Sunday, July 26, 2015

Work, till retirement!

A group of children were playing at the foot of a small hill on the outskirts of the village. There was a small cave on the hill and the children were advised never to go near it.  While playing, the ball with which they were playing flew and fell near the entrance of the cave. One of the bold boys went near the cave to fetch the ball. He ventured to go near the mouth of the cave and stood there for sometime. Other kids too mustered courage and went near him. The group slowly went inside the cave. They did not find anything interesting there. While retreating, one of the boys saw a big egg lying in the corner of the cave. The children had never seen anything like that and decided to carry it to the village to find out what it actually was. The village headman saw it with other elders around, but nobody had seen such a big egg in their lifetime. It was kept on the stone slab in front of the big banyan tree. In a few minutes, it became the center of attraction in the village. A large crowd gathered around it and each one gave his own version about the egg.

One of the villagers suggested that they take it to the oldest man in the village and seek his opinion on it. The old man was now sick and bed ridden. The village headman carried the egg to his house as the old man could not come out on his own. The old man saw the egg and was excited. He said that he had heard about such a thing from his father, but he himself had never seen it. He suggested that the item be taken to the nearby village where his father stayed with his brother. His advice was duly carried out and the egg was taken there. No need to say that the entire village followed in a procession. When they went near the house and called out, the father came out to meet him. They were surprised when they saw the older man walk to them on his two feet clutching a stick for support. He was in much better health than his son. He examined the egg and said that his father had mentioned to him about such a thing when he was young. He said that it was not an egg, but possibly a corn. He was not very sure and advised the group to take it to his father who lived in another village, on the other side of the river. 

The headman and the group now proceeded to the village on the other side of the river. When they went to the house in which the grandfather lived, his great grand daughter told them that he had gone to the forest to bring firewood and forest fruits. The group waited for his arrival and found that he walked without any support and carried a big bundle of firewood on his head!  When the egg was shown to him, he was thrilled and danced holding the corn in his hands. He told the group that this was the type of corn his father grew in their farm and he grew up eating bread made from such corn in his childhood. He got the corn crushed and bread prepared out of it. A small piece was served to all the villagers.They found it extremely tasty and nice to eat. The grandfather told the gathering that due to bad practices in growing crops, the size of the corn has come down over generations and reached the present size. He also said that due to the loss of nutritious content in the corn, the food is never tastier now as it was when he was young. He mentioned that the strength humans derived from such corn is also not seen nowadays. The group which had seen the three generations of men that day did not require any more proof for what the old man opined!
I have a colleague Professor who is a bundle of energy even at age sixty-three. The energy with which he gets into a class at 9 in the morning can be seen when he comes out of another class late in the evening.  While we were having lunch last week, he mentioned that he was availing leave next day as there was a cataract operation scheduled at the eye hospital. I wished him a "happy operation and get back quickly".  He smiled and said that the operation was not for him but for his father!  Wow!  He said his father is now 96 years old and has developed cataract problem and is being operated next day. I asked another foolish question. "Is it the first cataract operation?". He again smiled and confirmed it. At the age of 96 years his father travels alone in the train from their village to Bangalore, a journey of about four hours. He does not travel in autos in the city and comfortably moves around in the city buses. He does not like to waste money by hiring autos. He can squat on the floor and sit for hours. This is indeed something to learn from when people much younger give up trying and often say that they have become too old for many things.

One of the leading Public Sector Banks recently celebrated its 108th "Foundation Day". A big function was arranged in the city to mark the occasion.  In the midst of various tastefully crafted cultural programs, an eminent educationalist was honored. The distinguished gentleman, Shri M N Raju, replied to the felicitations and his words deserved their weight in gold. Shri Raju started working at the age of 9 and never went to a school as a child. He worked as a helper to a carpenter and supported his family as a young boy. He later worked in a school for over 20 years and during this period availed only four days of leave. He later founded the first education institution on 15th August, 1974. MNR group today has 41 institutions in India and abroad in which more than 42,000 students study. The institutions impart skill-based education and has learning from "KG to PG".  Shri Raju works even today for the fraction of a salary paid to his professors in the institutions.

Shri Raju had a question for all the assembled audience in the function hall.  "What are you going to do after retirement?', he asked.  He also replied the question himself. "God has given us this wonderful tool called human body. It has enormous capacity. Use it to the fullest extent and pay back your mite to the society. Remember, there is nothing called retirement at 55, 60 or 65.  For a human being, there is only one retirement. That is the final retirement, from this world. So, it is "Work, till that retirement", he concluded. 

