Monday, November 28, 2005

Plucked eyebrows, caviar facials, waxed chests, pink shirts. Welcome the urban Indian male in his brand new avatar: the metrosexual. The man who's as comfortable with multani mitti facials as he is with corporate finance spreadsheets. Or electric drills. Or better still....gurgling babies.

Cosmetics for men had hitherto meant all those colognes and after shaves. Throw in some more and we had deodorants and other toileteries. All that is passe. Today man in his quest for the skin beautiful is trying out skin care lotions. Emami's new fairness cream fair and handsome targeted at men has caught the market by the storm. The ad has a male model trying to woo pretty women with his complexion lightened by applying the cream. Says Emami's director Mohan Goenka "Our initial worry was men would be shy and not buy it. But these fears have proven unfounded."

From New Delhi to Chennai, male grooming centers and unisex salons are popping everywhere. Vikram Bahl, brand manager, Gillette India says a study they commissioned shows that Indian men spend an average of 20 minutes in front of the bathroom mirror every morning as opposed to 18 by women. "The global average is 44 minutes for men, but I'd say Indian men are catching up quite fast, considering the fact that it was looked upon as effeminate to do more than comb your hair just five years ago," he says. In other words, the moisturized, sweet 'n' seductive smelling, well-tweezed man is here to stay.

But beauty as we all know, is not skin deep. And so for a sculpted and beautiful body, an increasing number of men are going under the scalpel for breast reduction. Plastic surgery centers show an increase of about 30-40% in the number of men opting for breast reduction that costs anywhere between Rs. 30,000-Rs.40,000.

The wind is shifting in the advertisement world too. Savvy well groomed male models endorse products ranging from electronic gadgets to cookware. Diapers may soon join the roster.

And it's not just about the clear complexion, spruced look, stylish clothes and accessories. For the metrosexual, maleness is stitched seamlessly into feminity. The man therefore has a fine aesthetic sense, is sensitive and romantic and not embarrassed at all to be in touch with the feminine side of life.

The sarkar our mai baap is not far behind either. In an effort to encourage more fathers to take care of their drooling babies, the Central Govt. has approved paternity leave for its employees. Rajasthan's Vasundhara Raje Govt. has done the same at the state level. Other state governments are contemplating paternity leaves as is the All-India Federation of Universities.

SO...apply that face mask, diaper the baby and head to the corporate boardroom.....the beautiful and sensitive man has arrived.

PS. Enough digressing in the last two posts. The next post will be on Ursula Ke Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness (as requested by AS).....some gender benders there.....

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Two years ago it was Satyendra Dubey in Jharkhand. Now it's Manjunath Shanmugham in Sitapur. Two young men ruthlessly killed for exposing corruption and nepotism. Dubey, the talented and upright IIT Kanpur graduate, was supervising the Golden Quadrilateral National Highway Project when he noticed large scale misappropriation of funds. After suspending a few officials, he wrote to the PM office about the corruption underway in this mega project. The mafia got whiff of it and he was murdered.

Shanmugham, a sales manager with the Indian Oil Corporation and an alumni of IIM-L earned the ire of the local petrol outlet mafia when he canceled the license of a petrol pump and blacklisted several others for selling adulterated oil. For this he was beaten and shot dead. His body was found on the back seat of a car. The two local petrol pump employees driving the car were on their way to dispose off the body.

Is this the path India must take, to superpowerhood of the 21st century. Bribery and corruption lauded and rewarded while honest, educated Indians get bullets through their skull. It is a well known fact that petrol pumps are treated as jagirs by our netas and given as as gifts to their goons. That the petrol pump-corruption nexus is strong came to light after Kargil, when hefty bribes were demanded from the families of martyred servicemen for allotment of petrol pump outlets. The PM needed to intervene to set things straight.

