Tuesday, July 08, 2014

A debate on morality and absolute good or bad

I was recently debating with my mother on the necessity of absolute good or bad. My contention was that nothing is absolute, all is relative - morality more than anything, since actions cannot be seen outside of the context that they take place in. My mom, on the other hand, seemed quite horrified at the idea of my moral agnosticism, and argued that some truths are absolute. For example: one must be kind.

My argument against moral absolutism was principally that the truth we know or perceive is coloured by our experiences or senses, and that there is no way of arriving at a common axiom. E.g. I think that green is the colour of leaves. I have no way of knowing how anyone else sees green. Similarly, I experience happiness, sadness, pain etc in ways that are particular to me - i have no way of knowing for sure how others would experience it. Ergo - what i think is right or moral may or may not be moral to someone with different contexts or experiences. Therefore, there cannot be an absolute axiom or truth.

Drawing this even further, the only question is therefore - Why am I here? Why do I live? And the answer (at least the least offensive one to me) is that i live to maximize my happiness. Someone gets happiness by being moral, and someone else gets it by being immoral. To each his own.

The debate ended without conclusion, but i have recently found sympathy with my point of view in no less a person than Hamlet. Check out what wikipedia says about the philosophy behind Hamlet:



Hamlet is often perceived as a philosophical character, expounding ideas that are now described as relativistexistentialist, and sceptical. For example, he expresses a subjectivistic idea when he says to Rosencrantz: "there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so".[75] The idea that nothing is real except in the mind of the individual finds its roots in the Greek Sophists, who argued that since nothing can be perceived except through the senses—and since all individuals sense, and therefore perceive, things differently—there is no absolute truth, only relative truth.[76] The clearest alleged instance of existentialism is in the "to be, or not to be"[77] speech, where Hamlet is thought by some to use "being" to allude to life and action, and "not being" to death and inaction.
Hamlet reflects the contemporary scepticism promoted by the French Renaissance humanist, Montaigne.[78] Prior to Montaigne's time, humanists such as Pico della Mirandola had argued that man was God's greatest creation, made in God's image and able to choose his own nature, but this view was subsequently challenged in Michel de Montaigne's Essais of 1580. Hamlet's "What a piece of work is a man" echoes many of Montaigne's ideas, but scholars disagree whether Shakespeare drew directly from Montaigne or whether both men were simply reacting similarly to the spirit of the times.[79]
In his openness to embrace the message of the ghost, Hamlet assuages Horatio's wonderment with the analytical assertion, "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy."

Thursday, July 04, 2013

Must See!

Reminds me of engineering days :-)

Saturday, April 06, 2013

On an airplane

I write this on yet another aircraft. In a very difficult position. This is because my little princess is fast asleep on my lap. I have just sung her songs for the past 50 minutes to get her to sleep. 

Elina and I are going together to delhi to her dadu and dadi's home while her Mom stays back in chennai. When most people hear this they are surprised. Their being surprised surprises me, because Elina and I have been travelling together since she was not even two. Perhaps there is something in the old saying about the bond between fathers and daughters. Or maybe she is just an absolute darling who is easy to manage.

One thing I've never been able to understand is why planes make passengers sit straight / switch off phones / wake up once they 'begin their descent'. this is generally a full 30 mins before actually landing. Seems very suboptimal to me. Especially when you have a tiny princess sleeping in your arms and you don't want her to wake up. 

I hope and pray she is able to sleep soundly all her life. She is now smiling in her sleep. Probably having a pleasant dream. My heart melts totally and I'm unable to write anymore.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

More Ishiguro

I read Sputnik Sweetheart on a couple of airplane rides on my new iPad. Typical Ishiguro stuff - metaphysical, poetic, abstruse and spooky. The best part about it was that it is short and has a single event as its main plot device.

However, two weeks out, I remember it as a bit of mumbo-jumbo. I preferred Dance Dance Dance instead. At least it had a lesson for me!

