Monday, June 30, 2014

Bertrand Russell and idleness

Anyone who knows anything about me knows how averse I am to the very idea of working. Needless to say, a person like Bertrand Russell endears himself to me by saying, "I think that there is far too much work done in the world, that immense harm is caused by the belief that work is virtuous, and that what needs to be preached in modern industrial countries is quite different from what always has been preached." I KNEW it. I was always right and this crazy idea that work is good for you needs to be consigned to the dust-bin. Russell supports me, so there!

One person supporting me does not make me right when the majority support the opposite, you say? Well, Russell has an answer to that as well - "The fact that an opinion has been widely held is no evidence whatever that it is not utterly absurd; indeed in view of the silliness of the majority of mankind, a widespread belief is more likely to be foolish than sensible." He is a great chap to have by your side in an argument. Always has a pithy reply to any counter-argument.

I know that you people have this vague idea that when one chap argues he is right and the rest of humanity is wrong, he belongs in a mental asylum. Not really, since people tend to believe that what they cannot do is not worth doing, and what they can do is the only right thing to do. Sour grapes and all that! And, true to the philosophy, Russell identifies WHY people so elevate the concept of working - "To be able to fill leisure intelligently is the last product of civilization, and at present very few people have reached this level." Naturally, therefore, people do not prefer leisure and want an employer to so fill up their time that they have no need for the 'intelligence to fill leisure'.

To all those who have the intelligence to fill their leisure but are also filled with a vague sense of guilt about 'wasting their time', I have some wise words that will eliminate that unnecessary guilt and fill them joy. Of course, it is thanks to Bertrand Russell, who I am almost tempted to call 'Bertie' - so close I feel to him - but for the fear that you may take him for Bertram Wooster, who is a noble example of idleness but has failed to acquire a reputation for being right. Russell says to all the leisured people - "The time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time."

The converse, I hold, is true. The time you do not enjoy is ALL wasted time. Bertrand Russell does not say so in so many words but he has a far more dangerous thing to say - "One of the symptoms of an approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one's work is terribly important."

NOW you know! If you want to seek inmates for a lunatic asylum, seek them from among the 'workers' of the world. Going by this definition, a lot of them are probably approaching a nervous breakdown!

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Bertrand Russell and Happiness

Everyone knows the importance of happiness, and quests for it. Bertrand Russell, though, goes a step further. He says, "The good life, as I conceive it, is a happy life. I do not mean that if you are good you will be happy - I mean that if you are happy you will be good." Considering the absolute importance of happiness, why then is it so difficult to achieve it?

One of the main problems within a person that gets in the way is, probably, the fact that we concentrate so hard on what we have and do not have. Russell says, "It is the preoccupation with possessions, more than anything else that prevents us from living freely and nobly." And happily as well, one might add. If only we realized that, "To be without some of the things you want is an indispensable part of happiness." Counter-intuitive though it appears, it is one of the truths of life. The process of striving for and getting something that you want, and do not have, is far more enjoyable than possessing what you thought you wanted. If we realized that, we would know that not having something should actually be a source of happiness and not misery. (One, of course, excludes the necessities of life. A starving man is unlikely to be jumping with joy at the prospect of striving for a morsel of food).

The bigger problem, though, is the fact that we are never in control of our own happiness since we leave it at the mercy of public opinion. Russell has this to say about it - "One should as a rule respect public opinion in so far as is necessary to avoid starvation and to keep out of prison, but anything that goes beyond this is voluntary submission to an unnecessary tyranny, and is likely to interfere with happiness in all kinds of ways". Not really the way we have been tuned to live, since we rely upon public opinion to even decide what we ought to take pleasure in. "It is essential to happiness that our way of living should spring from our own deep impulses and not from the accidental tastes and desires of those who happen to be our neighbors, or even our relations", says Russell and it is in this essential that most of humanity fails since what we do, where we live and how we conduct our lives is all at the mercy of neighbors.