Often the PMO is not left untouched. As in the case of Satyendra Dubey. Dubey in his letter to the PMO had said "Sir, don’t mention my name." But he had ended by revealing his identity. Later when he was pressured and threatened he wrote again "Sir, my identity has been leaked. You would appreciate that this disclosure has exposed me to undesirable pressures and threats." But no letter or appeal for help could save him. Neither could the then PM, Atal Behari Vajpayee, be bothered to pay a visit to his family to offer condolences.

There has been tremendous outpouring of support and solidarity. However the chances that the real culprits will be brought to book are pretty slim. Best case scenario, the murderers will get a life sentence. But the men who masterminded the murder would still be sipping their sherbets and watching the sunset from their balconies. Ordering a CBI inquiry wouldn't mean much either. Two years after CBI took over the Dubey case there hasnt been any progress. On the contrary they concluded that it was a case of road robbery. The accused after having escaped a couple of times has been rearrested recently. One wonders if the judges will finally get to see him, much less issue a verdict on his crime.

I don't know if there is anything much we can do except write and philosophize. Two years ago the Dubey murder resulted in several public interest litigations. At the Supreme Court's prodding, the central govt was forced to empower the Central Vigilance Commission with the Whistle-blowers Act to act on the tips from whistle-blowers and protect them. Can something positive come out of collective public opinion this time around too?

The least we can do is raise our e-voices. Those of you reading this please go to
and show your support.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

At her palace in Ayodhya, Sita draws a portrait of Ravana: a portrait that comes to life in her bedroom. Upon discovering this, Rama seized by jealous rage orders Sita killed. If this bit isn't sufficient to create a safforn riot on blogosphere, here's more.

Sita jumps into Ravana's funeral pyre. Says she before being consumed by the flames:
"You, Rama, rejected me because you fear that my body was defiled by his touch, though you know my heart was pure. This anti-god wanted my heart, even though he knew my body was taken by you. Some day, intelligent people will know who was a nobler lover."

Unbelievable, yet true. These are excerpts from the different forms of ramayana- variously called ramakathas, ramakirtis, ramakiens or ramajatakas- or the story of Rama. From India to South East Asia, the ramayana has taken on countless forms: forms which reflect the religious, linguistic and social traditions of the region. It has been recited and sung in various forms of art and dance and its performances have graced royal courts and lowly huts. From north India to southern Thailand, its stories and events have been extensively rewritten and refashioned. As renowned historian Romila Thapar says of the plurality of the ramayana "The Ramayan does not belong to any one moment in history for it lies embedded in the many versions which were woven around the theme at different times and places."

Many Ramayanas ed. Paula Richman (Univ. of California Press, 1991) is a collection of writings that explores the diversity of this tradition. This epic composed by the poet and sage Valmiki around 600-800 BC is the story of the trials and tribulations of Prince Rama of Ayodhya, his banishment into a forest for fourteen years, the capture of his wife Sita by demons and his war to win her back. Valmiki's narrative has undergone numerous changes and its strong religious overtones altered, depending on the group that appropriated the narrative. From India to Sri Lanka and Thailand, Hindu, Buddhist and Jain variations of Valmiki's story show that apart from the regional variations, there were different versions within each language and region. My favorite is the divergence of the women's oral versions from Valmiki's text.

In women's oral traditions, the ramayana theme, would, unlike Valmiki's text, include domestic matters, games played by Rama and Sita and descriptions of life in a joint family. There is little to no mention of wars and battles. In "A Ramayana of their own" Velcheru Narayan Rao describes the various Telugu versions of the ramayana songs recited by women. It is interesting how these versions extensively incorporate the traditions and lifestyle of these women besides adhering to caste and hierarchical structures. So that while Brahmin women's songs would describe Kaushalya's labor, Rama's birth, his wedding festivites, Sita's wedding gifts, warding of the evil eye etc. the ramayana of non Brahmin women or women of lower castes who often performed menial jobs and worked in the fields was more rooted to the land and nature. The themes here were the life in the forest of Rama and Sita where Sita tended to the animals, cleaned the home and courtyard and cooked. Clothes, ornaments, rituals were almost absent in this version, as were hidden sexuality and description of feminine modesty. This perhaps afforded the space in an hierarchical society for women or lower castes to subvert the authority of patriarchy and tell their own story.

