Friday, April 29, 2005


Apologies for the non-existence of the blog for some time; in fact, I had become so unfamiliar with it that I used to come back myself and see what I had written. However, the event- an important graduate seminar, was worth it for me.
This is the culmination of a sort of a minor journey for me, and hopefully, the beginning of a long interest in smell and perfumery. I won't belabor the reasons why I got interested in the first place; my review of the book that started me on the path is here. Suffice it to say the seminar was a general success, quite exciting for me, with many questions and speculations from the audience. I hope they enjoyed it too. Now, I feel as if an elephant has been lifted off my shoulders, except that in this case, the elephant also had to carry the weight of a controversial theory...

As an unexpected treat after the seminar, I finally got to watch the much awaited Oliver Stone's JFK, a monstrously convoluted and riveting film, one of the true classics that I am going to encounter for a long time. I was so impressed that I promptly ordered the DVD from Amazon, an impulsive act that I have very rarely submitted to.
JFK is simply awesome. There are no words to describe the meticulousness and detail that Stone weaves into his movies. The whole scenario, the flashbacks, the social and political milieu in the movie has you in such a grip, that by the end you eerily start to feel a part of the movie. In this particular case, the event is so historical and so decisive, that Stone manages to all but put you in the courtroom trial, where the talented Kevin Costner launches into a lenghty exegesis, an absurdly far-flung, but convincingly enacted and extraordinarily soul-searching defense of the 'conspiracy' of JFK's murder. Kevin Costner plays Jim Garrison, the District Attorney of New Orleans, who had brought up the possibility of a conspiracy to kill JFK, repudiating the Warren Commission's report. In the one and only known case where an accused (businessman Clay Shaw) was brought to trial in the JFK assasination, Garrison tried to convince the American public, that the event was too big to have been orchestrated by the lone wolf Lee Harvey Oswald. For doing this, he brought so many characters, details, and events to the table, and argued so passionately about his convictions, that many people were all but convinced, especially if it had been anything close to what it was in the movie, that JFK's assasination was a conspiracy.

The movie is more than three hours long, and this is one of the reasons why it engulfs you completely. During this time, Garrison uncovers a web of conspiracy, ranging from janitors to the President himself- participating in this are a host of bizzare and sordid characters; businessmen, FBI agents, homosexuals, top military and political officials, communists, Castro supporters and almost everyone else who lived in the United States during the Cold War. The most extraordinary thing in the movie- quite typical of Stone's work- is the bizzare cinematography, the disturbing juxtaposition of images from the past and present, in different locations, in black and white and in colour, in different textures and formats, that keeps your attention on every detail that the story offers. This juxtaposition looks like a jigsaw puzzle, which itself is juxtaposed on the puzzle of JFK's assasination. We are a part of the jigsaw puzzle, and we almost get the feeling that we are 'solving' the puzzle with Jim Garrison.

Kevin Costner is outstanding. This role is reminiscent of his role in The Untouchables. He seems to be perfect for such kinds of roles in which he has to play the determined, somewhat naive, charismatic brave underdogger, whose job is to expose the truth with conviction and integrity. Gary Oldman as Oswald is so convincing that you sometimes don't know who is the real Oswald and who is the actor (especially because Stone combines documentary style real footage with fiction). An extended exegesis by Donald Sutherland of how the Pentagon and the White House may have been directly involved is both a little unnerving and perhaps too extreme in its length. Nonetheless the characters, the events, and the details that Garrison uncovers look so interesting, that they begin to sound completely real.

The success of this movie can be gauged from the fact that upon its release, it brought about a public outcry to declassify some of the documents related to JFK's conspiracy. Stone's work and attention to detail are so outstanding that the movie actually resurrected many people's beliefs in a conspiracy. In a bid to put an end to the whole affair, the Government finally released thousands of documents, including technical and forensic reports. Experts were asked to definitively assess the ballistics of the bullet that killed the President. In the end, all this seems to finally put all fears of a conspiracy to rest.
(In fact, I remember; Ex President Jimmy Carter is an honorary professor at Emory and frequently comes to address the students. In one session, a student asked him yet again, quite directly, whether Lyndon Johnson was involved in JFK's assasination. Carter put on a straight face and quite simply explained why he did not believe so)