The above two instances reminded me of the story of the big corn and the three generations. This was the story I had read as apart of my schooling in the seventh standard. Everybody may not able to preserve the agility of the body or the mind like the two veterans mentioned above.  But that need not preclude one from trying on those lines.  Try, we must.  As long as possible.......

Sunday, July 19, 2015

You are never alone, Now!

Daniel Defoe's "Robinson Crusoe" was a favorite story for us in our school days. There used to be a subject called "Craft" and schools had craft teachers. There would be one or two "Craft" classes each week.  These classes were meant to teach some craft, art or trade requiring manual skills.  The craft teacher we had in middle school was very good at telling stories.  He started the story of "Robinson Crusoe" and it ran like the present day TV serials, for almost an entire academic year.  He would always finish the day's class at a very interesting stage and make us wait for the next class.  Jonathan Swift's "Gulliver's Travels" was another story in his armory. "Oliver Twist" by Charles Dickens was yet another popular story in the classes. These stories would ensure that one full year's calendar was occupied and spill to the next year.  Gulliver's Travels was often quoted as a book read all over the world; from cabinet councils to nursery schools.  May be, Harry Potter has replaced them for the present generation.

"Robinson Crusoe" and "Gulliver's Travels" are now nearly three hundred years old. Daniel Defoe published "Robinson Crusoe" in 1719 and Jonathan Swift's "Gulliver's Travels" was first published seven years later, in 1726.  Robinson Crusoe is the story of a sailor who found himself on a deserted island due a shipwreck which killed all others on board.  The description of the island nearly fits today's Tobago island.  Robinson Crusoe had to spend 28 years all alone in an island fighting with cannibals and managing a life all by himself.  He made a hut for his living, learnt hunting and farming and even made a calendar by making a knife mark each day on a wooden cross. He lived alone with nobody to speak to and almost forgot his language.  He finally liberated a slave from the cannibals and name him "Friday" as he joined him on a friday.  Friday was taught english and together they finally escaped from the island to be back in civilization.  The novel makes a very absorbing reading and was a big hit in the days without modren computers and gadgets.

Living alone is a very difficult stage in one's life as most of us would have experienced at one time or the other. Solitary confinement was and still is one of the most torturous punishments that can be given to a human being. Staying alone in one's own house when other family members are away is also an ordeal for many.  Yet, there are many instances in life when one has to live alone and fend for himself.

These are the days of electronic gadgets, tools and devices. The latest in the list is a new electronic gadget called "Amazon Echo" released by Amazon.  Amazon which brought out e-reader Kindle, touchscreen phones and tablets has now come with its "Alexa".  It is a 9-inch tall, black metal cylinder that can merge with the background when placed on a table, bookcase or with kitchen appliances. (See the picture given alongside). It's bottom part has perforations with speakers inside. It responds to questions with a clear and pleasing feminine voice. It can respond from a distance as well, like from the next room. It does not behave like a husband or wife who pretends as if he or she did not hear your call.  Alexa can understand every member of the family without training and respond to their voices. It is presently named as Alexa, but it may soon come with other variants like with a man's voice and changing the name from Alexa to your boyfriend or girlfriend.

Alexa listens to you but does not respond unless it is specifically addressed as "Alexa".  So, husband and wife need not hesitate to quarrel because Alexa is hearing and watching.  It is like a faithful little child; watches the parents quarrel but does not get involved unless invited to the proceedings.  It is pre-loaded with various useful applications; spelling and definitions, alarm, music, jokes, facts, time and distances etc.  It can get you latest news and weather reports, tell you about the schedules of various sports and games and many such other things for which you had to surf the net earlier. A question asked to Alexa is transmitted to the computer system with Amazon and sent back to it across the internet. Yet, the response is immediate and stunning.  It has capacity to upload your own music files so that you can hear them whenever you desire.

Some examples can drive home its advantages more clearly. Here are some interactions : 

User: What should I wear today?
Alexa: You are never fully dressed without a smile.

User: What is the weather like today?
Alexa: Right now, here in Seattle, it is 68 degrees Fahrenheit with mostly sunny skies.  You can expect more of the same with high of 72 and low of 66.

User: Alexa, I have a headache today.
Alexa: No wonder with all the excess wine you had yesterday.

User: Why don't bicycles wake up early?
Alexa: Because they are two-tired.

Alexa, of course, cannot answer some questions.  Like this one for example:

User: Alexa, My husband is annoying.
Alexa: Hmm, I can't find the answer to the question I heard.

Alexa is not very costly as one would imagine after learning about all these features. It costs less than a reasonably versatile smartphone.  It is priced at 180 US Dollars or about 12,000 rupees now. Its seven microphones can interact with clarity despite other noises and sounds around. Many more features  are likely to be added in the coming days.