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

The concept of father

On an airplane, reading poems of William Blake, I come across one called Little Boy Lost. It makes me think of the concept of fatherhood. I always thought of my father as all knowing, all wise and all powerful. Only when I grew up, perhaps in the twenties, did I figure out that Father was also a human being. Now he is a friend, an ally, and a staunch supporter.

I am now a father myself. I wonder what my three year old thinks of me. Does she see me as I saw my father? A distant, powerful entity hovering in the background? Or does she think of me as her confidant and cheerleader? When she is upset, or insecure, she seeks her mother. She wants to cuddle with mother while sleeping. She complains if father kisses her too much, since she gets scratched by his 'gaadi' as she calls it. 

I wonder if my daughter knows of the immense depth of my love for her. Her lightest smile makes my day. Her most frivolous wish is my command. Sometimes I miss her so terribly that tears come to my eyes. Perhaps when she grows up and becomes a mom, she will read this. And think with love of her father, her greatest cheerleader and her biggest fan.

As I think of my father today.

A nice movie and general rumination

I saw Kai Po Che recently and loved it. I haven't read the book, so had no idea of what would happen, or even how it compares to the book. What I liked, apart from the songs (which I think are really brilliant - my daughter concurs wholeheartedly!), was the idea of the main protagonist - your beliefs are worth dying for.

Generally speaking, I measure movies by how much they make me think, or how much they change me, and on these metrics, this one is a winner! I loved all the actors, the story, the direction, everything.

May I have the courage of my convictions always!

Speaking of movies, I somehow really like the type of roles that Deepika Padukone plays. The definitive one coming to mind is the one in Love Aaj Kal, where she is a generally happy, modern, easy going girl. The pretty looks don't hurt either, I guess. Strangely enough, the other role of hers that I can think of is from Kartik Calling Kartik. Now that is another movie that really hit it on the head for me. Indeed, given I still remember it quite well after 4(?) years tells me all I need to know about its quality.

Strangely enough, other movies that I thought I liked when I saw them (eg ZNMD / Talaash) don't make it to this list anymore.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

One equal temper

My favourite scene from Skyfall...

Monday, February 11, 2013

An ode to gin

When I was younger, I could quaff untold quantities of beer. It was my favourite drink by far. These days however, I find myself unable to go beyond 2 pints - anything more and my digestion gets messed up. The good news is that I'm not particularly missing beer. Gin and tonic is the new elixir. Such has been my dedication to the stuff, that most people in my family (wife, mom, dad, even grandmom!!) have become gin converts. May the tribe increase!

A recent article on the miracle drink and its history -

Indian Made Foreign Liquor is not a term that promises well. It admits upfront that it is a substitute and probably an inadequate one given that oxymoronic Indian-Foreign pairing. Add to that the knowledge that it is made from extra-neutral alcohol distilled from molasses, flavoured and blended to resemble whatever you want, and your expectations will not be high.

The exception, of course, is rum, which is made from molasses anyway, and Old Monk has always been justly celebrated as the one really good Indian liquor brand.

Is there anything more infuriating than pretentious (and greedy) Indian bars that don't stock Old Monk, but keep random international rums? Such places should be named, shamed and spurned till Old Monk is on their menus! Over the years other IMFL has been improving too, thanks to competition from real foreign brands and the growing sophistication of Indian drinking tastes.

Some premium whiskies are decent (even if, by international standards, their molasses base still make them a kind of rum) and vodkas like Smirnoff are as smooth as you'll get anywhere. I keep hoping that one of the better Indian wineries will grasp the challenge, which is mostly in terms of getting the licences, to distil real brandy from their wine.

Best of all, there are ventures like Amrut Distilleries with their really quite wonderful and authentically made single malt, and now the Goa based Desmondji who can't call their agave spirit tequila for fear of Mexicans sending hit squads after them. It is made from the same agave cactus plants though and tastes pretty good, as does the orange liqueur they are also making, flavoured with Nagpur oranges, so that all the ingredients for a desi margarita are at hand. But there is one inexplicable gap: why is there no good Indian gin?

