Month: April 2017

Indian Traffic : A Real Life Death Match

Indian Traffic : A Real Life Death Match

traffic lights
Image credit : Pixabay

If you watch Indians at a traffic signal, you will notice that we are always in a great hurry. We cannot waste time, every second is precious. The normal conclusion from this would be that we must have something important to do, something that cannot wait. Right? Wrong!

Indians are in a rush at every traffic stop so that they can have more time to procrastinate. It’s one of the deep concepts of Indian philosophy, right up there with the Maya. Had Jean-Paul Sartre ever visited India, he would have written another unintelligible tome – Being in a Hurry and Nothingness.

Imagine a young Indian, working, say, at a government office. (Private companies are no better. Try calling customer service of an Indian company.) As soon as he leaves his home to drive to his office, he becomes the doppelgänger of John Abraham in Dhoom. He puts his life on the line several times every day, cutting corners, overtaking not just from the wrong side but from every possible side that Euclidean geometry would allow. He competes fiercely with his fellow drivers and the poor pedestrians cannot even penetrate his cognitive sphere. Faster than a speeding bullet, he finally reaches his destination : the office.

As he enters the office, the first thing he will probably do is to pray to the favourite one god or goddess that he has chosen out of thirty-three million and whose image adorns his desk. Then a transformation happens. A divine calm begins to spread over his whole body. He becomes philosophical about life. Who am I? Why am I here? Mundane problems like doing work no longer bother him. Sure, there is a long line of people who want him to do something for them but so what? What’s a mere loan application or licence approval in the grand scheme of things? He is no hurry, till it’s time to go home. Then it’s John Abraham again as he races home where he will probably watch his favourite TV program or a Cricket match.

So how do you cross an Indian street?

If you are from a country where drivers actually stop to let the pedestrians pass, you will find it very difficult to manage on Indian streets. It’s like Neo taking the leap of faith. You have to unlearn everything about how to cross a road. For instance, there is a word called ‘jaywalk’ which means “to cross or walk in the street or road unlawfully or without regard for approaching traffic”. This word has lost its meaning in India because it assumes that there is a better way to cross the street. It’s like saying ‘snowfall’ in Antarctica. Jaywalking is the only way to cross most streets in India.

Crossing an Indian street is much more thrilling than playing a violent game in VR. You need to be on your toes and your reflexes have to be razor sharp. For instance, you are about to cross a road and you see an approaching vehicle that will cross your path. What do you do?

If you do nothing or wait for the street to be empty, you might have to wait all day. You need to take action. So here’s what you do. Look at the body language of the vehicle. If it’s fast or super fast, then let it go. If it’s at medium speed, then you need to boldly step in front of the vehicle. Remember, most drivers expect pedestrians to block their way. It’s a supreme battle of wills. Now, if you are quick, he will either slow down or change direction to go behind you. Congrats! You have won but don’t celebrate just yet. You need to tackle a few more similar vehicles before you reach the other end.

While you are doing all this, do look in the other direction as well. There is a fair chance that someone is speeding along in the wrong direction and he will honk in the most self-righteous manner if you are in his way.

Which brings us to honking – one of the favourite Indian pastimes. You may think that honking is just for clearing traffic but you would be wrong. For Indians, honking is a way of expressing ourselves that may mean anything from ‘I am bored’ to ‘Yay! We won the match!’ At any given point of time, an Indian street exhibits a wonderful cacophony of horns.

Every game has cheats. This real life Death Match is no exception. It’s simple. Just look around and find a seasoned street crosser who is going in the same direction as you. Trust his instincts and follow him like a shadow. He will be your Morpheus, guiding you through The Matrix!

Usual disclaimer : This article is to be taken with lots of salt. Please don’t do anything rash on Indian streets and hurt yourself. Also, just because the article is in a lighter vein does not mean the issue is not serious. Every year, more than 135,000 traffic collision-related deaths occur in India.