In the end of course, the doubt about a conspiracy still won't die. The JFK assasination goes much deeper than just the death of a beloved president. It exemplifies our need to believe- the man was so universally admired and he died such an unexpected early death, that just like the death of a close loved one, his death sticks around in the minds and hearts of the American public. This was compounded with a sobering and whirlwind decade that was probably the most remarkable in twentieth century American history, one that was marred by the greatest triumphs of the human spirit as well as its greatest follies, and the loss of innocence engendered by a war that nobody wanted, and finally by the assasination of three men (JFK, Bobby Kennedy, and Martin Luther King) who in their own special ways, were champions of freedom. For America, it was a turning point, a watershed that left deep marks of every kind. JFK's assasination, in a way, was just the beginning of this. And people wanted to make sure, even when convinced beyond any kind of rational explanation, that they have left absolutely no stone (no pun intended) unturned.

In the end, as one historian said, it is a matter of psychology. The twentieth century was a century of big causes and their correspondingly big consequences; Hitler and World War 2, the Nazis and the Holocaust, Nixon and Watergate. But in the case of the JFK story, a big event is not balanced supposedly by a correspondingly big cause. People find it hard to believe that someone as important as JFK, who was under the aegis of history itself, could be killed by a small fish such as Oswald. It had GOT to be communist conspiracy; people believed this as if only proving that it was a communist conspiracy would do justice to JFK's death. However, life is always stranger than beliefs, and we yet find it hard to come to terms with the fact that the most grand events can frequently be orchestrated by the most mundane causes. But we have to, sometime...
Stone's movie is surely one of it's kind, and one that I will remember and treasure for a long period of time, in spite of the fact that the plot in it, no matter how fantastic, is simply wrong in the end.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005


In January, Harvard's President Lawrence Summers made a statement that landed him in a controversial cascade, when he said that genetic differences may account for the poorer performance of women in academia.
While this statement is quite unsubstantiated, and Summers is admittedly not qualified to say something like this (he is an economist, who earlier was secretary of the treasury), the issue again raises the ever simmering question about the representation of women in academia, especially in the sciences, and in various avenues in the world in general. The issue is very complex, and I have here, only a few musings and questions, mostly questions...

Let us take India. As far as I can remember, in general, girls were always better than boys in school, and in college, when it came to academics. They were simply smarter, harder, and more sincere workers. This is a fact which is reiterated, year after year, in the 10th and 12th standard merit lists. In fact, girls outnumber boys, both in number and largely in quality, even in the engineering and medicine courses, and also the humanities and science courses. If this is the case, I always ask, why don't we find a larger proportion of women on faculties in top universities in India? Why don't we find women making groundbreaking scientific discoveries in places like the India Institute of Science, for example? Why don't we find women authoring textbooks, in both the sciences and humanities? Why don't we find more women lending their expertise to Government and private committees?

I really can speak primarily for the sciences. A recent survey showed that women equalled men, and in fields like biology, even outnumbered men, until about the PhD. level, which approaches in the mid 20s. After that, there is a steady and steep decline in their number, until you find very few women in the files of researchers and teachers among the postdocs and beyond. Clearly, I think this indicates that the pressures of marriage and family do not allow them to spend as much time as is necessary on scientific research, especially a field which requires unusual devotion, time, and patience to one's interests and work.
I believe that even today, women are not truly encouraged by Indian society as a whole to pursue a career that would largely require them to work on their interests, any interests, with abandon. I don't know what is the "solution", if any to this problem, because, as parents, both of the sexes being completely engrossed in their work is definitely detrimental to the well-being of the children, as is proven by scores of cases in the Western world. Whether we like it or not, even today, we have to agree that when there comes a time to truly make a choice, it is almost always the woman who gracefully bows out and decides to shoulder the lion's share of the household responsibility. Why she does so is by itself an interesting question worth exploring. Is it again the social forces that unknowingly prod her in taking this stance, or could it be due to a fundamentally ingrained genetic mother's and caretaker's instinct? (which would put a completely different and unexpected, and in many ways an opposite, spin on Summers's argument)
What surprises me is that even in the US, the number of women who are top researchers, writers, and science administrators is comparatively small (I say this paying due respect to Linda Buck, who won last year's Nobel Prize in Medicine, and whose work forms an inspirational part of my own seminar :-). Why should it be so in a country that hardly is lacking in opportunities for anyone, irrespective of their sex? Again, I don't know the answer.

