March 13, 2010

Learning Persian

Two weeks ago, I found an audio-only Farsi Pimsleur Program in our local library. Pimsleur method is a method that builds vocabulary in terms of blocks, quite literally so. Words are introduced, used frequently, and the words learned previously learned are brought in randomly. The approach helps retention, and with the audio you start feeling comfortable with the sound of the language and learn to speak simple phrases and sentences.

I finished the 4 CDs with about 4 hours of content during my commute in one week. It was fun, and now I have a couple of books to learn the language more formally as well. In 2009, I taught myself to read the Perso-Arabic script, so I don't have to learn the script (which would have made learning Persian even more daunting).

Persian seems to be odd in the sense that it is literally unchanged since the 11th century and of course, is still a living language. The language seems to be easy in the beginning, but it is a very unique language that linguists are still trying to figure out parts of Persian language and debating the mechanisms! I probably already know a thousand Persian words because I know Urdu, though these would not be cognates as the Persian sound register and intonation is different from the Hindi/Urdu ones.

I live in Southern California which has a lot of Iranian-Americans. In fact, one half-Iranian taxi driver was joking that in Southern California, you have to say bebakhshid if you hit a curb. The italicized words means excuse me in Persian. This also allows me to practice my newly learned Persian on native speakers, which I have already done. Yes, I am shameless. You need to be shameless if you want to learn a foreign language.

I love learning new languages. I would have been a linguist if I had the choice and knew what I do now. So far, I have found German to be the hardest language to learn, and I never got beyond 100 pictographs in Chinese. Too bad I have a daytime job and other interests!

India and Shah Rukh Khan: Open Letter or Rabid Nationalism?

Last month I got into an argument with someone who posted an inflammatory email in the mail-group I am a member of. I had absolutely no intention of starting into that argument: all I did was to note how shocking the mail was. This upset some others who started abusing me and questioning whether I was an India and then asked that I be expelled from that group. Astonishing.

The original email someone had posted was the notorious "Open Letter" by Arindam Bandyopadhyay, which I suppose was doing rounds through many Indians' email boxes. I should have done some research on who Mr Bandyopadhyay is, before responding, but I focused on the logic of his argument.

Basically, his claim is that the majority opinion must become the only opinion. He asked Indian Muslims to prove their devotion to India and implicitly assumed the preliminary sympathies of all Muslims lie primarily with Pakistan. Some of my points are listed below.

How can one assume that Indians, Hindus even are a monolithic culture? With 3.3 million gods and goddesses, there is ample choice and the clan-based system for marriages practiced by the Rajputs and Jats to this day gives the lie to this assumption. When even all Hindus in the same caste cannot easily agree to something despite speaking the same languages and observing essentially the same festivals, it is monumentally hard to forge a monolithic culture in India. It has not happened in thousands of years despite scores of invasions and settlements, it sure won't happen now.

I mean, heck, can you even get Shiv Sena and their goons to not be out of line and stop claiming that Mumbai is only for the Maharashtrians? I'd like to see Mr. Bandyopadhyay try. Let him go to Bandra.

India as a country it is now existed only very briefly in history, if at all. People forget the Maratha Empire and the Jat Empire. They forget how the Jats stuffed Taj Mahal with hay. They forget how the Marathas were brutal in their conquest of other parts of India and demanded a lot of tribute. After the disintegration of the Maratha Empire, the Holkers and Scindias could not agree on anything. And before that the Rajputs of Rajputana were almost constantly at war with each other. Just like any other country of this size.

He assumes that all the dalits will march under the aegis of upper-caste, upper-class, well educated Hindus. Centuries of malnutrition, lack of education, short life expectancy and lack of basic health care has created a big mass of Indians who live at the fringe of modern India. More and more farmers committing suicide because they cannot stand to live the life. Little has changed for them. These people first want grain and water, then basic hygiene and sanitation -- they do not want to annihilate Pakistan. Not far away from where I grew up, Phoolan Devi shot 12 Thakurs with the same bullet, taking revenge for the abuse she had suffered.

Besides, why are we Indians so obsessed with Pakistan? Pakistan has been a failed country and many intellectual Pakistanis openly accept that the problem with Pakistan is that it was conceived as a "not India" and therefore cannot exist independent of that founding principle. That is a severe limitation for any country. Having said that, by comparing their country to Pakistan, the Indians are doing themselves a disservice and indeed hampering their growth and development.