But, then, is it not true that "One of the most powerful of all our passions is the desire to be admired and respected"? When such is the case, is it not in the nature of man to compare himself with others even if it makes him miserable with jealousy and "Envy consists in seeing things never in themselves, but only in their relations. If you desire glory, you may envy Napoleon, but Napoleon envied Caesar, Caesar envied Alexander, and Alexander, I daresay, envied Hercules, who never existed." Or to quest for power, even if "Next to enjoying ourselves, the next greatest pleasure consists in preventing others from enjoying themselves, or, more generally, in the acquisition of power." If, though, it is an unalterable nature of man to be thus, then it must also be considered that it is the unalterable nature of man to be unhappy. Unless, of course, you are the sort of person who can be happy with the idea of causing unhappiness to others, which may make you happy but renders you unfit to be called a man.

So pervasive is the impact of public opinion on some that they would even allow it to invade and dictate their conduct in their leisure moments. If they were the sort who prefer reading, they would choose the second of the following options - "There are two motives for reading a book: one, that you enjoy it; the other, that you can boast about it." But, then, they could well belong to the ilk of "Men who are unhappy, like men who sleep badly, are always proud of the fact."

The thing to remember, though, when bowing to public opinion, is that "No one gossips about other people's secret virtues." Which, in effect, means that you strive for a good opinion in vain since all that will be talked about are your faults. There is hardly a point, though, in berating those who do that since "It is a waste of energy to be angry with a man who behaves badly, just as it is to be angry with a car that won't go."

We also tend to muck up our personal relations. Love, and failure in it, are the cause of a lot of unhappiness. Russell gives out this warning - "It's easy to fall in love. The hard part is finding someone to catch you." In marital life, one of the easiest ways to lose love is to remind the other person of all the 'sacrifices' you made for him/her. This makes them feel as though you stayed by them and did what you did out of a sense of duty and "A sense of duty is useful in work, but offensive in personal relations. People wish to be liked, not be endured with patient resignation."

The biggest stumbling block in the way of changing your life around to a happier mode is that we always externalize the reasons for our unhappiness. Russell says, "We do not like to be robbed of an enemy; we want someone to hate when we suffer. It is so depressing to think that we suffer because we are fools; yet, taking mankind in the mass, that is the truth." Once we realize that it is our own folly that is keeping us unhappy, we are ready to redress the problem.

A cautionary message is needed, though, when you undertake the process. "Sometimes the hardest thing in life is to know which bridge to cross and which to burn"

Monday, June 23, 2014

Bertrand Russell and Politics

"It has been said that man is a rational animal. All my life I have been searching for evidence which could support this", says Bertrand Russell and that irrationality is the basis on which small groups of people end up leading large populations on the path to disaster or mayhem. "Many people would sooner die than think; In fact, they do so" is an apt explanation for how suicide bombers blow themselves and a lot of other people up to further their cause - when all of History could readily show that such acts have never achieved the intended effect. Russell, indeed, outlines the rules that form the foundation of politics - of governments, terrorist organizations and any other such organizations.

"Too little liberty brings stagnation and too much brings chaos", says Russell. Governments are necessary to limit the liberty of each individual to a level where there is order, but not to the extent that liberty is stifled to the extent of having a stagnant Society. The process of setting these limits also involves the manner in which goods and services get exchanged; the manner in which people interact with each other; and the rights and responsibilities of the individual.

Russell, though not a votary of Communism's ways of arranging the exchange of goods and services, does not seem quite enamored of Capitalism, either. "Advocates of capitalism are very apt to appeal to the sacred principles of liberty, which are embodied in one maxim: The fortunate must not be restrained in the exercise of tyranny over the unfortunate", does not seem like unrestrained admiration for Capitalism. In fact, unrestrained capitalism is very likely to end up proving that "Life is nothing but a competition to be the criminal rather than the victim."

Democracy, as a means of putting in place a government, has its own flaws. "Our great democracies still tend to think that a stupid man is more likely to be honest than a clever man, and our politicians take advantage of this prejudice by pretending to be even more stupid than nature made them", says Russell of the politics of his day but nothing much seems to have changed since then.