Many ramayanas is divided into three sections: the first section deals with the major refashionings that occurred due to Buddhist and Jain influence while the second section describes the more recent versions such as those composed during the 12-19th century. The last section is devoted to the ramayana of the different Hindu darshanas or philosophical schools.

With the rise of Buddhism from 300 BC and its strong influence on Hindu traditions the ramayana was not left untouched. The compassion and ahimsa of the Buddha could not be reconciled with the blood and gore of battles of Hindu gods and kings. Buddhist jatakas therefore had to deviate from Valmiki's text. The enemy was no longer personified and war and victory became spiritual aspects. A strong Buddhist element in terms of a secular non casteist orientation was also incorporated. The Jain versions, too, avoid descriptions of wars and blood baths and miraculous events. Also Jain monks considered themselves as thinkers, hence these versions also devote equal sections to Sita, Lakshman and Ravana. In short, an effort was made to correct the errors of Valmiki's texts.

This continued with the later versions such as Kampan's Iramavataram composed in Chola courts in the 12th century. Retellings had hitherto experimented with the characterization of the male protagonists. Here for the first time Kampan altered the Surpanakha story. Unlike the traditional Valmiki text where Sita and Surpanakha embody the two extreme forms of womanhood-the former pure, chaste and subordinate and the latter evil, impure and insubordinate-Kampan chose to portray Surpanakha as an exquisitely beautiful and chaste woman. Perhaps her beauty did entice Rama and Lakshman and rejecting their advances could have aroused their anger.

With the advent of the British came the enthusiasm for English and western classics among the educated elite. Milton's Paradise Lost and Homer's Iliad would provide a young Anglicised Bengali, Michael Madhusudan Dutt, a new perpective for a literary refashioning of the ramayana. Dutt's epic poem Meghnadvadha Kavya is a retelling of that episode of the ramayana where Ravana's son Meghnad is killed by Rama's brother Lakshman. Dutt's sympathies clearly lay with Ravana-Ravana and his clan were glorified while Rama and Lakshman by opposing him were shown in a poor light. Clinton Seely's "The Raja's New Clothes: Redressing Ravana in Meghanadavadha Kavya" shows how Dutt affects the reader's response by repeated juxtaposition of Krishna's and Meghnad's tales. His comparison of the deceitful slaying of the sons of the Pandavas with Lakshman's killing of Meghnad in cold blood is intended to win more support for the Ravana camp. Says Seely of Dutt's magnificent work "The master poet has slyly woven his central Ramayana episode so as to suggest heroic raiment for Ravana rather than Rama."

The vast diversity in the narrative of the ramayana is indicative of the cultural complexity and historical variations across regions that have had an Indian influence. These retellings and refashionings probably convey the local political and social views of the times in which they were composed. Religious and social reformers have often retold these stories with emphasis on a more egalitarian ideology. It is indeed unfortunate, that this epic is often presented as a monolithic tradition as the version of the ramayana. Serials on Indian television and other media often advance this one form of ramayana. By doing so we negate the complexity and diversity of the ramayana tradition.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

The road from Darwin's theory of natural selection to the Francis-Crick DNA structure was a long one that took more than a 100 years to traverse. And although most scientists, including Darwin himself, had a hunch that there was a hereditary substance that passed on characters through generations, it was only in the 1950s that this was narrowed down to the deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) of the chromosome. However, once the mystery of the DNA, its structure and its role in passing on information started to get unraveled, biological thought became extremely gene-centered. That adaptation could occur only through natural selection of chance genetic variations became the biologist's mantra. However recent advances in molecular biology are causing a gradual change in our concepts of heredity, genes and evolution.