I would like to relate an observation I made. While this may sound politically incorrect, it is surely not meant to be so, simply an observation. All my life, I have met many intelligent girls and women (my mother, sister and grandmother being the foremost ones of course ;-). However, I can confidently say that I have hardly met any intellectual girls. I remember girls who used to stand first in the class all the time, but had never heard of Karl Marx, or who could not not talk about the basic tenets of Darwin's theory of Evolution (except by reciting the points in the textbook by rote, which was necessary for the final exam). Later on, I went to Ferguson, where surely some of the better students in India (at least in Pune, which in the first place is, I believe, a true educational hub in India) study. I found the same trend. Many very intelligent girls, hardly any intellectual girls. To this day, I am at a loss to explain why this is so. One paradoxical reason I can think of is that the very social forces that encourage girls to receive higher education also channel their resources and talent to meet the traditional and conservative needs of society. For example, do middle class parents encourage and groom their daughter to become well-educated, largely because they think that that's the most likely way she would get a commensurately well-educated husband? I mean, this instinct definitely plays a role; the question is, how much? To get a good husband, perhaps they also think that their daughter should not be a non-conformist when it comes to studies. Maybe that's why they make sure that their daughter focuses only on those things that are well-recognised as good and intelligent by the establishment. In such a case, a girl studying in 12th standard would do anything but not focus on 'getting good marks'.
This plausible hypothesis could also be the explanation for why this same ardor and dedication to excellence rarely continues for many girls, after they finish up with college (engineering, medicine etc.) Apparently, now they have reached the pantheon of suitability that their parents had dreamt up for them since they were born. Now, all that remains to be done is for them to get married to a successful man, get a good job that would allow them to devote enough time to their family, and have children whom they could be proud of; if it's daughters, they would continue on the instilled tradition. I understand that this is not a policy which is forced on their daughters by authoritarian parents (although in some manifest cases, it definitely is). But I wonder, and sometimes believe, if it is part of the social atmosphere of the middle class, a well-meaning gesture which nonethless has the potential to tip the balance of gender opportunites in the overall scenario. It is not so much of an issue of 'getting a good husband' as it is of conforming to the traditional woman's psyche which has been around for hundreds of years, especially in a patriarchal society like India.

Another observation I made in Ferguson; when it comes to the 'real' humanities like sociology, psychology, languages etc., girls in general are definitely better than boys. For example, in Ferguson, for many years now, girls form more than 90% of the group that majors in psychology. I am sure it's similar elsewhere. Again, the same question arises. If that is the case, why aren't there more top women psychologists working as counselors, teachers, and writers?
However, I am at a loss to explain why girls never shone in the sciences, at least in the limited scenario I have witnessed. Note again that I am not talking about 'getting good marks'. That, many do. What I am talking about is engaging in serious intellectual scientific debate, and making scientific arguments that demonstrate wide knowledge and critical thinking. I am sorry to say this, but I don't remember meeting a girl quite like that. In fact, even among the very bright girls who were in my class in 12th std, I don't remember any outstanding girl who could be classified as an intellectual. Why is that so? Again and again, I made the same observation about most girls; intelligent, yes; intellectual, no.

Even in the humanities, it is very surprising to see that there are no women who have won Nobel Prizes in Economics, very few who have won prizes for Literature and Peace, and hardly anyone who have made fundamental advances in social theories, or even authored outstanding textbooks. In fact, when it comes to Nobel Prizes, there are women in the sciences, more outstanding than any male scientist I have ever come across, who have made fundamental discoveries. They managed to balance family with research, and even managed to stay happily married to the same man all their lives! That was simply extraordinary.

One thing I always contend is that I believe women are emotionally more intelligent than men, and they are much more competent at understanding, as well as resolving human emotional and organizational conflict. In spite of this, how many women are CEO's of top companies in the world, or head major administrative Government committees on public policy? Here, I think that it is because many of these women are simply not as aggressive and assertive as their male counterparts. I think they should be.