This belief in stupidity being the hallmark of honesty leads to a situation wherein "There is no nonsense so arrant that it cannot be made the creed of the vast majority by adequate governmental action." One only needs to see the recent happenings in the world - from the demonisation of the Middle-East in the West to obsessive hatred of neighbors - to see how true this still continues to be. Politicians seem to make hay of the fact that "Few people can be happy unless they hate some other person, nation, or creed". And the fact is that one is left bemoaning, as Russell did, "Why is propaganda so much more successful when it stirs up hatred than when it tries to stir up friendly feeling?" Governments AND people also seem to pay no heed to the fact that "War does not determine who is right - only who is left."

If that is true of governance, Russell holds out not much hope from the moralists either. “Really high-minded people are indifferent to happiness, especially other people's”, he says and, unfortunately, that dictum also seems largely true. India has had reason to know the validity of his statement, "The people who are regarded as moral luminaries are those who forego ordinary pleasures themselves and find compensation in interfering with the pleasures of others". (Of course, he does NOT mean that there should be no interference in the molestation of women!)

He does hold out hope for a better tomorrow. His condition for such a desirable outcome, though, is far from being fulfilled. May the day come soon when this thing becomes true of the world - "If there were in the world today any large number of people who desired their own happiness more than they desired the unhappiness of others, we could have paradise in a few years."

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Bertrand Russell and dogma

Of all the philosophers I have read, I love Bertrand Russell the most. Of course the first reason is his sense of humor. To give but one example, when nuns told him, "You forget the Almighty God" in reply to his question about why they bathed in bathrobes when there was no-one there to see them, he says, "They obviously think of God as an Omnipotent Peeping Tom, who can see through walls but is foiled by bathrobes".

The more important reason, though, is the fact that he is one of the very few philosophers who neither followed nor created any 'ism'. The problem with 'ism's - whether in philosophy, politics or in religion - is that, sooner or later they turn to dogmas and end up stifling any free thought or dissent. This, of course, is a consequence of the fact that “A stupid man's report of what a clever man says can never be accurate, because he unconsciously translates what he hears into something he can understand.” Not merely inaccurate but dogmatically inaccurate as well, since 'stupid men' who follow the originator are incapable of thinking for themselves and prefer to follow the leader - in the manner in which they understand him - blindly.

Russell set off no such tradition, considering that he held that "I think we ought always to entertain our opinions with some measure of doubt. I shouldn't wish people dogmatically to believe any philosophy, not even mine." Leave alone philosophy, a measure of doubt is not even entertained by people when it comes to their own tastes - so much so that people cannot even grant the possibility that something that they dislike can be liked by someone else and speak as if their distaste for something ought to be universal. So, how will they ever entertain doubts about their philosophy?

But then, as Russell says, "The opinions that are held with passion are always those for which no good ground exists; indeed the passion is the measure of the holder’s lack of rational conviction. Opinions in politics and religion are almost always held passionately." The problem also is that "Man is a credulous animal, and must believe something; in the absence of good grounds for belief, he will be satisfied with bad ones." That explains the persistence of beliefs in things that have long been discredited. I would not be too surprised to see a cult, which expects to fall off the edge of a flat Earth, arise and flourish.

A belief, which is wrongly held, is not as harmless a folly as it appears to be. Russell says, "Most of the greatest evils that man has inflicted upon man have come through people feeling quite certain about something which, in fact, was false." History gives ample evidence of the fact that the greatest atrocities have been committed on the basis of false beliefs - including false scientific beliefs. Eugenics is a case in point for a false scientific belief that resulted in the unbelievable atrocities of Nazi Germany.

