indian Express and other newspapers during those long-gone and more tolerant decades when they thought me fit to publish. And I dare say I’ve always tried my best to ensure that my artillery barrages of fresh gobar, shaani, and other avatars of feihua and yamasimba are directed evenly across the political spectrum, from Left to Right: from CPI(M) and its rabid fellow-travellers through the caste-ironed Dravida gangs and cow-belt Dals, across the scandalous scandal-rocked Congress and apoplectic AAPologists, to the tunnel-visioned BJP and Muslim League legions.
But today I must praise the government. Aye, I must praise this very NDA government, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi of the BJP.
Because this is the first time since 1997, when the late prime minister I K Gujral dismissed Britain as a ‘third-rate power’, that I’ve seen any Indian government or Indian political leader show the gumption and courage to tell the British government what it is and what it should do with its behaviour towards India since 1947—behaviour that is a toxic khichdi of arrogance, superciliousness, racism, contempt and plain hostility; behaviour that is, sadly, all too eagerly lapped up by many fawning Macaulay-haunted muttals among the English-educated citizens in our country.
Yes, today is different.
Today, the fetid vapours of decades of obsequiousness to Britain have been swept away by a zephyr of pure, clean desi air…and quite possibly, those fetid vapours will soon descend on the British diplomatic corps in the heart of Delhi, India.
Today, you see, the Indian government is constructing a public toilet right opposite the British High Commission in the capital.
Perhaps with this the British will learn to recognize why, when, where and how they should drop the matter. They might not discern the new flush of optimism that sweeps across India today; but surely they will discern – and tremble and gag – at every flush from the new public toilet.
Could there be a finer example of non-verbal diplomacy at its best?
Why, it conforms perfectly with the motto that I learned from my school: St Edmund’s, in Shillong, run by Catholics from Ireland (ah yes, those wonderful Irish teachers knew their Britain, and how to deal with the British, better than anyone else).
ChatGPT is a ‘chatbot’ developed by OpenAI and launched in November 2022. It can write virtually anything at all—stories, kid’s tales, essays, poems, lyrics—in any style you choose (however crazy you want it) in less than a few seconds. All you have to do is type in your instructions in a little box. Try it out here.
So, I asked ChatGPT to write this:
‘Poem in Edgar Allan Poe style on rat and politician’
The response I got, in about two seconds, was this:
Once upon a midnight dreary,
While I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious
Volume of forgotten lore,
While I nodded, nearly napping,
Suddenly there came a tapping,
As of someone gently rapping,
Rapping at my chamber door.
“’Tis some visitor,” I muttered,
“Tapping at my chamber door –
Only this and nothing more.”
Ah, distinctly I remember
It was in the bleak December,
And each separate dying ember
Wrought its ghost upon the floor.
Eagerly I wished the morrow;
Vainly I had sought to borrow
From my books, surcease of sorrow
Sorrow for the lost Lenore!
For the rare and radiant maiden
Whom the angels named Lenore –
Nameless here for evermore.
And the silken sad uncertain
Rustle of each purple curtain
Thrilled me – filled me with fantastic
Terrors never felt before;
So that now, to still the beating
Of my heart, I stood repeating
“’Tis some visitor entreating
Entrance at my chamber door –
Some late visitor entreating
Entrance at my chamber door;
This is it and nothing more.”
Presently my soul grew stronger;
Hesitating then no longer,
“Sir,” said I, “or Madam, truly
Your forgiveness I implore;
But the fact is I was napping
And so gently you came rapping,
And so faintly you came tapping,
Tapping at my chamber door,
That I scarce was sure I heard you” –
Here I opened wide the door;
Darkness there and nothing more.
Deep into that darkness peering,
Long I stood there, wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal
Ever dared to dream before;
But the silence was unbroken,
And the stillness gave no token,
And the only word there spoken
Was the whispered word, “Lenore!”
This I whispered, and an echo
Murmured back the word, “Lenore!”
Merely this, and nothing more.
Back into the chamber turning,
All my soul within me burning,
Soon again I heard a tapping
Something louder than before
“Surely,” said I, “surely that is
Something at my window lattice;
Let me see, then, what thereat is,
And this mystery explore –
Let my heart be still a moment
And this mystery explore;
‘Tis the wind and nothing more!”
Open here I flung the shutter,
When, with many a flirt and flutter
In there stepped a stately Rat of the Capitol
Not the least obeisance made he;
Not a minute stopped or stayed he;
But with mien of lord or lady,
Perched above my chamber door –
Perched upon a bust of Pallas
Just above my chamber door –
Perched, and sat, and nothing more.
Then this ebony bird beguiling
My sad soul into smiling,
By the grave and stern decorum
Of the countenance it wore,
“Though thy crest be shorn and shaven
Thou,” I said, “art sure no craven,
Ghastly, grim and ancient Rat of the Capitol,
Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night’s Plutonian shore!”
Quoth the Rat: “Nevermore!”
