Sunday, 10 June 2012


A bus driver refused to let a woman travel as she was short of £0.20p of the fare amount. That was the last bus home and so the woman who decided to walk back was attacked and raped. This article reports that the student was pleading with the driver for about eight minutes but still the driver had "turfed her off". Also the article indicates that none of the passengers who boarded the bus offered to make up the fare.

It looks like this news got a bit sensationalized because of that 20p. The drivers action and the fellow passengers inaction became a debatable topic. According to the above article, the bus company has also dealt with the driver through their disciplinary procedure.

It surprises me how this 20p has become the highlight here. What if the person had only 20p and the driver had refused him or her to travel and something similar deplorable incident had happened? Would it have evoked a similar response criticizing the driver or the fellow passengers for not letting a commuter to travel with just 20p?

Similarly how much is the driver's or fellow passengers act is consequential to the incident followed? Should they be the one to be blamed or punished in this case? Instead of becoming a victim, if the person had been lucky and got some fortune while walking back home, should he or she be expected to share it with the passengers and the driver for letting him/her walk?

Unless the driver had violated the company policy to be followed in situations like this, I don't think the driver is the one to be blamed. Talking about rest of the passengers inaction, it is a case study to understand human nature. Aren't people helpful by nature? Don't normal people rush to help others?

The "helping experiment" conducted by Richard Nisbett and his student Eugene Borgida has surprising results. The experiment shows that individuals feel relieved of responsibility when they know that others have heard the same request for help*. The original experiment was conducted with a seizure victim, but I think parallels can be drawn with the way how we react in situations like this.

I don't see much point in trying to find someone to blame for. For me one the of the key lessons to be learnt from this incident is to improve the ticket purchasing options in buses in general. A better system would reduce the amount of passengers left stranded off due to incorrect fare or shortage of fare.

Some bus operators accept only exact fare. They do not provide you the remaining change as the ticket fares are dropped directly into a box. Bus companies like Cardiff Bus provides a voucher for the balance amount, which can be exchanged at the customer service center. But still, the current buying options affects the commuters and also the tourists.

A better way is to start accepting card payments within buses. With the way the cash cards have evolved, especially in the developed countries, the usage of actual currency is getting reduced day by day. Lots of shops accept card payments for purchases even less than a pound,  but still its a surprise to see why the bus companies have not followed this. And now with contactless debit cards coming into the market, its not even required to chip and pin like a standard debit or credit cards.

Bus companies should start working towards providing better buying options for its customers. Improving the ticket purchasing system will help the commuters a lot and might avoid embarrassment and incidents like this.

* Thinking Fast and Slow - Daniel Kahneman, Penguin Books, P170

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Hay Festival 2012

Hay-on-Wye is a small town along the England-Wales border. Called as the 'Town of Books', Hay is also the host for the annual festival of Literature and Arts - Hay Festival. The festival is a ten day event that runs during the months of May-June, hosts some of the best writers, musicians, artists, scientists, film makers, politicians and speakers from various fields.

Historically the festival has been conducted in different parts of the town. In recent years the festival is being organized just outside the town with makeshift tents, pavilions, stages and caravan toilets providing a decent protection from the constantly unpredictable British weather. The twenty fifth edition of the festival is being held from May 31 to June 10, 2012.

Festival Entrance
This is our first time at Hay and we managed to spend around three days in the town and the festival, thanks to the Spring Bank Holiday and Queen's Diamond Jubilee Celebration. Different events were organized simultaneously at different venues making it difficult to choose which one to attend and which one to miss. Some highlights from the events that we attended.

The event that I was keen to attend was Daniel Kahneman's discussion with Jesse Norman on 'Human rationality and irrationality'. The discussion was based on Kahneman's recent book 'Thinking Fast and Slow'. The psychologist, who has won the Nobel prize in Economics, ironically has never attended a course in Economics. He talked about the two systems of thinking, system 1 and system 2 and how they influence our decision making. As most of the topics and examples were taken from the book itself, the discussion was very familiar and only very little discussed was unknown. Still it was nice to listen to Daniel Kahneman in person.

Daniel Kahneman with Jesse Norman
'The way we live now' is one of special events for the 25th anniversary of the festival. In the first event of this series, Salman Rushdie - British Indian Novelist, Niklas Frank - Author of  'The Sins of the Fathers : In The Shadow Of The Reich', Elif Shafak - Turkish Writer, Tishani Doshi - Indian poet - journalist and Jim Al-Khalili - Iraqi born British Theoretical Physicist discussed with John Kampfner a British journalist,  about what freedoms the panelists were prepared to trade for security.