For the last two decades Eva Jablonka and Marion Lamb have been trying to understand the manner in which biological systems operate and transmit information through generations. In Evolution in Four Dimensions: genetic, epigenetic, behavioral and symbolic (MIT press) they lay out some startling and conceptual theories that are changing the way in which we view heredity and evolution. What Jablonka and Lamb posit is that in addition to genetic systems in evolution (i.e. information passed through the DNA) other non-DNA inheritance modalities such as those based on epigenetic, behavioral and symbolic (language and culture based) forms also exist. Together these four provide all the variations within which natural selection acts and evolution proceeds. In other words these pathways intersect and form a tangled web through which the transmittal of biological information occurs.

Examples of the epigenetic systems are specialized cells, such as cells from the liver, heart, kidney etc. of an individual that despite possessing the same genetic information are completely different. This is possible because of the "information" introduced at a developmental phase (usually embryogenesis or the period of embroyonic development) that tells them which genes need to be turned off or on. Interestingly these cells can transmit this information of their specialization to their daughter cells.

A highly recommended read, this book is a must for lovers of genetics and evolutionary biology. Simple to read and well illustrated, the authors use examples from day to day life to prove their point. They are, however, on slippery ground with the last two hereditary systems, namely behavioral and symbolic, atleast at far as biologists are concerned. Jablonska and Lamb argue that if two sets of populations have different lifestyles then it is possible that over thousands of years they would evolve differently; that is to say that their behavioral patterns may be significantly diverse. Could a new invention and its social diseemination possess the potential to alter an organism's long term behavior en masse? Examples in the animal world are very few and far between. Again the role that symbolic inheritance, the fourth hereditary system, plays in evolution of a species is somewhat controversial. Symbolic implies the transmittal of information by acquiring and organizing knowledge and by thinking and communication through symbols such as language. The bank of acquired information ensures that every successive human generation does not have to reinvent the wheel. But the million dollar question to ask would be whether or not symbolic transmittal can add a developmental dimension to a species: a dimension that functions irrespective of the environment?

Diammetrically opposite to this cocktail of hereditary systems is the gene centric thinking. The other day there was a report on BBC on an article that appeared in New Scientist. In a study done in the UK, the appearance of 59 women was monitored daily over a period of 6 weeks and linked to their estrogen levels. Two composite pictures were created: one was an amalgamation of pictures of 10 women with the highest estrogen levels and the other was 10 pictures of women with the lowest levels. And lo and behold....higher estrogen translated into greater attractiveness. And we had a battery of experts linking all this to evolution and so on and so forth. As expected, there were queries at press conferences on whether or not estrogen injections would affect attractiveness. More importantly the study also showed that make up could indeed "make up" what you had lost in terms of the estrogen lag from your foremother.

Now these sort of sweeping statements linking one gene or protein product with a trait may sound very mind blowing but in reality these are nothing but broad statements painted with a broader brush. What geneticists actually study is the correlation between a gene and the possibility that it might affect a particular index related to a trait....whether it acts alone or in combination with other genes and products is unknown.

The human biological system is not a binary code operating on 2 genes. For a long time now we have known the relationship between DNA and genes and that between genes and proteins. We also know that the DNA or the linear sequence of units where each position in the sequence can only be occupied by any one of a set of four nucletides determines the protein that will be made. And that one wrong nucleotide can produce a defective or dysfunctional protein that may sometimes cause a disease or a set of diseases. However this does not mean that a single gene always codes for a product and changes in that gene and hence that product will cause changes in phenotype. And what it certainly does not mean is that a computer print out of one's genes (with a light brush stroke of the environment) would determine characters or physical traits in a person. These traits such as appearance etc. are the sum or combination of various genes producing one or more proteins under different conditions (environment), all of which might interact in various ways.