Oh, and if this wasn’t enough, ChatGPT also offered me a brief, almost apologetic remark that it had created this poem based on Poe’s broad style as in ‘The Raven’ and ‘House of Usher’, and that of course this poem did not in any way reflect or represent Poe’s own work.
Incredible, isn’t it?
But I did something more with ChatGPT, O long-suffering Reader, in the interests of humanity and what remains of my equanimity and sanity.
I asked myself: what would ChatGPT write if I repeated the SAME request? Would it produce the same poem? Would it repeat itself, plagiarize itself?
And so I logged out of ChatGPT; cleared all cookies and logged in afresh after five minutes (just to give ChatGPT enough time to forget me, I chortled cunningly with all my Jurassic wisdom); logged in again, and once more typed in the following:
‘Poem in Edgar Allan Poe style on rat and politician’
The response I got, in less than a second, was this:
In the dim and dreary streets,
Where the rats scuttle and scurry,
Lives a politician, sly and fleet,
With promises smooth as a cherry.
He speaks of change and progress,
But in his heart there is rot,
For he’s a rat in human dress,
And his words are nothing but a lot.
He’ll steal and lie and cheat,
And grin with a toothy smile,
But all his constituents will eat
The scraps of his dishonest guile.
And when the people cry out in pain,
He’ll simply shift the blame,
For in his eyes, they are all the same,
Just pawns in his twisted game.
So beware, my dear friends,
Of the rat in politician’s clothes,
For his deceit never ends,
And his heart is black as those…
These poems are so totally Edgar Allan Poe-ish that ChatGPT could bring a lawsuit against the estate of Poe for having plagiarized its own style – even though he wrote his stuff 200 years ago – and obtain court verdicts in its favour.
ChatGPT is infinitely more creative and original than any human.
It even makes strong and largely accurate value judgments on creatures like rats and politicians!
But it gets better…or worse.
ChatGPT is only textual. Young friends cheerfully tell me that already, there are AI thingies like ChatGPT available for trial that can compose equally original and remarkable audio and visual works based on your typed-in instructions—however wacky, however outlandish the instructions are.
So, we can all look forward to creating, in less than the time it takes to flick a paint-brush or pluck a guitar string, audio-visual compositions with elements like the following:
Blues song in the style of John Lee Hooker with lyrics on Narendra Modi, Rahul Gandhi, bedbugs and soggy samosas
Oil painting in a style fusion of Don Martin, Constable and Botticelli with a sleazy Gurgaon mall as backdrop and featuring Vladimir Putin, Roger Waters, Asaddudin Owaisi, three constipated armadillos, the Ross Sea, and Greta Thunberg with her “How dare you!” look.
Our AI creations have become infinitely more creative than us.
I’m now convinced, O gentle Reader, that after 200,000 years of strenuous efforts at self-annihilation, we humans have finally come close to achieving the evolutionary equivalent of shooting our collective creative arses right off the planet with these latest steps forward in our technological progress. and intellectual retrogress.
Perhaps it’s a damned good thing, too. George Carlin would certainly have agreed.
Still…I can pound away at my worn-out old clay pot, missing anything between 3 beats and 7 beats in every 48 beats in utterly chaotic manner. Like so:
I bet no AI thingy can do THIS as horribly as I can.
Today’s Saturday; a day to go before Deepavali dawns.
Death floated lazily over me today morning, as She so often does.
Yea, today I saw Death as She. Tomorrow perhaps Death will be He; or perhaps It; or simply the One. Death takes infinite forms, Death rules us all, Death alone among all Gods and Prophets and other fantastic creatures with which we populate our skies and imagination is ever close to us, from the day we are born.
As a dear doctor friend puts it: by far the most common cause of Death is Birth.
No, no, there’s nothing ‘fatalistic’ or morbid at all about discussing Death. In fact, the eve of Deepavali is such an appropriate time to muse on Death; for Death is the End and the Beginning of all things including Time itself.
“Yama, Death, is never to be feared…only respected,” another dear friend had once counselled me, long ago, at a time when she —and we—knew she would die within weeks; a time when I felt the numb desolation and dread that you have felt, all of us have felt, with the realization that one, whom you love dearly, is going to die soon. “Sure, fear pain if you must; but never fear Death. We’re all afraid of pain, of becoming helpless, dependent on others …but Death ends all pain, ends fear…and so never fear Death. You need not invite Yama…He will come when He has to! You needn’t wait for Yama’s arrival, he is never late. But you must respect Him when He arrives.”
The dear friend was Jaya; my mother. The conversation took place over 26 years ago…the morning of 2nd August 1996. She’d gone through a few days of mild, recurring headaches, and when she’d experienced a sudden dizzy spell our neighbor and doctor-friend advised her to get a routine scan just to rule out the possibility of a ‘mild stroke’. So, we called the scanning centre and got an appointment for the next morning; and Jaya and I took an auto-rickshaw to the scanning centre – she vociferously criticizing me and dad all the way for needlessly fussing, and wasting half-a-day (she had a book of hers to proofread, another one to write with a tight deadline), and declaring that it was all a complete waste of time and money, and that just to prove she was fitter than any of us, we would walk home the nine kilometers from the scanning centre.