If Robinson Crusoe had an Alexa with him when he was left on the island due to a shipwreck, we would never had his story today.

You are never alone. Now, with Alexa around!

Sunday, July 12, 2015

The Last Show

Those were the days without TV and multiplex movie theaters.  Fifty years ago, there were no hotels in small towns.  Even in cities that had a few hotels, the vast majority did not have money in their pockets to pay and hire a rome in them. Managing a few rupees for meeting bus fares was a big affair.  Staying with close relatives and friends when visiting another place was very common.  With no other source for entertainment available for either the host or the guest, the best pastime was to get busy with the children around.  If there were school-going children in the households, the entertainment would be centered around questioning them on what were then considered as teasers.  One of the difficult questions that was being asked was about crows sitting on a tree.  "There are ten crows sitting on the tree. A person shoots down one of them.  How many are remaining now on the tree?", was a very popular question.  "Nine" would be an arithmetically correct answer. The guest would say "None" is the correct answer. "As soon as the shot is heard, other nine crows fly away, leaving none on the tree!", the guest would triumphantly say.  If the boy or girl gave "None" as the answer, having become wise after the same test was conducted by an earlier guest, there would be other similar questions to continue the pastime.
Cricket was a popular outdoor game then as it is now.  Played with a tennis ball in any available small area converted as a cricket field, kids had a great time outdoors playing cricket.  But few could afford to buy a decent bat.  Pieces of wood with crudely cut handles were used as bats.  There were a few boys from a bit better off families who had a good bat got as a gift on some occasion like birthday.  If he had three decent stumps to go with the bat and a tennis ball as well, he would be the natural captain of the team.  One Balu was our captain as he had a full set of cricket gear.  He was not only an automatic choice as a captain, but also made all the rules for the game.  He would be the first batsman or the opening bowler. Others got their chance later on as decided by him.  If you do not agree with him, he would wind up the game and go home with the bat, ball and stumps.  He needed others because he could not play alone; others needed him because he alone had the cricket gear.  Mutually dependent it would seem, but he always called the shots.
Medium sized towns did not have any movie theaters.  Touring talkies or stage plays were the most common out door entertainment sources.  Touring talkies were actually touring ones with collapsible tents and moved from town to town.  One of the popular films they presented was "Satya Harischandra".  In each camp that would last for a few months, last film would be Satya Harischandra.  The mobile canvassing team would announce that the particular day's show would be the last. The last show would go on for several days due to popular demand.  The last show was indeed fun. It was never meant to be the last one; there would be many more last shows!  Everyone knew this.  The tent owners knew it as did the paying public.  And yet, there was always this last show!

Undisclosed income stashed in assets abroad and in foreign banks has been attracting too much of attention nowadays.  So it would seem.  Black money was attracting attention from time to time.  Tax administration is very strict and efficient in our country.  Every third rupee that we earn is snatched by the taxman before we realize it. There is also a wonderful concept called TDS. Common man has many responsibilities towards taxation; TDS, advance tax, self-assessment tax and tax in response to final assessments followed by tax payable on receipt of notices from IT authorities. But there are a few privileged for whom there is another parallel tax administration system. They are the fortunate ones and they call all the shots.

When the present Finance Minister mentioned last year about bringing stringent laws to curb black money and money stashed in foreign assets, members from all parties in parliament worried about the likely targets of such an act and insisted that an opportunity, one last opportunity, was to be given to them to come clean. Finance Minister duly obliged and confirmed that one window of opportunity would be given to them. On the first of this month Finance Ministry has announced that the window is now open. Tax evaders can now come clean on ill-gotten money. There is no need for them to worry.  They have three months time, till September 2015, to make the declaration of such hidden assets.  Then they have another three months, till December 2015, for payment of the taxes.  And of course, this is the last chance.

Fort those with better memory, there was something called VDIS.  "Voluntary Disclosure of Income Scheme" introduced on 18.06.1997 and closed on 31.12.1997 was hailed by the then Finance Minister Shri P Chidambaram as "very unconventional but successful scheme".  The scheme was introduced for those who failed to furnish income tax returns, failed to disclose certain income in the returns filed and those incomes which escaped assessments.  Those declaring such incomes were extended amnesty under the scheme. It was said to be more successful than the ministry had expected. The finance minister solemnly declared: "It is my faith, that given a chance, the people of India can come clean".  An astounding number of 4,66,031 assesses declared undisclosed income of 33,000 crore rupees and the tax collected was 7,800 crore rupees. That the CAG condemned the scheme as "abusive and a fraud on the genuine tax payers of the country" is a different matter.  After all, these are matters of opinions and opinions naturally differ.  But one should appreciate the capacity of those who can come clean as the Finance Minister identified; they not only come clean but also have the capacity to come clean again and again.  They only need repeated chances to come clean.  That is all.