Coming back to the BBC report, let me also clarify (lest I sound overtly critical) that estrogen does play a very important role in terms of regulating the expression of a variety of genes involved in development, metabolism, and reproduction. In addition, estrogen-estrogen receptor complex affect (but do not exclusively control) cardiovascular protection, bone preservation, neuroprotection, and proliferation of various cell types. So clearly estrogen is important in certain indices that can be measured by some biophysical parameters but to link it to a concept such as attractiveness is a bit far fetched. For starters, attractiveness cannot be measured in the way a biophysical index can be....although it is still very difficult to link genes to these indices. If you dissect is a function of a number of genes and their products which probably act through multiple interactions and which have certainly been switched on or off much before there are eyes, cheekbones, hair, eyebrows, skin tone, muscle and many more. Cellular and developmental networks are too complicated to predict what effect high estrogen may have on all of these.

Perhaps the time has come for all of us to realize that the interpretation of biological information involving genes and their protein products is complex and depends upon countless factors. Add to that an environment that we do not even know how to define. It is only when we start to understand the networks and dynamics of how multiple genes, their products and the environment interact that we may be able to get a fuzzy glimpse of the whole puzzle.

Monday, November 07, 2005

This day marks the 88th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. At the Russian capital of St. Petersberg the Bolsheviks overthrew the Provisional government -the one that had replaced the Tsar- on this day. The Russians followed the Julian calendar at that time; hence 7th November was read as 25 October. In view of the magnitude of other messes by the holy Commies, however, a date mess up would seem insignificant.

Yet they made sure not to mess up propaganda: the black and white sell-USSR-to-the-world documentaries of the 60s and 70s with happy, healthy and smiling faces, for instance. The print media enjoyed its own version of pandering to soviet success. Cheerful farmers, leaders comrades-in-arms with mill workers, men and women astronauts, smiling Olympic champions, robust and cheeky kids in their mothers' arms.....all greeting the readers of every Soviet journal. Before 1990, journals such as Soviet Nari were available thoroughout India at ridiculously low prices through a gazillion publishers. The fall of the USSR rendered this category of heavily subsidized journals almost extinct. Vostok was the most popular Soviet publisher in India. In its heyday, it operated across the country through numerous bookstores and offices. Now only a few metros mark its limited territory.

In addition, all those rosy-happy-healthy pictures have become sparse since 1990. When they appear, they're often juxtaposed with vignettes of the fall of Berlin wall, the long lines in ration stores, the agitating citizens on the streets and the toppling and vandalizing of the statues of leaders- such as Stalin, Lenin and Dzerzhinsky. The last by virtue of being the founder of Cheka, the precursor of KGB, could have been the winner in nastiness, most likely. The images of cheering and jubilation amongst the population as his statue fell to the ground was not, therefore, very unexpected.

There is yet another image. That of Boris Yeltsin standing in quiet prayer in this huge medieval church as the bones of the Tsar and his family were laid to rest at St. Petersberg. Strange, but it took 80 years for justice and humanity to prevail and for a man and his family to earn a decent burial.

That also put paid too all the numerous speculations on which of the Romanovs may have escaped the Bolsheviks. When the bones were dug out a few years after the execution in 1918, one set of female bones was missing. This fact received tremendous publicity: since the early 1930s, several characters appeared at different intervals at various European capitals claiming to be Anastasia (Princess Anastasia, The Tsar's youngest daughter) and Alexei (Prince Alexei, the Crown Prince or Tsarevitch). There were so many Alexeis and Anastasias that it is said that they could have started a mini Russian revolution had they so desired!! But their stories are full of holes and therefore highly suspect.

Shay McNeal in her book The Secret Plot to Save the Czar: The Truth Behind the Romanov Mystery details the possibility that the Romanovs may have escaped the firing squad. The author contends that the execution of the Romanovs was a lie fabricated by the Bolsheviks in order to weaken the forces of monarchy and hold on to power. However, one wonders that if holding on to power was the motive, then killing the Tsar would have been a better strategy. Letting him live would keep alive the possibility of his return and thus their own defeat. In 1918, shortly before the Tsar's execution the imperial army was advancing at such a pace that the Bolsheviks feared defeat.