Well… we sat around at the centre and waited our turn, and I remember there was a little kid there waiting like us with his young parents, the kid was teary-eyed with pain but bravely silent—a terrible spinal injury, his anxious parents told us—and Jaya chatted with the little tyke and teased him and even got him to smile (she had a magical way with children); and then our turn came and I stood next to her while they did the scan, lead-lined coat and all, and even then I knew something was seriously wrong because I had to hold Jaya steady on the trolley, her left arm and leg kept sliding off though she was quite conscious; and then the doctors came out of their little console room and asked permission to do a contrast scan or MRI or something. “Sure…but why?” I asked. “We’re seeing something we’re a little concerned about, we want a better look at it,” they replied. So they injected her with a radio-dye and did the scan again while I stood beside Jaya, and then they took me into their little room and showed me what their screen was showing them, and I forget their exact words but the image on the screen and some of their words phrases are burned into the mind. Mass lesions. Temporo-parietal region. Aggressive glioma. In essence, she was in the terminal stages of a brain cancer.
And after we returned home—of course we didn’t walk—and told dad, and we called brother Bala who was in Bangalore, the enormity of the situation hit like a tidal wave, and Jaya was calmest among us, and she took my hand and led me up to the little corner which was her puja room and she lit the lamp and we had this little chat about respecting Death, and she made me vow that I would not let any surgeon’s knife come near her. She wanted no surgery, no medical interventions. She just wanted to be at home with us. She made me vow by the lamp of the little puja-room upstairs, the lamp that I’d always lit for her from when I was a kid whenever she couldn’t light it herself because she was away, or during the time she’d suffered burns from batik and taken months to recover.
And so I vowed.
Jaya stayed with us at home for two weeks, growing weaker by the day yet almost gently, in little pain other than the on-off mild headaches…she kind of faded away till the night of August 17th when she slipped into coma and we moved her to a hospital where a wonderful doctor took her under his wing, a doctor who knew precisely what to do—and perhaps as important, what not to do. She stayed there for ten days, till Death came for her on the 27th August.
Sorry, gentle Reader, I didn’t expect to meander down this path of personal memory when I started this; but I think that’s the nature of the strange, misty trails that Death sometimes allows us to walk awhile, alongside with those whom She has come for. You too must have walked these trails…they transcend time and space. I mean, here’s something that happened 26 years ago; yet it’s as clear as it happened a moment ago, while I can’t remember anything about yesterday or even much of what’s happened today since I saw Death a few hours ago, while lying on my yoga mat out on the terrace.
Today morning Death took the shape of a bird; a kite, to be precise. Even before I opened my eyes I knew Death was approaching; for the quiet of early morning was shattered by a sudden frenzy of chirping and cheeping and chattering, and hundreds of pigeons and mynahs and bulbuls and doves and sparrows took flight and squirrels and chameleons and garden lizards scampered and scuttled in a mad scramble for cover among the leafy boughs of the park trees or behind walls and flower-pots or beneath bushes and roofs and piles of leaves. The kite floated lazily in an ever-widening circle, high overhead, ever higher, till She disappeared from view beyond the edge of the awning.
The silence endured awhile…but presently, the Wild-Creatures’ all-clear signal was given and the birds and squirrels and lizards and the rest of them returned to their normal morning activities. For a little while, it seemed, there was a new watchfulness in them, perhaps because they’d been reminded of Death, inexorable, inevitable; up there, down here, among us, unseen, watching and waiting, waiting to pick us up at the appointed time. But very soon they were all cheerful and boisterous as before, any fleeting fear evaporated, forgotten.
Perhaps this is as it should be with Death.
Yudhisthira of Great Vyasa’s eternal Play, the ever-questioning Seeker, that impulsive, often unthinking, ever-self-doubting human whom each one of us resembles to some degree, got it right in his interrogation by Death:
Yama: And what is the greatest wonder of the world?
Yudhisthira: Every day, every moment, we see living creatures depart through the Gateway of Yama…yet we live as though we are immortal.
We live as though we are immortal. We must. It is right that we live Life without fearing or obsessing about or dreading Death. What is Life but a fleeting spark in the timeless, dimension-less Realm of Serenity whence comes all that is and was and shall ever be, to flicker and dance awhile in this dream we call Reality and thence return? The Realm that is the Supreme Singularity, the One, the Maha Black Hole whose Event Horizon is the Gateway we call Death?
Omar beheld it so clearly, expressed it so joyfully:
What, without asking, hither hurried whence?
And without asking, thither hurried hence!
Another, another Cup to drown
The Memory of this impertinence!
Death is a mercy, a gift, a blessing, the Lamp-Bearer on the Path Home. Death is a wonderful reason for us to live Life to the fullest; lives that don’t cause others or our own selves hurt or pain or sorrow or despair; lives of joy and laughter and light-heartedness and contentment and exploration and discovery and reflection, of compassion and love and fulfilment.