Salman Rushdie said that there is not many that he would sacrifice."There is no such thing as perfect security. We should not swap freedoms for supposed security". He was also very critical about the current situation in India and how historically the freedom of speech has been suppressed. He cited incidents of M.F.Husain, banning of Rohinton Mistry's 'Such a Long Journey' and A.K Ramanujan's Three Hundred Ramayanas to indicate the state of freedom of speech in India.

Niklas Frank, Elif Shafak, Salman Rushdie, John Kampfner, Tishani Doshi and  Jim  Al Khalili
Niklas Frank and Elif Shafak spoke about their idea of freedom and security from a German and Turkish background. Though Niklas Frank insisted on the freedom of speech, he took a step back when a question was raised about laws against Holocaust denials. Niklas Frank insisted the need for such laws as Holocaust is a truth. Personally I think such laws are still against the freedom of speech.

An interesting question was raised in the audience about the freedom to opt out of vaccinations and other disease preventive measures. Jim Khalili was of the idea that such freedoms might have to be sacrificed for the greater good as a child who is not vaccinated could possibly impact other children in schools and public places. Writer Tishani Doshi spoke about the Unique Identification cards being introduced in India. She was kind of skeptic about sharing so much personal information like retina and fingerprint details which might actually fire back as these information are very sensitive.

When the panelists were asked to suggest one book or cinema of their liking, Salman Rushdie suggested Ulysses and Pather Panchali, Elif and Jim went with Brazil and Tishani with Charlie Chaplin's Dictator. The event was quite interesting with views from the people in public space and coming from different background.

The next day we went for an Hedgerow Foraging Walk with Adele Nozedar. The weather was so bad that we thought the walk would be cancelled. But Adele was happy to take us around the Hay Festival camp for a short foraging walk exploring edible plants and flowers. It was about an hour and half walk tasting leaves and flower buds along the countryside. On any other day I would have hesitated to touch or taste anything like these, but on this ocassion I decided to give it a try, which was not bad actually. Though it was kind of drizzling throughout the walk, it made the plants and trees look more green and beautiful.

Sheared Sheep with the Festival tents at the background - during the walk
Next event was the screening of the Hindi movie - Khosla Ka Ghosla at the Booth Cinema Hall. Booth Cinema hall is part of Richard Booth's bookshop, and is being used as a venue for the films screened at the Hay Festival. The movie was about a father's dream of buying a plot and how he was cheated by an estate agent. The rest of the movie revolves around how his children plan to trick the estate agent to recover his father's plot. Featuring Anupham Kher and Boman Irani, the movie was a lighthearted entertainer.

Anupham Kher at the screening
The final event for us was the British council series discussion about perceptions and cultural visions of 21st century India. The panelists were Anupam Kher, Nandita Das and William Dalrymple talking to Nik Gowing a British Journalist.

Anupham Kher talked about his recent autobiography and how Bollywood has grown in the recent years. He believed in the idea that cinemas are more about entertainment and means to escape for common man's everyday struggle. Nandita Das, on the contrary, felt that cinema is not only for entertainment and spoke about independent film making. Though she agreed that independent films like her own movie Firaaq are not as popular as the mainstream cinemas, she insisted that there are audience for such movies.

William Dalrymple, Anupham Kher, Nandita Das and Nik Gowing
William Dalrymple, writer and co-director of the Jaipur Literary Festival felt that in spite of its growth, Bollywood hasn't produced much word class movies that could compete at the levels of Oscar. When compared to countries like China, the quality of movie making is still not at the best. The event was chaired by Nik Gowing who seem to have a fair understanding of politics and culture in India. Anupam was witty, a bit defensive about Bollywood and spoke passionately about India. The highlight of the show was Nandita's clarity of thoughts and her perceptions towards Indian culture and cinema making.

Besides talk shows and movie screenings, there were variety of events for different age groups and target audience. There were lot of shops merchandising the 'Hay Festival'  brand as well. In addition to Oxfam's book shop there was also a festival book shop promoting the books of the festival authors and hosting book signing events.

The Lawn at Hays
The festival was quite crowded which was a bit annoying at times, but still it was a good experience.

More information and photos about the festival here and here.

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Behind the Beautiful Forevers

For a long time now, slums have been an integral part of Mumbai's description. The stories and characters from these shacks have been a source of inspiration for many writers and film makers. The overrated 'Slumdog Millionaire' is one such example. The mere characterization of the hero from the slum has done the magic. I doubt if a similar story of life and hope from a poor village which is not a slum would have been as successful as the original movie.

'Behind the Beautiful Forevers' by Katherine Boo is one another book on the slums of Mumbai. Unlike Vikas Swarup's Q&A (which came out as the 'Slumdog Millionaire'), this book is not about the success story of an individual brought up in a slum background. This book is more about the slum as a whole and not a particular character. Katherine Boo has chosen 'Annawadi' for her book, the slum behind the walls carrying the advertisement 'Beautiful Forever, Beautiful Forever, Beautiful Forever' off the Sahar Airport road, Mumbai.