The issue is further exacerbated by the fact that "The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people so full of doubts." This, in effect, means that the 'fools and fanatics' are willing to work to further their beliefs while the 'wiser people' are still dithering about the pros and cons of the issue - till it is too late. Whenever I see someone very sure of his own faith - and, no matter how virtuous the faith may be - it frightens me because the chap could well be a fool (insofar as he is no narrowly focused on his truth and his way that he fails to see the complete ramifications of his course of action) even if not a fanatic. I'd rather have dithering wiser men than confident fools running countries.

A follower of a creed is a greater danger. For the leader may be one who belongs to the category of “We have in fact, two kinds of morality, side by side: one which we preach, but do not practice, and another which we practice, but seldom preach.” Taken in by what is preached, the follower can be a far more potent harbinger of change than the leader - being far more convinced of the rightness of his cause - and may end up crowning the leader, literally or metaphorically. AND, followers could tend to believe the leader, 'even with bad grounds', which may end up with Society having to deal with what the leader 'practices but seldom preaches.'

Which is why, in ideas or in creeds, I prefer someone who, like Russell, says,“I would never die for my beliefs because I might be wrong.” For, truth be told, anyone who says he would die for his beliefs actually means that he would kill for his beliefs.

If you read 'beliefs' to mean 'moral values' (for me and, I think, for Russell as well, they are two different things), my apologies for wasting your time with this post.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Keynes - Interesting?

The idea of an economist being interesting - other than to other economists - must be fairly difficult to swallow. The common perception would be of a man, who feels bound to say "On the one hand...On the other hand.." making you feel rather grateful that he is not a Ravan endowed with twenty hands. John Maynard Keynes, though, was rather an exception to this rule. To cite but one instance, though he belonged to the ilk of people who love saying, 'In the long run...", Keynes dismisses it with a pithy "In the long run, we are all dead."

Keynes is rated as one of the major figures in capitalist economics, being the originator of the idea of Government intervention to pull economies out of a depression AND, thus, the man whose ideas influenced the 'stimulus' packages in the recent past to pull economies out of the Recession. It is surprising to see his views on Capitalism - "Capitalism is the astounding belief that the most wickedest of men will do the most wickedest of things for the greatest good of everyone."

Capitalist economics places a huge premium on Stock Markets to direct the flow of funds into required investments. Keynes has this to say about the idea - “When the capital development of a country becomes a by-product of the activities of a casino, the job is likely to be ill-done”. Does not seem like a ringing endorsement of the basic premise. For speculators, who think that when the stock markets are irrationally high or low and wish to play for a reversal, Keynes' sage advice is “The market can stay irrational longer than you can stay solvent." Advice that quite a few would have wished to have received much earlier in life! Though there is a Keynesian silver lining -  “If you owe your bank a hundred pounds, you have a problem. But if you owe a million, it has.”  THAT will explain how YOU lose money in all those Stock Market bubbles but the chaps who set it all off do not!

Keynes was, by no means, uni-dimensional or bereft of pithy thoughts on subjects other than economics. Well, you could say that when Keynes says, "The avoidance of taxes is the only intellectual pursuit that still carries any reward", he is still talking economics but you cannot deny that it is a surprising viewpoint for an economist to hold.

Apparently, it was a period where people were REALLY down on education. Like Einstein, who was a contemporary, Keynes too seems to have had no high regard for education. Unless you can see something laudatory in "Education: the inculcation of the incomprehensible into the indifferent by the incompetent." But, then, the problem with education has always been that it propagated the existing ideas and fails, even today, to inculcate a spirit of thinking for yourself. A person like Keynes, who held that "The difficulty lies not so much in developing new ideas as in escaping from old ones" is unlikely to be very impressed by a system that freezes young minds into old ideas, making it impossible for them to escape from them.

I was surprised and gratified to see that I had been echoing Keynes, unconsciously, in a thought that forms the base of quite a few of my posts, though Keynes puts it far more caustically than I ever would have. He says, "When the accumulation of wealth is no longer of high social importance, there will be great changes in the code of morals." Further along, he is even more caustic when he mentions that, "The love of money as a possession - as distinguished from the love of money as a means to the enjoyments and realities of life - will be recognized for what it is, a somewhat disgusting morbidity, one of those semi-criminal, semi-pathological propensities which one hands over with a shudder to the specialists in mental disease."