[Written during a spell of occasional fever with headache…diagnosed as possibly Monkey Flucomplicated by Acute Media-otic Hysteria]
Delhi is globally renowned for its brazen and aggressive motorists. Delhi is also globally renowned for its brazen and aggressive monkeys. Many visitors to the Capital see no distinction whatsoever between these two invasive species, whose populations are increasing in our beloved Capital by leaps and bounds (so to squeak).
And thereby hangs a tail.
Be that as it may, a recent newspaper report celebrates the fact that the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) has been catching an ever-increasing number of monkeys and rehabilitating them in the once-lovely wilderness of the Asola Sanctuary, located in the last remnants of the Aravalis between the goonda-and-politician–infested badlands of Delhi and Gurugram.
We managed to obtain some interesting and highly improbable insights into how the MCD has achieved success in its monkey business, thanks to a brief but illuminating interview with Shri Bandarlal Poonchwallah, Senior Advisor to Commissioner, MC&RD (Monkey Capture & Rehabilitation Department), MCD.
Q: Could you tell us a little more about the MCD’s Monkey Catching initiative?
Poonchwallah: As the name indicates, a Monkey Catcher catches monkeys. We currently have six Monkey Catchers on the MC&RD rolls. Besides a monthly retainer, our Monkey Catchers are each paid a small incentive on piece-rate basis— or more accurately, on monkey-rate basis. The incentive ranges from Rs 1200 per monkey caught in East, North or West Delhi, to Rs 2400 for monkeys caught in South Delhi …
Q: But why do you pay Rs 2400 for South Delhi monkeys? That’s almost double the amount of incentive paid for monkeys from other parts of Delhi?
Poonchwallah: Arre bhai, you must understand that South Delhi monkeys are very much like South Delhi humans—they are much higher up in the socio-economic ladder than their cousins from other parts of Delhi. Also, like their human South Delhi colleagues, South Delhi monkeys are better-nourished, better educated, more cunning, and more well-connected with powerful members of local human communities including senior officials of Delhi Government and Union Government. So, they are much more difficult to locate and trap. For all these reasons they must be assigned a much higher monkey-rate value.
Q: Surely you can’t be serious?
Poonchwallah: (patiently) The MC&RD has well-documented evidence to support this thesis. Our Monkey Catchers often report that South Delhi monkeys look healthier and are better groomed than other monkeys; in fact, Lutyens Delhi monkeys often chatter among themselves with distinct British or American accents. Most of them scorn traditional Indian food! So, we have to procure costly international food items like thin-crust pizzas, sushi, and whatnot to entice these high-class South Delhi monkeys…whereas simple desi snacks like peanuts or samosas will do to trap, say, East Delhi monkeys. Here, I will show you… (Scrabbles among papers on desk)
Poonchwallah: (impatiently)… Wait, just yesterday I had a report from our senior-most Monkey Catcher on a young monkey he caught in South Delhi’s Nizamuddin area…ah, here it is. (Readsfrom note) It seems that he—meaning this South Delhi monkey, not the Monkey Catcher who caught him—eats only organic food cooked in virgin cold-pressed olive oil, is fond of wearing Paco Rabanne perfume, and has become quite notorious for selecting and stealing only Ray Ban glasses and 5G cellphones from strollers in the nearby Sundar Nursery …
Q: What! But…this is incredible!
Poonchwallah: Yes! It is! I am glad you see it! (Bitterly) But no-one else seems to understand the value of the empirical knowledge and experience acquired by us in the course of our Monkey-Catching initiative. Despite MC&RD’s numerous proposals to the Delhi government and Union governments and to academic institutions like Delhi University, JNU and others, nobody seems to be interested in funding this wonderful opportunity for conducting socio-anthropological research into how Delhi’s monkey populations are adapting in diverse ways to the rapidly changing metropolitan environment, the socio-cultural mores and fashion trends…(breaks off, sinks into moody silence)
Q: (shakento core) Well, sir…to return to the topic …how much does this Monkey-Catching initiative cost us taxpayers?
Poonchwallah: (reading from file) Let’s see…between April and July last year, that is 2021, MCD caught and rehabilitated 350 monkeys. So, at an average incentive of, say, Rs 1800 per monkey, we paid our Monkey Catchers about Rs 6.3 lakhs as incentive during these four months. (looks up proudly) But during the same four-month period this year, 2022, we have caught and rehabilitated over 600 monkeys…for which we have paid our Monkey Catchers Rs 10.8 lakhs in incentives.
Q: That’s impressive! And after you catch and rehabilitate the monkeys in the Asola Sanctuary, how do you make sure the monkeys stay there? Monkeys are great travellers…so how do you make sure they don’t return to the City? Do you monitor them in their new home? Do you periodically count their numbers in Asola?