Annawadi is the land of immigrants from the other poor parts of India. People migrate to slums like Annawadi hoping that they would get a better life than their past. One could imagine how their past would have been, if slums like Annawadi is their hope. They struggle day in and day out to feed themselves, save a few and hope to move to a better place.

The history of Annawadi as in the book:
"The slum had been settled in 1991 by a band of laborers trucked up from the southern tip of Tamil Nadu to repair a runway at the airport. Work complete, they decided to stay near the airport and its tantalizing construction possibilities. ... Residents of neighboring slums provided its name: Annawadi - the land of annas. ... Seventeen years later, almost no one in this slum was considered poor by official Indian benchmarks"

'Behind the Beautiful Forevers' depicts the life of these Annawadis,  the way they see the world from their mounds of garbage; their life with rat bites, which also occasionally turns out to be their food along with frogs, their fights over trivial things and their fear for life from movements like 'Beat the Bhaiya' and false accusations by the local cops.

In a society of systemic corruption, it looks like the most affected are people like these. When accused falsely, they can neither pay the bribe nor prove their innocence. And their lives are not taken seriously and their deaths are taken for granted. Most of the Government funds provided to help these people are devoured by the corrupt officials by running non existent schools and NGOs. This corruption along with the crab mentality of the few Annawadis shatters the hopes of the rest, forever.
In Katherine's words:
"...a system in which the most wretched tried to punish the slightly less wretched by turning to a justice system so malign it sank them all"

Katherine Boo's focus on multiple characters provides a bigger picture of life and death in Annawadi. The sequence of events makes the narration interesting, and the lives of Annawadis makes 'Behind the Beautiful Forever' a memorable read. 

Sunday, 13 May 2012

Possibility Effect and Understanding of Numbers

Few months back, there was a sudden upraise of protests regarding the atomic power project in Kudankulam, India. In the little reading I did on these protests, one of the primary concern was about the safety of the nuclear power plant and the possible direct and indirect casualties this could trigger. In addition, the effects of Bhopal disaster, probably the worst industrial accident in the history of the country and the way these victims were handled  had created an animosity towards projects like these.

In cases like Kudankulam the decision to oppose the project is usually based on the casualties caused by similar projects in the past. For example, if we consider the Union Carbide disaster, according to this CNN article, the death toll was about 33,000. This Wikipedia entry quotes that, the leak had caused about 558,125 injuries. Similarly this entry from Wikipedia indicates that the approximate number of deaths alone in nuclear accidents around the world is about 5000 and then there are other prolonged side effects. These numbers seems quite high. But do the protesters actually take account of these numbers?

Now to a different event. This article in 'The Lancet' indicates that about 7.6 million children below the age of five had died in 2010 of which about 64% are attributed to infectious causes including pneumonia, diarrhea which are preventable.This is the estimate around the world. Out of these 7.6 million, 1.682 million were from India alone which includes about 0.397 million from pneumonia and 0.212 million from diarrhea which are infectious but again almost preventable.

Assuming that the above numbers regarding the deaths from nuclear reactors and infant mortality are true (at least proportionally), it is very clear that the infectious diseases have a high death rate (among the children below the age of 5), when compared to nuclear accidents. The outcome of injury related to nuclear reactors still reduces if we include the frequency of these accidents as well. Unless we start working towards better healthcare, the death rates among these children are going to be more or less similar every year unlike an accident in a reactor which might not necessarily happen every year.

So ideally our priority to save human lives should have more focus on events that have an higher death rate . But we seldom see protests against these events like infant mortality which has an higher outcome. Even if such protests happen, it doesn't get the required attention always. Rather we tend to focus our time and energy towards relatively less probable events. This inconsistency, I think is an example of the Possibility Effect:

"The decision weights that people assign to outcomes are not identical to the probabilities of these outcomes, contrary to the expectation principle. Improbable outcomes are over weighted - this is the possibility effect. Outcomes that are almost certain are under weighted relative to actual certainty."
-Daniel Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow, p.312

The Possibility Effect might look less harmful, especially when it is associated with events like gambles and lotteries. But when it is applied to our attitude towards some serious life threatening events, we can observe how it affects our decision making.

In addition, the lack of understanding of numbers related to these events we deal with, affects our decisions. If these protesters were aware of the actual numbers, will it have the same intensity or will they still work towards the same cause ?