Culturally, the influence of the Farsi language and Persian culture cannot be wiped clean. A quick study of Farsi reveals that many words used by Hindi speakers (including saugandh [oath], kuchek [some]) came from Farsi. In fact, in rural Uttar Pradesh, people order two cups of tea thus: do tho chai. That is very simply intelligible to a Farsi speaker. Even the word for "I" -- main in Hindi comes from the Farsi man. Right wingers need to get over it, and they will once they realize how deep the roots are.

There has been terrorism committed by Muslims in India, no doubt about that, but how about the massacres in Gujarat that Mr. Modi presided over? Let me share this with you:

I remember being 9 years old when my family and the neighboring families harbored the innocent Sikhs whose life was suddenly put under grave danger on October 31, 1984. Marauding hordes of criminal elements were robbing and killing Sikhs who had nothing to do with Khalistan and asking if there were any Sanps (snakes) in the area, meaning Sikhs. That has never been addressed satisfactorily. So what makes think that all Sikhs or Punjabis even are cool with the assumption of a harmonious, monolithic body? I saw the father of one of my friends burned alive with kerosene and then stabbed to death, all in front of his family. His fault? Being a Sikh. Think about that for a minute. Wasn't this terrorism? Committed by the majority Hindus?

As Santayana said, Those who cannot learn from history are doomed (or compelled) to repeat it. So the right wingers will keep true to form.

December 30, 2009

Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

This week I finished reading the popular book Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. It was an interesting read, and I do not think Malcolm hit upon a groundbreaking idea in this book, he revealed his evidence in an engaging manner.

For example, he argued that software moguls like Bill Gates were not just smart and driven: they were there at the right time and at the right place. There is truth to it, no doubt, as any biography of Bill Gates quickly reveals. He is after the myth that everyone who has been wildly successful deserved it completely. That myth has another, tacit, nefarious corollary which is Calvinistic in nature by saying that those who have not been wildly successful have no one to blame but themselves. Europeans and Asians do not need convincing that such idealized vision of success, the rags to riches story, are not what they seem.

Consider how the number of billionaires in China has ballooned. Have the Chinese become more ambitious all of a sudden? Of course not. They can now be entrepreneurial in a limited capacity, that's all. In a country where the government officially owns everything, wealth is precarious indeed.

One example Malcolm cited was hilarious. Jeb Bush, son of George HW Bush and brother of George W Bush repeatedly stated that he was a self-made man during his campaign for the governorship of Florida. And no one called him on it. Such is the implicit assumption about successful persons in the US. This belittles the accomplishments of truly self-made men such as Benjamin Franklin and Abraham Lincoln.

Malcolm does not offer a final word or advice -- but I would say this, as I have said to others -- Do the best to put yourself in the best position to make the most of the opportunities that come your way. Hardly groundbreaking and I don't think all of my staff has liked hearing that, but that's just how it is.

December 29, 2009

Working out and becoming Mini-me

I have been lifting weights for a few years and since I also know sports science, it has been a constant source to amusement to me to hear what the personal trainers say and what the newbie trainees say. Then of course there is the gospel on TV and before/after pictures in the print media. Most of the latter are stolen and used without permission.

What annoys me the most is that I see men and women doing sets after sets with weights that could not trigger hypertrophy of any sort and the only impact they could have is to give them tendinitis and lumbago (as you bend at your knees and h-e-a-v-e, pushing out with your lower back and flexing the lumbar spine). That is ridiculous. Repetitive movements involving one small joint are dangerous to your health and give you chronic pain in the form of carpal tunnel syndrome and tendinitis. That's dumb working out. I have done that and not seen results as fast as with a powerlifting 5 x 5 program that I am now on.

The second source of annoyance is the diet purported to lose fat and sculpt muscles. That's total bullshit. Learn a little bit of Sports Science, y'all. What then happens is that women starve themselves, kill their brain cells due to malnutrition and they do not become stronger -- they just become SMALLER. That's the figure of women who go to gym but play no sports where strength is of great importance. The stick-figure thighs are unhealthy. Ever see the thighs on an Olympic swimmer? They are large and have definition: those quads can kick some ass. Not the malnourished mini-me who works out an hour a day and lives on a subsistence diet of 1,000 calories. That's not attractive, ladies... or gentlemen, you know who you are.

The third most annoying myth is that doing more sets at moderate weight develop cuts. Nothing could be further from the truth. The cuts develop by dieting, or what is called cutting in bodybuilding parlance. The main reason I don't want to compete in bodybuilding contests is that I would then need to cut 15 lbs in 3 weeks, meaning I would have to go on an unhealthy diet, suffer from minor ketosis, drink 2 gallons of water every day -- all while maintaining my job and my workout schedule in addition to my other hobbies or, erm, my family responsibilities.