Poonchwallah: (with explosive snort): Kya bakte ho! Do you seriously think MCD employees can go and sit in the Asola Sanctuary and count monkeys? (Continues in calmer tone) Don’t misunderstand me—I agree that this Monitoring & Evaluation task in Asola is important. And I may add that 99% of all MCD staff, including myself, would jump at the chance of a permanent posting in Asola. But this wretched Aam Aadmi Party government in Delhi simply will not give MCD the required funds for this vital component of our Monkey-Catching initiative, despite repeated demands. Arre, these @$*@]%$&! AAP-wallahs haven’t even given us the funds to pay our municipal sweepers their wages since September 2021… (relapses into sullen muttering)
Q: But…but this means there’s a strong likelihood that the monkeys being caught now by MCD were in fact caught earlier too? That the monkeys are travelling back from Asola to Delhi just as fast as the MCD is relocating them from Delhi to Asola?! Isn’t it possible that the MCD is catching the same monkeys over and over again, counting them multiple times, and paying Monkey Catchers for this circular exercise?
Poonchwallah: (slight hunted look) Baah! Tchah! Tut! Only a complete nutcase would want to return to this wretched City after being given a chance to leave it! No, no, I think we can and must trust the monkeys to be sensible enough to stay where they have been rehabilitated, at the beautiful Asola Sanctuary.
Poonchwallah: (unfazed, continues to rave) …If at all some monkeys are detected coming back from Asola to Delhi, that must be because of ecological destruction in the Asola Sanctuary that is being actively encouraged by these same ##$**^&!saala %$ AAP-wallahs…
Poonchwallah: ((warms to the theme) In fact, that explains why, as reported by our Monkey Catchers, most of the monkeys we are trapping nowadays look thin and famished! You see? Not only are these unfortunate monkeys not able to forage for food in Asola because of deforestation and environmental degradation, but they are forced to trek back over 25 kilometers all the way to Delhi! It is a shame. It is a violation of their human rights!
Poonchwallah: [clearly gone completely ape] We shall demand that Delhi’s AAP government provide MCD with a fleet of 10 AC buses so that we can transport the monkeys safely to and from Asola. Electric buses – so that we minimize greenhouse gas emissions. Meanwhile, my MC&RD team will leave no stone unturned in trapping and rehabilitating these poor monkeys on ongoing basis. In our budget estimates for the next financial year, that is 2023–24, we project to catch around 16,800 monkeys, in anticipation of which we propose to hire 10 additional Monkey Catchers and set aside a corpus of 3.5 crores as incentives for our Monkey Catchers…
[interview abruptly terminated at this point, when alpha-male monkey wearing Chaprasi uniform leaped in through open window, snatched away Shri Poonchwallah’s mobile phone, saluted us with a grin and strolled out through office door to seat himself on stool outside.]
I was with a friend in her car. In the back were three more friends, all women, one of them Indian, the other two German: a mother–daughter duo.
It was the evening of January 25th, 2020, cloudy and chill at dusk. We were caught in a traffic jam—the only saving grace being that we were on the lovely Amrita Shergill Marg, bordering the Lodhi Garden in central Delhi, and so there was plenty of foliage (albeit blurry) to look at and discernible quantities of that rare element, oxygen, in the diesel-and- petrol -scented air.
After about 30 minutes of crawl-and-halt, we drew alongside a small group of policemen, who were trying with limited success to keep motorists to their lanes.
“Jai Hind,” I greeted them, as I always greet personnel of our armed forces and police.
“Jai Hind,” they responded.
“What’s going on?” I went on in my semi-tapori Hindi, “Why this jam?”
“The result of a little VIP transit, sir…it’ll all be cleared in a few minutes.”
I thanked him, and we sat in silence for a moment. And then my young German friend spoke up softly, clearly, in English: “Why did you say that to him?”
Puzzled, I looked around at her. Her Indian friend giggled but didn’t say anything. “Say what?” I asked.
“You said ‘Jai Hind’ to that policeman…why?” she murmured, now slightly embarrassed. Her mother, who spoke very little English, looked on in bemusement. Her Indian friend giggled again, in a slightly self-conscious way.
The question was simple, perfectly straightforward; but in a flash I realized what it was she was really asking and why she was asking; and what the young Indian’s slightly nervous giggle might mean too. It was January, 2020—that was the time when the Shaheen Bagh street blockade was at its peak; when young women and men not just in India but across the world were charged up with the heady passions and revolutionary slogans of the quaintly-oxymoronic ideology known as Left Liberalism; when any word, any sign, of showing solidarity with or pride in or support to even the idea of India was not only old-fashioned but had somehow become equated to becoming a ‘Modi-bhakt’, a ‘nationalist’, a ‘fascist’, an anti-Muslim fanatical Hindu. In India, and across the world.
It was a time when even uttering ‘Jai Hind’ more or less branded me as a narrow-minded bigot unless otherwise proven…or clarified.