This is one of the easiest spirits to make - unlike with whisky or tequila, the base material doesn't matter. GrainBSE -4.89 %is usual, but molasses will do, since all that's needed is good neutral alcohol. This is then flavoured with juniper berries, which can be easily imported (though it should be easy to grow them in the hills) and what are called botanicals, a varied mix of spices and flavourings, many of which, like coriander, cassia and orris root, come from India anyway. The mechanics of this flavouring process can vary, but none of it is rocket science.

And gin does not require ageing as whisky and brandy do, so production is faster and cheaper. Gin is also the one spirit with such an intimate connection to India that when Michel Roux, the man behind the creation of the Absolut vodka brand, decided to launch a premium gin that would do for the category what Absolut did for vodka, the name chosen was Bombay Sapphire, and an image of Queen Victoria, Empress of India was prominently displayed on the packaging. Roux and his partners were tapping into the exotic imagery of the Raj, where memoirs of the British in India always have them administering their empire with the help of a constant stream of Pink Gins.

This concoction got its name from the way in which the colourless gin was delicately tinted by a few dashes of Angostura bitters. (The British in Malaysia differentiated themselves by calling this a Gin Pahit, from the Malay word for bitter). When Jeremy Tait, a young British man, was sent to work for the HongKong & Shanghai Bank in Asia in the early 1950s, and landed up in Colombo he met an old friend of his father at the Colombo Club who offered him mango juice.

'I replied, "I think I'd prefer a pink gin." Captain Harper's response was immediate: "I don't know what else your father taught you, but he certainly steered you in the right direction."'

Tait's entertaining memoir, The Obedient Banker, proceeds to describe a career across that Asia that seemed to be spent staggering from one pink gin to another. In Japan he teaches a geisha how to mix one. In Singapore, in the days before Lee Kuan Yew made it the antiseptic place it is now, he sips gin slings watching the transvestites on Bugis Street.

And on one memorable occasion in Juhu in Bombay he and the other bachelors throw a party for all the married couples of the bank where the main refreshment is coconuts filled with gin and plum brandy. The couples are so overcome by this that many have to request retiring rooms to sleep it off. "We thought no more about it until almost a year later when several of the married couples reciprocated by inviting us to Christening parties."

In this, as with all the many British alcoholic memories of India, gin features so large for a fairly basic reason - it was a cheap and easy way to get drunk. Whisky was more expensive, rum was seen as a drink for the army and navy, while vodka was still unusual outside Russia. Gin's citrusy, spicy notes also had the advantage of mixing well with other drinks and juices, so it was an ideal way to take in a lot of liquid in a climate where one lost it fast.

It was also seen as an acceptable drink for ladies, perhaps because its lack of colour made it seem (deceptively) lighter. Most of all, the British discovered it made a brilliant marriage with tonic water, the bittersweet concoction that was originally devised as an easy way to take malaria fighting quinine by mixing it with sugar and soda. Gin and tonic had a vague connotation of health, which certainly helped justify knocking it down in quantity.

Yet this popularity became the problem. Throughout the history of gin we see alternations between periods of high consumption, followed by equally strong reactions against it. Most drinks go in and out of fashion, but only gin seems to do it in such extreme ways. After the 1960s, when expatriates like Tait became scarce in India, a reaction against gin set in.

The Indians who still drank it were derided, as Sagarika Ghose did in her novel The Gin Drinkers, as overly Westernised and alienated in their own country: "Gin with soda. Straight or on the rocks. Or with bitter lemon. Gin at the Gymkhana. Gin on the verandah. Gin at the club with cocktails at six o' clock. Gin was liquid colonialism."

Depictions like these, combined with the emergence of vodka as a stylish, less historically loaded, clear spirit, seem to have lead to gin's current sorry status. With few consumers, Indian manufacturers didn't bother investing in upgrading from the really raw tasting, crudely flavoured versions that they keep just to round out their portfolio. Yet a gin revolution is taking place abroad and it is time India caught up with it. We'll look at it in the second part of this column.