For example, When a question 'Which of these events should be prevented first ? Event A - Kills 1 lakh people, probably occurring once in few years. Event B - Kills 10 lakhs people almost every year' is posed to the protesters, a reasonable person would want to prevent event B and work towards it. But if we just pose a question without numbers, 'which one you would want to prevent? Deaths related to infectious disease or Nuclear Disaster?' do we still get the same answer?

The possibility of a nuclear accident even though its outcome is less comparatively, looms large and attracts more attention and support to eliminate it. This when compared to a larger and sure outcome event like infant mortality is more or less ignored*. So ideally we should try working towards making our decisions based on the probability of the event, its outcome and the actual numbers. Not just based on an ideology or the emotional statements of the policy makers and the protesters. This could have a better value for people's money and time and might have a better impact on society itself.

* This representation is only based on the numbers available in the internet. If the numbers turn out to be incorrect or change eventually and reverses the outcome, then so should be our decisions towards it.

Saturday, 5 May 2012

Capital Punishment

Should a State allow capital punishment or not? Probably one of the most debated topics of all time may be next only to 'Love Marriage vs Arranged Marriage' and 'Does God exists or not?' I think the last two questions has reduced considerably in recent times. But realized death penalty is still a lingering question after  its discussion in BBC program 'The Big Questions' a few weeks back.

As I see it, in general there are three sides to the discussion on capital punishment. First is the 'victim's side' - the victim and his/her family and friends. Second is the 'convict side' - the convicted person and his/her families. The third side, arguably the most dangerous side - 'the audience side' - people who are no way related to the case directly or indirectly, but just witness these events through media and eager to provide an "expert" opinion without actually living through it like the victim or the convicted.

Few arguments that's often placed by the audience against the capital punishment are 'Nobody has the right to take someone else's life', 'Capital punishment is an inhuman act', 'Every person deserves a second chance'. When such arguments are placed, there are some questions to ponder.

When a country is at war, is it right to kill the 'Enemy of the State' ? ('Enemy of the State' because the enemies here are not decided by the individual. This clip from Ab Tak Chhappan around the fourth minute talks about it precisely). Comparing killings at the war front and death sentence might not look appropriate, but they are objectively equivalent - taking a human life. Though both have a similar outcome, isn't it strange that we despise one as an inhumane and ornate the other with awards?

Similarly the famous quote by Gandhi "An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind" is often used as a defence against capital punishment. This quote appeals to the masses easily and gains a lot of support like Gandhi himself. But when such quotes are placed under a context, they might not necessarily have the same appeal. Here is a context.

In relation to the late war, one question that every pacifist had a clear obligation to answer was: "What about the Jews? Are you prepared to see them exterminated? If not, how do you propose to save them without resorting to war?" I must say that I have never heard, from any Western pacifist, an honest answer to this question, though I have heard plenty of evasions, usually of the "you're another" type. But it so happens that Gandhi was asked a somewhat similar question in 1938 and that his answer is on record in Mr. Louis Fischer's Gandhi and Stalin. According to Mr. Fischer, Gandhi's view was that the German Jews ought to commit collective suicide, which "would have aroused the world and the people of Germany to Hitler's violence." After the war he justified himself: the Jews had been killed anyway, and might as well have died significantly.1

After reading Gandhi's view on Holocaust, does the above quote still retains its charm? Should the Jews had followed Gandhi's view which is along the lines of "An eye for an eye.."? If Hitler was caught as a Prisoner of War, should he have been given a second chance? These are some questions to ponder for those who oppose capital punishment in the 'audience side'.

Now coming to the proponents of capital punishment in the 'audience side', the usual arguments are of the kind that 'Punishment deters crime', 'The convict loses his right when he violates others rights', 'Its justice done'. For arguments along these lines, my first question to them is 'How sure are they that the convicted was proved without any doubt?'.

Not all cases are self evident like 'Kasab's Trial' where there might not be much to prove. But in most other cases, I think that, its not possible for the audience to know the entire truth about the case. The audience's knowledge about the case could be based on media reports and hearsay and their opinion could also be influenced by their prejudice. The media reports are not always reliable, as each one of them carry a version of its own. For example Patrick French's story about the 'Aarushi murder case' is quite different form the stories in main stream media3. This is a classic example for 'what we know Vs the truth'. So how do we know what the truth is?

I think the answer is, except for some clear cut cases, there is no way for some one in the audience side to know whether a convicted person is the real criminal or not. Even if it is proved in a court of law, we often see that a judgement by the lower court is overturned by an higher court. So without knowing the truth should we really advocate death sentence for someone?

Now assuming that somebody is proven beyond doubt and is ordered to execute legally, will the supporters of capital punishment be ready to do the honors in their own hand on behalf of the Government, society or the victim? Being on the receiving side, it wouldnt be a surprise if the victim or victim's family wouldn't hesitate to execute, but from the audience side, I really doubt4. If it is only a right thing to do, restores justice and deters heinous crimes shouldn't they be able to do it like doing any other good deed to the society? If they cannot execute on their own hands, then what is the reason? Is it because they dont want to get blood on their hands but fine as long as some poor chap does it5?