The two young women were – are- very dear to me; the question was honest, direct and clear; and so I thought awhile before I replied. “’Jai Hind’means ‘Hail India’, or ‘Victory to India’ if you like,” I said. “I greeted that policeman with ‘Jai Hind’ because I am proud of my country, I love my country, and tomorrow is our Republic Day—the day when, in 1950, a couple of years after winning independence from British rule, India adopted its own Constitution and became a full-fledged Republic. So then, for the first time we Indians had drawn up and given ourselves our own rights, our own guiding principles to live by, the systems by which we would govern ourselves and so on…all the things that we had fought for and won, and that we must hold on to and defend. And so January 26th is a good day to remember. A good time to say ‘Jai Hind’, and of course that’s why ‘Jai Hind’ is a good way to greet military personnel, police…”
I trailed off, wondering whether I’d made any sense at all. She’d listened attentively as I spoke; silent, clear-eyed, nodding slightly.
“Ah yes, of course, now I see,” she murmured. In the meanwhile her mother, who had been listening as intently to our exchange, asked her daughter to explain in German, which she promptly did.
And then, both of them smiled and chanted: “Jai Hind!”
And we all chorused Jai Hind, and soon the jam cleared, and merriment returned and dissolved the tedium.
A trivial episode, no doubt; but for me it was important…and lingers in memory.
I will always be grateful to my German friend for her question.
It helped me think a little, reflect a little, learn and re-learn and un-learn much more than a little. About India, about what this insanely chaotic, wonderful nation means and what it is founded on, and what holds it together…and what can and does tear it apart.
I’ve never been embarrassed about wearing my sentiment on my sleeve – if only on occasion. And 26th July, 2001 was one occasion, the 2nd anniversary of Vijay Diwas – the Martyr’s Day in remembrance of the uniformed ones who gave their lives during the Kargil war, 1999…a war during which a few dear friends in Army and Air Force had played active roles. Today being 26th July, here it is: for all fauji friends, for all men and women of the fauj, past and present and future. With respect, with love.
On the night of 26th July last year we lit two little lamps out on the balcony and gazed at the lambent flames while, and on the still air we heard the whispers of names…Clifford Nongrum, Haneefuddin, Saravanan, Kalia, Ahuja…names of men we had never met yet seemed to have known so well.
Surely, they would have been no different from any other young men in the world? In their love for laughter and revelry, for the scents of rain upon earth and flowers in a woman’s hair, for home-cooked food, the warmth of a family gathering, a boisterous game with children…they too must have yearned for leisure, for romancing, for peace. One of them had played the guitar, another had a voice like Rafi’s. Rich and varied were their tastes in music, as indeed their backgrounds and origins. Yet fierce were the bonds that had joined these men of diverse faiths, united them in their battle to preserve this very diversity, this richness and variety.
A strange, overwhelming sense of loss came upon us even as the flames rose steady and unwavering. We glanced up at the high-rise apartment blocks all around, at their dark balconies and terraces. A stray breeze brought a brief snatch of canned laughter from some TV set in some curtained lounge. And bitterness and anger welled up, sudden and surprising. How could they all be so callous, the inner voice raged, how could they forget the martyrs of Kargil so soon.
But the self-righteous and sentimental mind’s voice was abruptly quelled by a remembered voice from childhood: easy, self-assured, slightly mocking in tone, the voice of a young soldier, slain in battle long ago.
“Listen,” he had murmured, “in life, what others think or do doesn’t matter a damn. What YOU do is the only thing that counts. Before you, before each one of us, there’s a path; the path of duty. Seek that path, follow it, all else falls into place. It is so simple…”
The voice faded back into the caverns of memory; the flames flickered. And suddenly the twisted, tangled coils of sentiment and anger dissolved into a moment of deep understanding. Indeed the martyrs of Kargil had fought obdurate foes, in the harshest of conditions. They had endured terrible pain, died warriors’ deaths. But they were men who believed – nay, who knew – that beyond death there is no joy or sorrow, neither friendship nor enmity; there are no borders or lines of control, nor remembrance nor names.
There is only the peace of Eternity.
That is why our soldiers treated even the enemy’s slain with dignity, with honour. And that is why they were victorious.
We turned away, then. Fleetingly, sadness returned as we beheld the dark balconies all around. A flicker of yellow drew our attention to the right…and we gazed spellbound.
Down there, beyond the compound wall, set in the humble doorway of a tarpaulin-roofed dwelling, two candles had been lit. Their flames rose steady and unwavering. And again on the still air came the whisper of names…Vikram Batra, Neikezhakuo Kengurüse, Kanad Bhattacharya, Vijayant Thapar, Mohammad Hussain…
How optimized food adulteration can make India a sustainable nation
This paper presents an innovative approach to tackling the issue of food adulteration that causes so much stomach burn in India. It explains how, instead of griping about all the problems and dangers related to food adulteration, we can identify the hidden benefits of the adulterants being used, and find ways to recover, recycle, and reuse the adulterants to improve our individual and collective economic and gastronomic well-being. Thereby, we can increase overall resource efficiencies, contribute to India’s GDP, and enable our country to become a ‘net-zero’ economy by 2070 as announced at the Glasgow Climate Change Conference (COP-26).