In the last few years, I have come across some very intelligent ladies, some of them through blogging :-)
They are as well-read, intelligent and intellectual as the smartest guy I know.
But I keep on wondering about the dearth of truly exceptional intellectual women in my college and university days, and in the world in general. While Summers's claim is unsubstantiated, in the long term, I think that it is absurd to see this as a battle of the sexes. If there are many outstanding women in the world, and if the sheer, unconscious, and subtle constraints of a male dominated society are holding back their talent, then not only is it a great injustice to them, but a fantastic missed out opportunity to tap the general pool of human knowledge and ability, that leads to progress. In a world that already has more than it's fair share of general problems of every kind and variety, the last thing we need is gender bias that would in any possible way predispose women towards not being effective contributors to society.
Sans the ravings of the authors of "Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus" etc. I think that if it's really going to uncover beneficial truths, this is a question worth exploring and conducting research into.
Is it really nature or nurture??!

Friday, April 08, 2005


Yesterday, I saw "Sometime in April", a haunting portrait of the events in Rwanda 11 years ago. It told the story of a Hutu soldier who married a Tutsi woman, and how he and his family fought heart-rendingly to stay put during the hellish crisis that was one of the worst of its kinds in history.
How can we even begin to describe a massacre in which 800000 people were killed in about three months, 10000 on the first day itself? How can we describe an atrocity in which people were killing their countrymen as nonchalantly as one would kill cockroaches (In fact, that's exactly what the Hutus described the Tutsis as in broadcasts over 'hate radio'). Lists were circulated of the people who were supposed to be killed, and absolutely no one was spared. Women, children, old people, everyone was cut down. That is the right phrase- cut down; machetes were the weapons of choice.
It ended with the greatest massacre of the century after the holocaust. How can we comprehend it? I think it is at such times that we begin to feel the inadequacy of language to express our emotions.
The most important thing is that it happened only 11 years ago in 1994. That is the most shocking fact about it. In a world that is supposed to be rapidly on the way to a progressive ideology and is supposed to have grown very wise from witnessing the most destructive century of conflict in its history, how can such things keep happening?

And I think that's where we are wrong. We assume that simply because such horrendous events have happened, we will learn from them and they won't happen again. That's not what history attests to. I would think that nothing of this sort would happen after the holocaust. But I think that's where we always make a mistake; in underestimating man's brutality toward man. We have not really become any wiser. We should learn that no matter how much atrocity we may witness, man is still the same man as he was. In fact, the mollifying shroud of "civilization" makes us forget this. And I believe that that is what we must understand; that we may have 'progressed' (whatever that means) but we simply haven't become any more civilized than what we were at any other time in history. Once we begin assuming that we have become more civilized, we are let off our guard, and we don't watch out for such events happening again. That should cease. In awareness lie the first hopes of a solution. We have to realise the presence of the devil among us, literally a Dr. Hyde, who is never dead, just dormant. If we assume he is dead, he can easily take over our sanity in the heat and glory of our ignorance.

The other thing which I realised is how disconnected worlds are on our own planet. The film also focused on a lone government official in Washington, who was probably the only one in the Clinton administartion who realised the gravity of the situation. All the time, her pleas fell on deaf ears. One of the most absurd exchanges took place between this conscientious woman and a top ranking military official.

Woman: Why can't we jam their hate radio? That's causing the most damage and killing.
Official: O we have looked at that option. Too expensive.
Woman: Look, you have to realise the unprecedented magnitude of this situation.They are broadcasting hitlists over radio as casually as songs.
Official: Let us not take away the perspective here. Radios don't kill people, people do.

It is astounding how some of the most well-educated and capable officials in the most powerful country in the world submit themselves to such inane and downright ridiculous statements. Worse, they do this under the name of logical analysis and profundity.
When the cameras shifted alternately from the blood ravaged streets and homes of Rwanda to the sleek, sophisticated streets of Washington, full of women and men who were making their daily commute to law offices, government buildings, and business houses, it truly seemed hard to believe that both these places co-exist on the same planet, that the beings inhabiting both these places are of the same species and motivation. In lifestyle, thoughts, and actions, there seems to be absolutely no connection between the two. Empathy is a foregone word.
No matter how much 'progress' we have made in the last century, it is at times like these that we should realise that we have a long long way to go before there is true equality in the world. Especially in North America, I think that people have been so firmly grounded in their exalted way of life and incredibly high standard of living, that most of them forget about the world around them, and more importantly the fact that it is different, and still as respectable as their own. I don't believe all of them do this out of conceit, but they do it simply because they cannot think any other way. It is very easy for them to think of the Rwandans as 'uncivilised'. Somewhere, they forget the deep common ties that bind them to every human being in the world, no matter how different their ways of life.
In the April of 1994, America and most of the world waited, deliberated, and did very little because they could not relate to a small African country, whose name most of the world's citizens had never heard before. What they perhaps did not realise is that what happened in those three months was a blow to their own human ethos, in which they shared as much as the stricken people of Rwanda. As human beings and world citizens on the way to a better world, they had as much to lose as those terrified schoolgirls hiding in a church who were massacred systematically. For the people of Rwanda, I feel pain, and for all of us, mostly pity.