VDIS was not one of its kind.  There were similar measures from time to time individually and collectively.  Some publicized and some not so public.  "The last show" has been going on like "Satya Harischandra" since a long time.


The teaser about the number of crows, the captain of the cricket team who owned the bat and ball, and last show in the tent cinema with which we grew up are all coming together again.  With so much of discussion on stringent laws for undisclosed money and assets stashed abroad, those who had them would have already taken care of them like the nine crows that flew away when the shot was fired.  Those with bat and ball with them indeed call the shots and are capable of influencing the nature and timing of the acts and rules.  They have three months to decide what to declare and what not to declare.  Then they have another three months to sell them or convert into cash when the going is good and the rates and returns are fair.  And above all, they know that like tent cinema, "Satya Harischandra" has many last shows!

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Old is Gold. Really?

"Old is Gold" is a proverb that is frequently quoted by almost everyone. On-line dictionary defines a proverb as "a short popular saying, usually of unknown or ancient origin, that expresses effectively some commonplace truth". It is often a short statement of wisdom that is passed on for general usage. A proverb conveys much more than the words that comprise it. There are proverbs in every language; they symbolize the richness of the respective languages.

The words "Proverb" and "Idiom" are used by many interchangeably. While a proverb conveys a distinct and clear meaning in its entirety, an idiom is a style of speaking or writing that is particular, distinctive or notable phrase that cannot be understood from its individual words.  Idioms make sense only when the words are put together in a certain way or order, or when they are used in specific situations. "Last, but not least" is a popular phrase, though it does not qualify for being called a proverb. It is an idiom and many believe that they have to use "Last but not least" whenever somebody or something is mentioned in the end.

Ashok Kumar is a well known film artiste.  He has acted in many films during his lifetime. When he was acting as a hero in the movies several decades ago, his name was naturally being shown first in the title cards of those movies.  As he became older and moved to elderly roles, artistes much junior to him had to be given precedence in the title cards.  But neither his seniority and stature could be ignored nor the respect he commanded overlooked. The film industry found a way out; title cards showed the names of other artistes first, and in the end it would show "Above all - Ashok Kumar".  But the underlying truth was known to all; his name no longer appeared in the first title card.  Using the phrase "last but not least" often results in this paradox.  If he was really to be above all others, his name should have been indeed at the top.  "Last but not least" could only mean this much: you are not as important as others mentioned earlier; but not unimportant as well.

Let us get back to "Old is Gold".  Is old really gold?  Is it applicable to all old things? Is it not stretching things too far? It is true that many old things are indeed good. But there are some old things that are not so golden. There are many old things that are absolutely useless. At the same time, there are many new things which are extremely good and golden. Whether something is good or golden does not depend on it being old or new. Simply put, good things are golden irrespective of whether they are old or new. 

The debate about "Old is Gold" dates back to several centuries, and possibly over two thousand years. Things that are considered as golden now because they are old were questioned about their utility when they were new.  Even someone like Kalidasa, hailed later on as "Kavikulaguru" (doyen among poets), had to face this question in his early days as a poet.  He has himself asked this question and answered it as well in one of his plays.

In the well-known play Malavikagnimitram, believed to be the first of his three plays, Sutradhara (Director) begins by saying that the play "Malavikagnimitram" will be presented on stage that day.  Another character raises a question about the aptness of staging a new play of modern poet like Kalidasa, when there are many plays of well-known poets like Bhasa, Soumilla and Kaviputra available for presentation on stage. Kalidasa answers the question through the director:

पुराणमित्येव न साधु सर्वम्  न चापि काव्यं नवमित्यवद्यम् |
सन्तः परीक्ष्यान्यतरद्भजन्ते  मूढः परप्रत्यनेनबुद्दिः ||

Puranamityeva na saadhu sarvam, nachapi kavyam navamityavadyam
santah pareekshyanyataradbhajante moodhah parapratyanenabuddihi

Not all that is old is good; nor all that is new is bad
Learned accept as good after due verification; fools go by what others say!

The issue of "Old is gold" has been settled several centuries ago.  Whether something is good or bad is to be decided on its merits alone.  Not based on it being old or new.  It is that simple.  All good things are good.  How to know they are good?  Test them and then decide; not because someone else says so.