Adulteration is manifest in virtually every sector of India’s economy. It is indeed one of the pillars of our glorious heritage and culture. Historical and archaeological records reveal that indigenous and ingenious adulteration technologies and practices have been developed and successfully applied since 7800 BCE by Indian farmers, industrialists, merchants, retailers, middle-men, crooks, and other important stakeholders, and are constantly and enthusiastically being innovated upon to achieve maximum returns with minimum investments and efforts. As a result, today India has set global benchmarks for adulteration of materials, commodities and products in every sphere of human activity: from eggs to edible oils, cement to steel, cereals to spices, milk and medicines to condiments and condoms.
Alas, confusion still remains in policy-level circles on the exact meaning of adulteration.
In the course of researching this paper, the author invited a few Members of Parliament (MPs) from diverse political parties to share their views on adulteration. Here are their responses (names withheld in the interests of self-preservation and general social harmony):
MP 1: (brusque): “Why ask me about Adult Rating and such sensitive issues? (Irritably) How can I comment on what is adult content and what is not? I am a busy man; I have no time to see films, let alone Adult-rated films. You go and ask this question to the Film Censor Board…”
MP 2: (relaxed, courteous): “I think adulteration should be tolerated; is not India a land of tolerance and secularism? Yes, I know nowadays many men and women are adulterating freely and without care. But I say: It is all right! What is there? It is their personal choice, no? I always say, better to co-habit than to pick up bad habit! (Hastily adds): But speaking on my own behalf I do not adulterate. I believe in the holiness and wholesomeness of marriage, so I commit adulteration only with my wife… (Looks reverentially at sky) Do not all our great epicses and religious bookses say the same thing: ‘Thou shalt not commit adulteration?’
MP 3: (In great bitterness with much gnashing of teeth): Adult Ration is nothing but another big lie told by the communal BJP government to fool the people. You should ask your question to P.M Modi-jee and his friends, who keep shouting and screaming like anything about giving ‘Free Ration For All’! Arre Modi-jee, where is your Adult Ration? Who gets it? Do I get it? And why only give Adult Ration? Why not Children’s Ration? (Waves fist) I demand that central government should also give Minority Rations and Backward Rations with retrospective and retrogressive effect…” (relapses intounprintable muttering)
Clearly, there is urgent need for a massive nationwide awareness program to deepen understanding among the people— in particular, among our political leaders—on adulteration and related matters. Efforts in this direction are beyond the scope of this paper (and indeed, beyond the imagination and capacities of the author). However, using as examples a few commonly adulterated food products (milk, fruit & vegetables), the next section illustrates how adulteration can support highly profitable and sustainable business ventures with minimal investments and innovative technological interventions. These adulteration-based business ventures can be taken up by young Indian entrepreneurs under schemes like StartUpIndia and MakeInIndia. Such businesses will help create new jobs without threatening the livelihoods of the millions of hard-working people who currently depend on adulteration and allied activities for their income.
Adulteration-based business opportunities
Common adulterants: gypsum; urea.
Gypsum is a useful mineral, made up mainly of calcium sulphate. The gypsum in adulterated milk can be easily separated out by allowing the milk to stand awhile. The gypsum settles as a cloudy white precipitate, and can be recovered by filtration and dried out into a fine powder.
This gypsum powder may then be converted along parallel production lines into various high-value products such as:
Plaster-of-Paris, which is extensively used by orthopaedists in making plaster casts for setting broken bones. As explained in the next point, there is immense potential to create an ever-expanding market for Plaster-of-Paris in India and abroad.
Gypsum blocks, slabs, tiles etc. for use in making pavements, cycling tracks, floors, walls and other such applications in the construction industry. Usually, for such end-uses the gypsum is refined to remove impurities like calcium carbonate which make the gypsum brittle and prone to breakage. However, in the present context it is better to ensure that the gypsum products contain calibrated amounts of calcium carbonate and other impurities (if necessary, by adding them); because this will ensure that the brittle gypsum slabs and tiles will soon fracture and break, as will the bones of people walking on them. Thus, by paving the ground – so to speak – for an ever-increasing number of people to fracture and/or break their bones, we can create and sustain high-volume demands for Plaster-of-Paris from the orthopaedists to whom these afflicted people will rush for plaster casts.
Gypsum (‘chalk’) crayons and pencils for diverse uses: on blackboards, by teachers in schools and colleges; by pavement and wall artists; by police to mark crime scenes and accident sites; and so on. Here, the gypsum powder extracted from adulterated milk can be blended with the waxes, spent mobile oils and furnace oils, and various dyes and pigments extracted from adulterated fruit & vegetables (see below), and moulded into crayons and pencils of various sizes and colors.
Urea is a very important nitrogen-rich fertiliser. In India, urea is manufactured and sold at heavily subsidized prices to make it affordable for use by farmers—and of course, by milk adulterators, who by one estimate account for 44% of total annual urea consumption in India (Milavat Ali Khan and Saand Roy. 2011. “Milk adultery in India”. Al Nakhli Press, Delhi).