On Reading and Writing Articles

On Reading and Writing Articles

Some time back, I wrote about the skill-sets that you acquire while doing a PhD. One of them is public speaking. Another one is reading and writing articles. Every PhD student spends a lot of time reading research articles. As you keep on doing this for years, you develop a skill that is necessary to survive under the constant onslaught of information.

The structure of a research article is a little different from a normal magazine article. When you read or write a research article, you always imagine a devil’s advocate, who asks after each sentence “says who?”. And then you either provide the reference of the source, or if it is your own idea, justify it. Failure to do so will never get you published in a scientific journal. This is the reason scientific papers are full of citations.

If you ever get a chance to observe a scientist in her natural habitat, look closely how she reads a new research paper. It is not a linear process – start in the beginning and finish at the end. Most probably she will read the abstract, skip the introduction, take a closer look at the figures and images, skim over the procedure and read the conclusions. When you have read hundreds of research papers on one particular field, you just want to know what’s the new idea. This saves a lot of time. I follow more or less the same procedure when I read normal articles or blog posts on any topic. After reading many articles, reviews and blog posts, certain patterns start to emerge.

Take movie reviews. Many movie reviews can be skipped because all they do is tell you who made the film, who are the actors, what is the movie about and finally the plot – sometimes this last one is given in such detail that there is no need to see the movie. Then there are seasoned reviewers. Often when you read these reviews, you get more information about the reviewer than about the movie. If you already have set ideas in your head about what makes a great movie – for instance, commercial and popular movies are of low quality – then you discard movies that do not fit the bill even before watching them. Many reviewers seem to be doing this either consciously or unconsciously.

So why are articles/books of say, Roger Ebert or Pauline Kael so engaging? Because they are full of original thoughts and ideas. Even when they borrow an idea, they will expand on it and transform it into a different idea. There is a danger here, however. If you read a Kael review before watching the movie, you will already have firm opinions about movie. This is the reason why I avoid 99% of movie reviews, at least before watching the movie.

On to words. Often, the article contains a lot of new or uncommon words. I have nothing against it but is the author using the best word possible? Reading an unclear article with lot of unknown words is like reading a dictionary. While reading Charles Dickens or W. Somerset Maugham, I do not let even one unknown word go by because I know that the way these authors use words is unique.

A side note : I feel sorry for the critics who dismiss Dickens because of Deus ex machina or Maugham because.. I don’t know..why would anyone dismiss Maugham? The profound knowledge of human affairs that these authors exhibit is unparalleled. It is said that when Somerset Maugham walked into a room full of strangers, he would instantly and intuitively know the complex layers of relationships that they have with one another. How did he do it? The answer may well be found in Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Blink.

Sometimes the article is just a jumble of thoughts. Reading through it is like untangling yarn balls after you have left them for an hour in a room full of meowing kittens. The thoughts run in all directions and you go back and forth trying to find the point of the argument or some common thread. For me, clarity is the most important criterion. As an example of clear thinking, watch any interview of Javed Akhtar or Gulzar. The thoughts would be crystal clear.

It is for the same reason that I don’t read articles with lot of buzz-words. Read, for example, the Wiki entry for phenomenological ontology in Jean-Paul Sartre’s book Being and Nothingness. And saying that the subject is complex is not a valid argument. If you cannot explain it in simple terms, you have not understood it completely. People have simplified complex theories of quantum mechanics or relativity. This does not mean that the reader becomes an expert after reading the article but she does get a sense of what the theory is all about.

Paul Graham’s essays are a good example of clear and interesting writing. Another example is author and translator Tim Parks. Tim is British but he also speaks Italian and has translated many Italian books in English. His essays and criticisms in The New York Review of Books and The London Review of Books are a delight to read. Also, James Wood. Do read his How Fiction Works. I have already mentioned Malcolm Gladwell. These are just few examples. There are many non-fiction writers whose articles are exemplary.