Now going back to the original question, should a state allow capital punishment? With what I understand, I don't think there is a one size fits all solution for this. A blanket 'Yes' or 'No' might not help I guess. I think it should be only  handled at a case by case level and as much as objectively possible.

When it comes to individual cases, its better if the audience doesnt promote mass movements about whether the convict should be executed or not. For, what we know about the case might not be the truth at all. Moreover how much ever one can empathize with the victim or the convict, its never the same as actually being a victim or the convict. Tinkering with their emotions could only make it worse for them. So a better thing to do is to let the parties involved along with the system of law to judge on how it should be handled rather than we promoting a decision based on our "expert" opinion.

References & Links:
1. Reflections on Gandhi by George Orwell -
2. 12 Angry Men -
3. India - A Portrait -
4. But not for the likes of Hazare -
5. Adoor Gopalakrishnan's Nizhalkuthu - A perspective from the eyes of an Hangman -

Sunday, 29 April 2012

The Element

Sir Ken Robinson defines 'Element' as,
"... the point at which natural talent meets personal passion. When people arrive at the element, they feel most themselves and most inspired and achieve at their highest levels."

In his book 'The Element', Ken Robinson narrates inspiring stories of a long list of people including the British Ballerina Gillian Lynne, Arianna Huffington of Huffington Post, Paul McCartney of Beatles, Paulo Coelho and many others who managed to follow their passion, breaking social norms and overcoming odds. These odds were not always mental road blocks, some of them were physical as well. This includes Ken Robinson's personal struggle after contracting polio in his childhood. The book describes how being in 'The Element' helped these individuals to achieve great heights.

The book covers how some of the fundamental flaws we have developed in our society, especially in the field of education make it difficult to find one's Element. For example, how Professional courses are given more importance than Fine Arts or any art related subjects, the flaws in determining an individual's IQ and the way we have defined what Creativity is.

Talking about intelligence, Robinson noted that when he posed the question, 'How intelligent are you?' to an audience, the answers often took the form of a Bell curve, with a few lying at the extremes but the major portion was concentrated around the center. When the same group were asked, 'How creative are you?', the answers were completely different. The majority thought they were not very creative. This clearly shows that people think that creativity and intelligence are not related.

The primary reason for this thinking is, we as a society tend to assign creativity to a very specific group of subjects like Arts, Music, etc. Similarly, standardized tests that test an individuals' IQ do not always assess their artistic abilities. This difference tends to imply that creativity and intelligence are two different things, often forgetting that an individual can be both intelligent and creative irrespective of his field or profession. So, Robinson suggests that, the question to be asked is not, 'How intelligent are you?' rather, 'How are you intelligent?'

Similarly Robinson talks about how we take things for granted. Often people don't realize that they have something special and fail to acknowledge it. One simple example given in the book is about the senses. When the question is asked 'how many senses do human beings have?', the answer is usually five. But according to Robinson, there is more than that. This sixth sense, he says, is not the spooky one, but a real sense like the five others, the sense of balance! The sense of balance is a very key thing in day to day life, but is often taken for granted. He narrates the story of Bart Conner, whose ability to walk with his hands was not taken for granted and how he eventually represented the USA in the Olympics.

There are similar thoughts covered throughout the book along with some stories attached to it. Along with these stories, Robinson also provides some insights on how to find one's Element like spending time with one's 'Tribe'. Tribe here are the people who share a common passion, like a group of scientists or artists.
Often an individual's passion fails to be acknowledged by people around them who either neglect it or suppress it in the name of well being, like in the case of Paulo Coelho. So being among like minded people would help the individual's passion to be heard and understood and to help develop the skills required for it.

On the whole, the book is more of an extension to Ken Robinson's famous TED Talk on 'How schools kill Creativity' and 'Bring on the Learning Revolution'. The book carries a number of stories which for some might seem a little bit overwhelming. As one of the users pointed out in the amazon review comments, by the end of the book one might start feeling that the same ideas are being repeated over and over again and might question the length of the book itself. Reducing the number of stories might have definitely increased the readability, but on the contrary, it could have made it look like a self help book and this definitely is not one. 'The Element' is a good read if one can bear with some of its extended stories and it's repetitive tone.

Related Links:

(Edited with comments from Dhiviya.)

