Thursday, July 16, 2009

Short fiction: The train

She stood there next to the doorway on the tube, a stylish Gucci bag slung casually over her shoulder, her formal suit & briefcase indicating that she was employed in a high profile corporate job. “Must be an investment banker”, I mused; as she self-assuredly communicated succinct instructions to some underling on her sleek mobile phone. I watched her, fascinated, impressed by her confidence and poise.

As she spoke, she momentarily removed the cooling glasses obscuring her eyes. I was startled to see a visible ugly gash near her eye marring the otherwise flawless face. A purple wound- still capturing the violence with which she was struck-it was obvious that she had been brutally hit (“by an abusive boyfriend or husband?” I thought to myself). “How can a girl, so obviously accomplished and confident, allow herself to be subject to such callous brutality”, I thought. Her eyes wandered briefly in my direction, and she realized that I had noticed it.

Her face colored, as she felt exposed; her humiliation revealed to a total stranger, privy to her worst demons by nothing more than a passing glance. Her expression was a confused mixture of annoyance & defiance; annoyance at my inadvertent violation- as if by just realizing her predicament, I had transgressed some unspoken boundary between strangers; a facade of defiance- by pursing her lips; the show of emotional strength belied by the pain in her eyes.
She melted, as she realized from my expression by own embarrassment. My silent empathy was wordlessly acknowledged by her, a shared experience of an intensely personal nature, amidst the chaos of a noisy train.

I was confused as to how to react. My hand half-outstretched, unsure whether to offer comfort; and confused if that presumptuous act would break the tenuous bond that we had built. Would I embarrass her by indiscreetly acknowledging the intimacy of our brief encounter? My confusion led inexorably to inaction, as I got down at the next station- the deep & ineffable interaction likely to leave a lasting impression despite its ephemeral nature.

The creaking doors shut slowly, our gazes locked with each other, as she evanesced along with the train, her eyes still mirroring her pain & gratitude.

I never saw her again after that day.


Catastrophe strikes!: No tickets are available from Bhutan to India for next 2 weekends! Wll be stuck here indefinitely, wihtout being able to meet family for close to a month.

Depressed mood leads (as always) to Urdu poetry. Here are snippets of this poignant poem by Faiz Ahmed Faiz, soulfully rendered by Abida Parveen (I've included only the first and last verse which best describe my state of mind!)

Nahin nigaah mein manzil to justujoo hi sahi,
Nahin visaal mayassar to arzoo hi sahi.

If the destination eludes sight, let the search be;
If union defies attainment, let the longing be.

Dayaar-e-ghayr mein mehram agar nahin koi,
To Faiz zikr-e-watan apne ru-ba-ru hi sahi.

In this abode of strangers, if no confidant exists,
Then Faiz! Let the invocation of homeland, with yourself be.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Pattern-recognition, not data-crunching (or why my mother is as accomplished as Kasparov)

Practically everyone thinks their mother is the best cook in the world. Let me assert that all of them are wrong, because my mother is clearly the best!

The distinctive feature of my mother’s cooking is her inventiveness. She can literally concoct new dishes with a dizzying array of ingredients across different cuisines. Succulent Indian vegetables & spices would add just the right amount of tanginess to a continental dish; a mélange of Mexican ingredients would find themselves in the midst of Indian roti-curry. And these disparate ingredients would all somehow come together to make culinary magic!

Truly good cooking then is not so much about knowing a wide array of recipes; it is really about knowing how ingredients work together. It is an art of being able to work with rules or ‘good moves’. This article ( I read recently also talks about the same- master chefs are not storehouses of a zillion recipes, they are artists who can compose something new by creative application of heuristics that they pick up over the course of time. Cooking is hence, a pattern-recognition and not a data-crunching problem.

I remember reading an article about chess players that pointed to a similar thinking process. Grandmasters and professional chess players are expert pattern recognizers, not people with either elephantine memories or faster computational ability.

2-3 observations indicated this: Chess pros were no better than laymen or amateurs in rearranging chess pieces on a board that they were shown, if the pieces were randomly arranged (making it an ‘illegal’ position in chess). This showed that superior memory is not the cause for the difference in chess ability.

Similarly, self-reporting by chess pros showed that they had not evaluated more moves than amateurs before deciding their move. So it wasn’t even faster data crunching that explained the difference.

The true difference was in the pattern recognition- chess pros evaluated less ‘bad’ moves than amateurs. It is almost as if they had developed (or were born with) a filter that left out bad moves, just as amateurs would not evaluate illegal moves.

It is this knowledge of heuristics that distinguishes good chess players- they probably would be thinking stuff like “never sacrifice a pawn after castling if you’ve lost a knight”, “use a rook to check, with a knight threatening the opponent’s queen” and so on, just as a great cook must be thinking “Use cardamom with sautéed vegetables only if either tofu or mushroom is part of the salad” etc.

In fact, this would likely be the case with all art- it is the application of a wide range of ‘rules’ in varied permutations. We probably would not be able to identify all the rules, neither would a true artist be able to articulate them. But subconsciously, they are working with patterns, and therein lies their wizardry

The new feminist agenda: Eat rice, not rotis!

My time in Bhutan has left me with time to blog once again. After a 2 year hiatus (after heroically managing to put up all of 4 posts), I hope to blog regularly this time.

In the tradition of ‘Freakonomics’, my latest musing is a wacky hypothesis on the reason for south Indian women being more socially empowered than those from the north.

Marxist methodology always seeks to explain social behavior and phenomena (the ‘superstructure’) in terms of underlying ownership of economic resources (the ‘base’)

With that thought- here’s the wacky hypothesis: South Indian women are more empowered since the South is (predominantly) rice growing, while the North is largely wheat growing.

The cultivation and harvesting of rice is something that women can (and do) participate in, since it requires deft work to remove the paddy from the fields, unlike wheat, whose harvesting requires heavy labor.

Women are thus part of the wealth-generating, productive employment in the south, which would lead to greater power and say even on social issues.

Secondly, the consumption of rice as compared to wheat also favors greater female empowerment.

Cooking rice has huge economies of scale (in terms of time invested) - cooking for 8-10 people (the typical size of a joint family) does not take much more effort than cooking for 2-3 people. It is possible for a woman to cook the rice and have her meal with the rest of the family

With wheat (as in roti, chapatti etc.) however, the cooking process does not have any economies of scale. Cooking 20 chapattis requires nearly 20 times the effort of cooking a single one. This coupled with the fact that Indians like to have their food hot, means that women have to spend their time slaving away cooking one roti after another for the family, and will end up having their own food only after everyone else is done.

The effect of this on a male child in the house too, is that he sees his mother as subservient to the male members of the family, hence retarding the rate of change & female empowerment

Bhutan itself is largely rice growing (over 60% of the population here grows rice). Unsurprisingly, women in Bhutan are highly empowered, owning most of the land & running most of the businesses. Even socially, they have an equal status with the men.

It will be interesting to see if women are noticeably more empowered in other rice-growing countries in the world (Vietnam, Philippines etc.)