But what might have happened to the Tsar and his family after they fled from Ekaterinberg. There are no answers. The Tsar commanded immense resources in Europe via his connections; his cousins were King George V and the Kaiser of Germany and his loyal friends occupied influential positions in France, Italy and even the United States. But he would have to escape from Russia first. And the road from Ekaterinberg to an Eurpean capital would be a long one indeed.

There have been numerous movies on the topic too. One of these, a televised serial called "Anna Anderson" was based on the life of a woman who claimed to be the lost daughter of the Tsar, till the DNA fingerprinting proved her to be an ordinary Polish worker. From a-farmin' to the Kremlin might have been a more appropriate title.

Yet Shay McNeal puts in pages and pages of painstakingly researched documents.....bolshevik documents that show that the western powers including the United States (Charles Crane, advisor to Woodrow Wilson played a leading part) were trying to negotiate the Tsar's release by paying up a huge sum to Lenin's and Trotsky's coffers. No more was heard about the negotiation later.

During Yeltsin's presidency, the bones were dug out from a mass grave in Ekaterinberg (it is rather ironic that this was the town where Yeltsin had begun his communist career decades ago) and their DNA fingerprinting revealed a match with Prince Philip of England (the closet living relative of the Romanovs). A team of experts then separated what remained of those bones into various coffins and the grand burial took place in St. Petersburg. Thus all stories of the Romanovs’ escape were laid to rest as well.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

This is the first day of bookduniya. The first hour of its existence....the name came up after a few hours of intense thinking (?!). If this is the state of my calcified brain I shudder to think of the days ahead, when the blog takes shape as a site where (you've guessed prizes) we discuss books and authors.

Will start this blog with a post on the works of H.H. Munro (Saki). Hector Hugh Munro (1870-1916) was a satirist and a man of brilliant wit. Adopting a pen name (Saki or "cup bearer") from Khayyam's Rubaiyat, Saki went on, in his old fashioned and charming language, to describe the Edwardian society of his time...a society with a strict adherence to a social structure with its attendent norms and graces on the outside...and dull and decadent from within. Through his satire and the witticisms in his dialogue, he also went on to show how weak and close to collapse that system was. The beautiful ladies, the dashing officers, the haughty duchesses, their gossip amidst the lavish dinners served in exquisite china, the manicured gardens, the cheroots, the shikars and the worlds of the young Reginalds and Clovis'. That world no longer exists and the fast pace and noise of the present ensures that the old world fades away carrying with it authors such as Saki whose subtle and nuanced style in portraying the lifestyles of the privileged of that era is quite unparalleled.

One of Saki's popular short stories is Mrs. Packletide's Tiger. As with a significant part of Saki's works, this too is set in British India. Mrs. Packletide, a lady of immense wealth, suddenly decides to compete with the Joneses...and what better way to posterity than to indulge in a tiger shikar or tiger hunt followed by snapshots of the hunter posing with one foot on the torso of the hunted. In Saki's own words "It was her pleasure or intention that she should shoot a tiger. Not that the lust to kill had suddenly descended on her or that she felt that she would leave India safer and more wholesome than she had found it, with one fraction less of wild beast per million of inhabitants."

How she manages to do that without putting herself at any risk and how the old tiger actually dies of fright from the noise of the rifle while the bullet hits the tethered goat (such a markswoman was Packletide) makes for some laughter.

Here's another sampler:
Therefore did Mrs. Packletide face the cameras with a light heart, and her pictured fame reached from the pages of Texas Weekly Snapshot to the illustrated Monday supplement of the Novoe Vremya. As for Loona Bimberton, she refused to look at an illustrated paper for weeks, and her letter of thanks for the gift of a tiger claw brooch was a model of repressed emotions...(I always marveled at the delightful last bit)

Saki died in his early forties. His writings, most of which are in the form of short stories, have been published in a volume titled Complete Works which is both a pleasure and a delight.