Sunday, 11 March 2012


Is there anything really free? Free without a charge. Every time when I come across this question, only thing that usually comes to my mind is 'Air'. Just get out of the house or open the window and that's it. At least it appears to be Free. But actually I see some some hidden costs here as well. The cost is paid by the lungs in the form of its effort to inhale and exhale air. And in order to continue use this Free air we should maintain a healthy lungs which again has some costs involved directly or indirectly. So the air may be free out there, but to use it, we do actually spend something.

So when something is given away for free, there are always some hidden costs involved and somebody is actually paying for it. Like 'Air' the cost here might not necessarily be monetary, i.e the exchange is not based on paper money directly. Say for example, there are companies that provide freebies when somebody takes a survey. In this case, the survey data and the time spent replaces paper money. This is also the case for the promotions like 'Buy something and Get something Free'. The price is paid from the cost of advertising the product or might help to clear the stock and paid from the inventory cost. So here again the price is not directly paid by the consumers.

Similarly when freebies are distributed like this and this there are definitely some hidden costs involved. The manufacturing cost of the product, the cost to purchase the product, warehouse costs to store the product and then there is this entire cost of distribution from the warehouse to the end user. At each of these stages there is a cost involved and 'somebody' is actually paying for it, for money in itself isn't free. This 'somebody' might be taxpayers, rent providers, charity etc... Whoever or whatever may be the source, somebody is paying for it and it is definitely not free.

So rather than promoting them as freebies, it should be mentioned who is actually paying for it. When somebody donates to charity or sponsors a program, the donor is often mentioned and thanked for their deed. Likewise these freebies or subsidies should also mention the source and who is paying for it (like 'Taxpayer's money is used for so and so cause', 'The charity money from so and so is used for this cause'), rather than promoting them as freebies, for they are not actually free. Moreover this might also create some awareness among the people about the actual source of the 'freebie' and to be more prudent of its consumption.

The mere use of the term 'Free' gives the liberty to consume carelessly.

Sunday, 4 March 2012


Looks like there is finally some reliable site to buy legal music online in India.

Flipkart with its new Flyte Digital Store is providing this new feature in addition to their other online services. The collection is still limited for Tamil, not able to find some of the latest ones, but there are some good old songs in the list. Not sure about the other languages though. This is probably because the service itself is relatively new for the Indian market and moreover they might be still straightening out copyright issues.

Good thing is the user has the option to buy single tracks instead of the complete album. The price is about Rs 6 per song, might be a bit higher for new releases. Also I liked their wallet option to make a purchase. Didn't remember seeing this option while buying books. Not sure if this is applicable only for digital downloads. Wallet allows the customer to top up using a Debit/Credit card or using net-banking. Once the wallet is topped up, songs can be purchased with just a click.

The tracks can also be purchased by the usual payment methods instead of using a Wallet. Before purchase the user has an option to listen to a part of the track as well. The track is downloaded using a download manager similar to Amazon. A mail receipt is received indicating the purchase and provides an option to re-download the song again. Not sure how long this link is valid though.

The song quality was good. Only thing that I observed was that the artist details were incorrect. Also while downloading from the manager, the track had a different title from the one I had purchased, glad that it was just an incorrect title and not the song itself. It will be good if Flipkart can take care of these usability issues.

Flyte is definitely a welcome approach to the Indian online market and adding more collections might attract more users. But only time can tell if Flyte can really survive the online piracy.

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Is Dowry a Crime?

The Hindu opinion column - 'The Other Half: Burn dowry, not women', briefs how dowry is still prevalent in India even in this age. The article also shows numbers indicating how the number of deaths and cases registered against dowry harassment has constantly increased. Definitely burned to death and any physical abuse in the name of Dowry is a crime, but is the act of seeking Dowry itself a crime?

Today Dowry is more or less portrayed as an expectation and demand only from the bridegroom and his family. Also as mentioned in the above article it is believed to an extent that only women are bought and sold in a marriage. Though this might appear to be true at a superficial level, it might not be the case if we look deep inside. There are some obvious invisible hands behind the act of Dowry. Before declaring Dowry as an act of crime one might have to take a step back to see how marriages work in India and the role of Dowry in it.

Arranged Marriages:
Even though love marriages are becoming common in India, still a significant number of marriages are arranged by families. In case of arranged marriages there is no pressure whatsoever for a family to get their children married to a particular bridegroom. Besides, given the population and sex ratio of India, there should be enough bridegrooms available for the brides. So if at all there exists Dowry then it should be demanded by the bride's family and not vice versa. At least this is how it should be theoretically.

What we see in reality is the reversal of this and often the bridegroom's family is held responsible for the prevalence of Dowry in the society. Assuming that the groom's family is the one that is demanding Dowry, is it possible that without a perennial source of supply, such a demand would have sustained for such a long period of time? In other words Dowry itself wouldnt have survived without a constant support from the bride's family.