That, though, is a sentiment that is likely to be discarded. After all, again as Keynes says, “Worldly wisdom teaches that it is better for (your) reputation to fail conventionally than to succeed unconventionally.” Particularly in a Society where the 'enjoyments and realities of life' have been so warped as to represent the mere possession of money!

Friday, June 13, 2014

The entertaining Einstein

I love Einstein. For a genius, he was a pretty down-to-earth chap. He endeared himself to me with his explanation of Relativity - "When you are courting a nice girl an hour seems like a second. When you sit on a red-hot cinder a second seems like an hour. That's relativity." Not only was his explanation simple, it was very kind as well. After all, remembering that people like me exist, he could well have said, "When you are courting a nice girl, an hour seems like a second. For the girl, though, it would seem like an eternity. That's relativity."

It is not surprising that he kept it simple. After all, it was he who also said, "Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius -- and a lot of courage -- to move in the opposite direction." Something that is even less comprehensible to the leaders of the world than his theory of relativity. I, particularly, loved that oxymoron - 'intelligent fool'. The world abound in people who are extremely intelligent, indeed, but refuse to apply it in deciding what needs to be done and, instead, exult in how well they have done whatever they have done - even if all that they have done is pulling down civilization around our ears.

That, though, is probably a result of thinking that schooling equals education. Einstein has something to say on that as well - "Education is what remains after one has forgotten everything he learned in school." One can only bemoan the persistence of memory in people, for it leaves them with a collection of facts but robs them of all understanding. As a result, everyone chases the will-o-the-wisp of progress and, more often than not, the progress that they chase is technological progress. And, strangely for the foremost scientist of his times, Einstein says, "Technological progress is like an ax in the hands of a pathological criminal." The solutions that we search for the problems that we create with our over-use of technology also seem to lie in more technology. The failure to solve the problems proves the Einsteinian statement "We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them."

One cannot accuse Einstein of being right all the time. After all, as he himself says, "Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new." So, when Heisenberg proposed his uncertainty principle, Einstein opposed it with his "God does not play dice." The problem, though, was that he was wrong as were most - if not all - people who presumed to have read the mind of God. (Apropos of that, even Einstein gave up on understanding one thing that all of us dread - "The hardest thing in the world to understand is the income tax.") It appeared that God reveled in playing dice, since the Quantum theory is held to be true and has given rise to a whole menagerie starting with the conundrum of Schrodinger's cat and on-wards to the String and M theories of the Universe, which have nearly replaced Einstein's own General Theory of Relativity, even though the Special Theory of Relativity is still considered valid enough for practical use.

One cannot take away from Einstein his seminal contribution to science on account of one misstep. He had the courage to step outside the bounds of the science of his day, thereby earning the right to say, "In order to form an immaculate member of a flock of sheep one must, above all, be a sheep." It also seems like he was a man who knew that what was valuable in life is not always what can be measured. For he held that "Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts."

I only wish that one of his other statements also proves wrong, at least in the future - "Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I'm not sure about the universe." Failing which, we may find ourselves testing the truth of one more of his statements - "I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones."

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Goldilocks and the three bears

There is a lot of fun in messing up with existing stories. To be sure, though, I am not too sure that I can do it here on my blog.

"Time to book a place in the cemetery and the old fool still plays around with fairy tales." I can almost hear you say that. So, what do you do when you have an urge that you cannot scratch? Find a place where you can.

Thankfully for me, my good friend 'The Fool' runs a blog - Three Realms of the mind - dedicated to Science Fiction and fantasy and is currently putting up a series of rewritten fairy tales. There I went to scratch my itch and this is the result.

Little Bear on Goldilock's Visit

Monday, June 9, 2014

Me? Lazy?