December 4, 2008

Au Hasard Balthazar: A most powerful movie

Though not well-known to the general public in the US, Au Hasard Balthazar is one of the best movies ever made. As the name suggests, it's a French movie. It was directed by Robert Bresson and released in 1966.

So much has been written by movie and art critics about this movie and Bresson that it's hard to say anything new. I focus my attention to the last 10-15 minutes, the final scene of the movie that made me cry like nothing ever has. There is no music in the final scene. All you see is a donkey on a gently sloping grassy hill (like Kentucky's rolling hills) move about, sit down and die. No words are spoken and you see the donkey die, while other animals around it go on with their business. I saw it and I thought to myself if that's how I would die. We all have to go one day; would we go without even a whimper, all alone, having accomplished nothing to look back upon -- not leaving any legacy, anything behind us. Go that way after a life of cruelty that the world inflicted on us, not fighting back, moving around like a dust speck that hovers and wafts in the slanted shafts of morning sunlight, coming to rest no idea where? Who even thinks about it?

It was a really powerful moment. I understand the whole movie is allegorical, and I am not religious, but the sheer force of those moments stayed with me. And I decided to spend more time with my family, to listen more to others, to see if I can enrich my life as well as those of others. It's a little bit like the lines from T. S. Eliot's poem named A Song for Simeon

Grant us thy peace.
I have walked many years in this city,
Kept faith and fast, provided for the poor,
Have taken and given honour and ease.
There went never any rejected from my door.

Who shall remember my house, where shall live my children’s children
When the time of sorrow is come ?
They will take to the goat’s path, and the fox’s home,
Fleeing from the foreign faces and the foreign swords.


November 26, 2008

Indian food is not just curries

I sometimes grow tired of hearing wannabe world citizens that are not of South Asian origin, say that all Indian food is a variation on curry. And by curry they mean meat and/or vegetables in a red/orange/yellow thick liquid. As recently a Chinese colleague of mine put it: Indian food does not have much variety. It's all the same. Now I know better than to engage such people in an argument, but it annoyed me.

Three Stages of Cooking an Indian Dish
An art in Indian cooking is braising. Braising is a cornerstone of Chinese cuisine as well, and basically means cooking meat or vegetables with small and variable amount of liquid. A lot of Indian dishes are prepared this way. There are three stages of cooking. The typical Indian pot for cooking this kind of food is called a Karahi or Kadai which unsurprisingly is very similar to the Chinese Wok.

  1. First one sears the vegetables or meat at very high heat (presumably locking the flavor in, but I don't completely agree) to give them a firmer texture.
  2. After the initial searing, you cover and cook on medium heat for another ten minutes. As you cook your dish covered, the steam does not escape and water or other juices materialize at the bottom of the pan.
  3. Finally the heat is reduced to low until the dish is finished. One reason behind reducing the heat is to retain the moisture and liquid. The end result is more flavorful than steamed vegetables -- a unique blend of crisp outside and succulent inside.

Anyone can make a liquid curry
Anyone can make a dish with a lot of liquid. Since heat is passed by convection in a liquid, which results in slower transfer of heat, it is very forgiving. Braising is not always forgiving. You can burn the food in the first step, or make the food mushy if you're not careful. I find that many Indians living abroad do not make braised foods, because they cannot be bothered to make food that takes some effort. On the other hand, you can dump everything at once in a fair bit of liquid and voila!

Good food takes effort, no matter which culture you consider. French food takes a lot of effort because it is often prepared from scratch. Same about Persian Food. And it is the same about Indian food.

October 6, 2008

Wendy's Sucks

Wendy's advertises its fare as being better than fast food, but I find that is just for appearance's sake. It is no secret that I eat fast food only occasionally. A few months ago, a new Wendy's opened up across the road from the community where I live and we thought we'd give it a shot. Bad mistake.

Their spicy chicken sandwich was sandy and fried too long in a batter too thick and oil unfit for frying. The result was a clovis knife of a sandwich with so much salt that you were left gasping for a river. The fries were cold and had the weird taste of having sit too long in too much salt and oil. We had another sandwich which was equally bad.

We emailed our complaint with all the details to Wendy's. It's been six months and no reply. We are not eating at Wendy's again. I can understand an occasional misstep in fast food preparation, but the complete absence of consumer relationships is awful.

On the other hand, we were not completely satisfied with a pack of Emergen-C Heart Healthy sachets around the same time as the misadventure with Wendy's. We heard from Emergen-C within days and they mailed us a replacement pack with the flavor of our choice, for free. Now that's good customer service. You can bet that I would stay with Emergen-C.

Shame on you, Wendy's.