This raises the question of why something considered so evil for the bride and her family is supported by themselves.

In a typical arranged marriage, the bride's family has a set of expectations about their son in-law and how their daughter's future family should be. This expectation may vary anywhere from a steady monthly income to an accomplished professional with a solid financial background. Of course there is nothing wrong in this as every parent would want to get their children married into a better family irrespective of their own status.

So in order to secure a groom of their expectations the bride's family is ready to give what the groom's family expects and sometimes even if the groom's family doesnt expect anything. This is just to ensure that they get their groom of their expectation and also to make their daughter feel that she has some something to hold on when entering into a new family.

One might state that marriages are union of minds and the groom's family should not insist or demand anything materialistic. But then shouldn't we also insist that the bride's parents should not seek a groom with any materialistic expectations like steady income, family background, type of job etc.? So the price of the groom or how much Dowry a groom's family can demand or insist is to an extent set by the bride's family. So in cases like this Dowry is a mere price for how much the groom and his family is worth of.

Even though the bride's family has no compulsion to get into a marriage with a family who seeks Dowry, they still get into it voluntarily with a desire to provide a life of their expectation to their daughter. In such a non coercive arrangement, where the bride's family has every opportunity to not get into an arrangement with a family seeking Dowry; the dowry is just a voluntary exchange of what the individuals are looking for.

In this case can seeking Dowry be considered as a crime ? If so then seeking a groom of certain expectation should also be considered as a crime ? After all this expectation is the one that sets the price of the Dowry or sustains the Dowry in the society.

Love Marriages:
In case of arranged marriages its not a surprise when parents seek or pay Dowry for the reasons mentioned above. Its really a surprise in case of love marriages. Unlike arranged marriages the bride has more say in a love marriage and the groom is decided irrespective of the parent's expectations. So unlike arranged marriages, here there is no demand-supply or expectations issue. In spite of this if Dowry is transacted in a love marriage, then it must be voluntary. Moreover, in a love marriage a bride has more opportunities to say No to any form of Dowry if she thinks it is is immoral or illegal and so does the groom. So again here Dowry is just a voluntary transaction and there is no compulsion for any of the parties to comply with it. In spite of this if Dowry was taken or given should it be considered as a crime?

Post Marriage:
Not often a prospective groom and his family are accused of seeking Dowry. As long as the groom is ready to get married, the bride's family is happy. The problem starts mostly post marriage when the girl is being physically or mentally tortured for further dowry. Even here the physical or mental abuse is definitely a crime, but the act of seeking Dowry? How something that was not considered as a crime before marriage by the bride's family turned out into a criminal act after marriage?

In cases where Dowry was transacted before the wedding, it is unfair if the bride and her family were silent before the wedding and later use the anti-dowry laws to accuse the groom and his family for seeking Dowry especially when the marriage turns into a failure. Shouldn't the bride's family be accused as well for being accomplice in the first place if Dowry was paid before or during the wedding ?

Obviously there may be cases where the groom's family didn't seek or promised not to ask Dowry initially and later when the marriage is over start insisting on it along with physical and mental abuse. Cases like these are no different from extortion and are clear violation of individual and property rights. No individual has any form of right over the other's property unless it is voluntarily given. These cases might most likely fall under under any existing laws for manhandling and property disputes.

Moreover, another question to be asked here is, is Dowry the only reason woman being abused in a household. Earlier there were cases about women being abused for not bearing a child, then for bearing a female child, then not bearing a male child, for their social behavior etc. So if not not Dowry then there is going to be something else as long as woman are being dependent on their husband's and in-laws and treat them as demigod. As Amit Varma writes here Women should learn to be independent and able to walk out of bad marriages if required. Only when women especially wives are not taken for granted in a household, that's when all these abuse and burning to death will actually come down.

Now going back to the original question, is Dowry still a crime? Given that in most cases its been a voluntary transaction between two families which doesn't affect the society itself as such, and any coercive way of seeking another person's wealth would/should fall under existing property laws, do we still need to criminalize Dowry and have laws to control it?

Dowry may be a moral or ethical issue depending upon an individual's standard of ethics but definitely not a legal or criminal issue when it is done voluntarily without affecting others rights.
Enforcing moral correctness by means of man made laws is not only a violation of individual rights by itself but will eventually result in abusing the law as well.

Anti Dowry laws are no exception to this and has already gone through a lot of criticism for its misuse.

Amit Varma article in India Uncut:
On Dowry Law Criticism in Wikipedia:

Friday, 3 February 2012

In Other Rooms, Other Wonders

'In Other Rooms, Other Wonders' is a collection of short stories by Daniyal Mueenuddin. Most of the stories, in fact all the stories are told in the backdrop of Pakistan's rich and poor. The characters and the narration doesnt reflect much about the period in which these stories are told.Simple language, narration and characterization keeps the book engaging.