Urea is also a very important raw material for other industries like adhesives, paints & coatings, plastic, textiles and so on. Since Independence, these industries have prospered by buying urea meant for agriculture in huge quantities at the same highly subsidized prices. Unfortunately, the current evil and communal BJP-led government has prevented these industries from buying cheap urea, by making it mandatory for urea manufacturers to coat their urea granules with acrid-smelling neem oil. While farmers are happy with this ‘neem-coated urea’ as neem acts as a powerful, non-toxic natural pesticide, the industries and milk adulterators find it very difficult and expensive to separate the neem from the urea granules. Hence, they have to buy pure urea at much higher prices; sometimes they even have to import it. Due to high urea prices and crippling urea shortages, many of these industries and milk adulterating units—most of which are MSMEs—have suffered severe production losses, and some have even had to shut down for long periods, adding to unemployment distress.
This situation presents a huge business opportunity for young adulteration-based business entrepreneurs.
Urea, which is very soluble, can be recovered easily and economically from adulterated milk and purified for sale to industries. The purified urea can also be sold back directly to the milk adulterators. It is envisaged that in due course the milk adulterators and industry end-users of urea could form mutually beneficial consortia with the urea-extraction businesses, supported by suitable risk financing under ESCO-type models.
In the long term—perhaps by 2070, to coincide with India’s becoming a ‘zero carbon economy’— the system can be streamlined with such high efficiency that the milk adulterators, urea-extraction businesses, and industries can achieve near-perfect circularity in resources management, eliminating the milk consumers entirely from the picture. By then, it is hoped, organic and eco-friendly milk substitutes such as desi tharra (indigenous whiskey) and bhang sherbet will be available in adequate quantities and at affordable prices for all.
Fruit & Vegetables
Common adulterants: wax; spent engine oil and furnace oils; grease; shoe polish; metanil yellow (pumpkin, capsicum); iron oxide (carrots, beetroot); malachite green (lady’s finger); oxytocin growth hormone (all vegetables and fruit); etc.
Waxes and oils
Many kinds of waxes and oils are used to polish eggplants (brinjal), tomatoes, gourds, apples, pomegranates, etc. and give them that special sheen so attractive to consumers and so toxic to consume. These waxes and oils represent high-value resources that can be recovered and reprocessed to bring significant profits and other benefits.
The waxes and oils can be extracted by simply warming the fruit and/or vegetables inside a dry container placed within a large pan of hot water (about 70°C). The wax/oil will soon melt and drip off the skins of the fruit/vegetable and collect as a congealed mass at the base of the container, from where it can be removed from time to time. [Warning: It is important NOT to use a direct flame for the wax/oil removing process; as applying direct high-temperature heat may end up frying the vegetables/fruit in their own waxes and oils, thereby reducing energy efficiency and also adding to India’s overall carbon emissions.]
The de-waxed and de-oiled fruit & vegetables may be sent for cooking, and the wax/oil pressed into small cakes and briquettes and sold as a high-calorific-value fuel to a range of end-users: from industries that can use it to fire furnaces and boilers, to street-vendors serving momos, chicken tikkas and dosas. Alternatively, the wax/oil briquettes can be sold back to the fruit & vegetable adulterators, thereby achieving circularity of resources.
It is worth underlining that the waxes and oils used in food adulteration not only contain high percentages of carbon, but are manufactured by highly energy intensive processes that consume huge amounts of fossil fuels such as coal, coke, and natural gas. Hence, the recovery of waxes and oils used as adulterants, and their recycling and reuse in such virtuous cycles, will contribute hugely to reducing India’s overall carbon emissions, and ultimately save the world from global warming.
Based on the visible evidence in our food products, coupled with the invisible but often-painful evidence during our daily ablutions, it is clear that food adulteration poses grave dangers – and indeed cremation dangers– to the health of India’s body politic as well as Indian bodies corporeal.
However, as shown by the examples above, food adulteration also present exciting new opportunities for future generations to leverage the beneficial end-uses of food adulterants with innovative business models, and thereby create sustainable livelihoods as well as help India achieve its climate change commitments and become a circular economy.
It is hoped that the Union and state governments will borrow lessons from the highly disclaimed and globally discredited Universal Adult Education program, and launch a Universal Rapid Education on Adulteration (UREA) program that will create widespread awareness on the vast potential benefits offered by food adulteration. The UREA program could work in synergy with entrepreneurship development initiatives such as MakeInIndia and ZED. This Holistic approach will, we hope, enable India to assume a leadership role in making Adulteration For All a global movement, and benefit the world as a Hole.
Acknowledgements: The author has been greatly inspired by the collective wisdom of the late philosopher George Carlin as well as urban-based environmentalists, sociologists, journalists, academicians, developmental economists, the United Nations Organization, Greta Thunberg, Arundhati Roy, Dr Amartya Sen, and affiliated charlatans, conmen and con-women who (like this author) constantly struggle to ensure that humankind remains steeped in depression and teetering on the brink of crises —existential, emotional, environmental, ecological, sociological, biological, and/or scatological—so that we can all make successful, sustainable and lifelong careers in ensuring that humankind neither falls over the brink nor steps back from the brink, either of which situations would greatly threaten the livelihoods of future generations who might wish to follow our noble career paths.