Sunday, April 03, 2005


Today, I visited Warm Springs, Georgia. This trip held particular significance for me, because one of my most respected characters from history had breathed his last there- Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR), 32nd president of the United States for an unprecedented four terms, from 1933-45. I don't have admiration for politicians as such, but two extraordinary personalities stand out for me in this regard, Winston Churchill and FDR. I have also heard a lot about both of them ever since I was a child from my father, also an admirer.
As the unflagging leader of the people during two of the most tumultuous periods in that nation's history, the great depression and WW2, FDR is undoubtedly one of the greatest leaders in the history of the world, even to those who don't know much about him. Of course, as a history buff, it was a special trip especially for me.
FDR contracted a severe case of polio in 1921 and almost completely lost use of both his legs. A friend recommended him to go to Warm Springs, because the naturally warm spring water there was supposed to be a "cure" for polio. FDR liked the place so much, that he had a retreat built there, which came to be called 'The Little White House'. Before he died, he would regularly make many trips there. In most of FDR's photographs, the press in a remarkably careful way, chose not to show him in a wheelchair; he was always portrayed by them as a robust and physically active man, their sign of gratitude to him.
In Warm Springs, FDR also got a great opportunity to interact with the common man, and the poor farmers of Georgia. He reached out to these people, and probably more than any other US president except Lincoln, he became a people's president. This was admirable given the natural affluence in which he had grown up in one of the most posh areas of New York.
Both in the depression and during WW2, his charisma, inspiration, leadership and warmth provided unparalleled support for Americans. He began a series of famous radio broadcasts called 'fireside chats' in which he opened his heart and mind to the people on all topics from the war in Europe to social security. During those chats, all everyday life in the country would momentarily stop, and everyone's ears would get glued to the radio.
Ironically, he did not live to realise the fruits of his great efforts. On April 12, 1945, three weeks before the allies took Berlin, the ailing man was posing for a portrait in Warm Springs, when a sudden stroke ended his life. (I am one hundred perecent sure that had this not happened, he would have been elected yet again)
His funeral train, which snaked through the South, from Georgia to Washington, was visited by almost 2 million Americans of all kinds, colours and creeds, stunned and weeping. This showed how unifying the love and respect for a truly great leader is. One of my good friends with whom I went to Warm Springs recalled how her mother had cried upon hearing about FDR's death. My friend was just four years at that time, but it is an enduring memory.
As many said, they had lost their best friend...
The Little White House is almost perfectly preserved. There were not many people visiting today, and almost all of them were old people, who no doubt were drawn to the place by vivid living memories of FDR. His living room (where he was sitting for the portrait when he collapsed), his bedroom with his bed and the chairs, the kitchen, Eleanor Roosevelt's bedroom, and even the guest room and servants' quarters are kept almost the way they were; records of moments and events frozen in time. Luckily, since there was hardly anyone visiting, I excused myself for a few moments, and could quietly stand alone in his bedroom for some time. My thoughts wandered to the countless accounts of his generosity, compassion and conviction that I had read. I believe there are very few politicians who could be truly called great. FDR is surely one of them.
Two pictures follow. Unfortunately, flash-photography was not allowed inside the house, so some of the pictures were blurred. Incidentally, many parts of Warm Springs are almost exactly the way they were when FDR died; somewhat decrepit constructions from many decades ago, interspersed with large patches of lined up deciduous trees, with essentially no civilization in easy sight. Although this picture adds to the authenticity of the place, I think this indicates that even today, many parts in the south are among the more neglected parts of the United States.

P.S.: The title of this post reflects the quote by Roosevelt from an inaugural address. Many times, it is wrongly ascribed to JFK. Another thing. Many biographies of FDR have come off the press. Many say that THE definitive biography of his is Conrad Black's magnificent "Franklin Delano Roosevelt- Champion of Freedom", which I have been browsing. The only thing which could potentially put off readers is its ominous size- well over a thousand pages. Hoping to finish reading it in the next decade or so.