The uniqueness of fictional short stories are the way they are ended. A nicely engaging story abruptly ends leaving it for the reader to decide what happens next. Such abstract endings are like double edged sword; they make the most memorable as well as easily forgettable stories, not only in books but in movies as well. 'In Other Rooms, Other Wonders' is no exception.

The interesting part of the book is the way the characters have been related. Though each story is about different individuals, some of the characters are cleverly borrowed from the previous stories which makes it look like the lives of these characters are interconnected but not their story itself. In a way this type of characterization portrays how the stories of people around us are closely overlapped but still there exists a disconnect. Disconnect in such a way that each one is oblivious of other's joy and sorrow. May be that's what the title implies - In Other Rooms, Other Wonders.

My picks are 'Nawabdin Electrician' for its ending, 'Lily' for the farm house and 'A Spoiled Man' for Rezak.

Sunday, 29 January 2012

Rights of Man

'Rights of man' - Thomas Paine's response to Edmund Burke's 'Reflections on the Revolution in France'. The book is divided into two parts.

In part 1, Paine starts with explaining the rights of individuals, the distinction between natural rights and civil rights, how every civil right is derived over a natural right and that these civil rights should not invade the natural right of the individuals.

He goes on to explain the evil of aristocratic or hereditary Government and how despotism is not restricted only to the Kings but also spreads all the way to the end of the system. Paine's Government is a system elected by the people and not the one formed arbitrarily. Paine's idea is that any Government principles and policies should be built over a strong Constitution like the one proposed by Marquis de La Fayette in the French National Assembly: 'The Declaration of the rights of Man and of Citizens' .

In a separate section Paine also provides his observation on these fundamental rights and explains how the below first three declarations form the basis for the rest.

  • Men are born, and always continue, free, and equal in respect of their rights.Civil distinctions, therefor, can be founded only on public utility.
  • The end of all political associations, is, the preservation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of man; and these rights are liberty,property,security, and resistance of oppression.
  • The nation is essentially the source of all sovereignty; nor can any INDIVIDUAL, or ANY BODY OF MEN, be entitled to any authority which is not expressly derived from it.

Complete list here.

Though the book was written in simple direct language, it was not easy to comprehend without any background on the French Revolution and history of France. Besides this, as the book itself being a response to Burke's book, it was difficult to understand the context having not read Burke's.

Nevertheless one can still understand the core thought of Paine from his quote in the very first page of the book: "Society is in every state a blessing, but government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil"

Paine believes that Government,Tax and War are interrelated. The tax collected in the name of war is actually the revenue collected for the Government as the primary revenue for the Government is from tax. To Quote Paine:

"Whatever is the cause of taxes to a Nation, becomes also the means of revenue to a Government. Every war terminates with an addition of taxes, and consequently with an addition of revenue;" (pp:93)

Through his response to Burke, Paine covers some of the prominent issues prevailed during the French Revolution and the necessity for not only the French Revolution but also the earlier American Revolution.

Its been 200 years since this book was written, but many of his thoughts are still relevant, especially the ones on individual rights and Government.

"As war is the system of Government on the old construction, the animosity which Nations reciprocally entertain, is nothing more than what the policy of their Governments excites, to keep up the spirit of the system. Each Government accuses the other of perfidy, intrigue, and ambition, as a means of heating the imagination of their respective Nations, and incensing them to hostilities. Man is not the enemy of man, but through the medium of a false system of Government. Instead, therefore, of exclaiming against the ambition of Kings,the exclamation should be directed against the principle of such Governments; and instead of seeking to reform the individual, the wisdom of the Nation should apply itself to reform the system." (pp:93)

My favorite one was about Ignorance:

"Ignorance is of a peculiar nature: and once dispelled, its impossible to re-establish it. It is not originally a thing of itself, but is only the absence of knowledge; and though man may be kept ignorant, he can not be made ignorant. The mind in discovering truth, acts in the same manner as it acts through the eye in discovering objects; when once any object has been seen, it is impossible to put the mind back to the same condition it was in before it saw it." (pp72)

This reminds me of what Michael Sandel had said :"Self knowledge is like lost innocence. However unsettling you find it, it can never be unthought or unknown."

Overall, part 1 of the book could make an interesting read for some one with the background of the French Revolution and has read Burke's Reflection. Otherwise the book might excite only at places, but still there is enough food for thought.

Saturday, 28 January 2012

Wake Up

This time of the night
when you wake up
wake up not midst of an awful dream
nor by an unsettled mind
but to wake up
like a seamless horizon
between sleep and awakening
and with a serene mind
is a pleasure in itself