I am a much misunderstood man. Oh! I know! I know! Everyone is so busy running around to find someone to understand them that they cannot spare the time to understand me, but that still does not explain why they should misunderstand me instead of merely ignoring me. If they do have to waste time in misunderstanding me, why should they pick on what they call my laziness - merely because I do not complete any task on time?

The problem, you see, is that, by sheer coincidence, I always find so many other important things to do - on just the day when something has to be done - that it becomes impossible to do what I set out to do. Not my fault, and certainly not laziness, since I actually keep busy all day. The problem with people is that they are too quick to assume things about others and, invariably, to the other person's discredit.

Take today for example. I had decided to put together my tax return. I replaced my book in the bookshelf when my eyes caught an old whodunit. This one belonged to the era of the 'Butler-dun-it'. It has been a long while since I read any of that sort, since my tastes had somehow warped to think that a twist at the end was dissatisfying unless it arises logically out of the story. I have recently been convinced that my tastes are all wrong. Therefore, there was this irresistible urge to pick up that book and read it. Oh! I knew it was going to be the butler who 'done the murder' - since I had read it before - but I really had to read it for the sheer ingenuity with which the author introduces the butler into the story in Chapter 20, just in time to be unmasked as the murderer.

Three hours down the line, I finish this engrossing book and start for my computer to begin on the tax return. It strikes me that it is close to lunch time and I might as well finish lunch before I started on it. I switch on the TV to keep me company while I am eating. Can you believe it? I catch a rare movie just starting off on one of the channels. It has this absolutely unique plot line of a scary villain killing the parents, and brothers separating from each other with no more than a song to guide them back to each other in later life. How could I miss this piece of unique art merely for a mundane tax return, that could well be done later?

Four hours down the line and I cudgel my brains for what it was that I wanted to do in the morning. Can you believe it? I just could not recollect why I had thought that there was some work to be done today. Realizing that the best way was to allow the mind to let the thought surface on its own, I go on Facebook and let the world know how affected I was by the ad that kept popping up during the movie. Just as I was replying to the comments, up pops the memory - Tax return!

Now, whoever heard of doing tax returns at night? Maybe the guys who watch horror movies in the middle of the night would love the idea, but I am the conventional sort, who would wake up screaming in the night if I did anything so horrifying so close to sleep-time.

Tomorrow, I swear, that Tax return gets done. Meanwhile, stop calling me lazy, Ok? I have not been idling all day - I have read a book, watched a movie, written a FB status and even this blog post. What more do you want a man to do in a day?

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Positively Rich?

Clad in a colorful wrapper, that luscious bit of chewy bubblegum beckoned me with a siren call. Alas, it was not charm that would draw it to me but only filthy lucre - a princely sum of 25 paise, which I did not have. What it would be to be rich and be able to buy bubblegum whenever you felt like chewing on one?

That about summed up my idea of being rich while at school. To be able to fulfill your wants and needs, as and when they arose; to put your hand in your pocket and not find that the coins in your wallet ran short of the price of what you needed to get. As an adult, I supposed I would still feel the same. My needs may transcend bubblegum but the feeling of being rich would be all about having enough to fulfill my needs and not having to do without things that I wanted.

Of course, it was a totally stupid idea. That stemmed from the fact that I thought that the 'positive' or base form of any adjective was all there was to it. Life, of course, taught me that it was the 'comparative' form that ruled the world. When someone says, "He is rich" about someone else, what he invariably means is that the other person is 'richer than' his own self.

The problem, though, is that we, as a species, specialize at comparing ourselves in a manner that makes us unhappy. We insist on feeling 'poor' by comparing ourselves with those 'richer' than us, except when we wish to make the other person feel unhappy by making him feel 'poorer'. So, we always have a crick in the neck, looking up at people who seem better off than us. So much so, people have to remind us of things like "I felt unhappy about having no shoes, till I saw someone with no feet". Though, I must say, that this urge to compare also seems to drive you to feel happy at other people's misfortunes - and make your contempt for them clear to them - merely to salve your own ego.

And, yes, there is also the climb towards the superlative. 'Richest man in town' etc. Though, since the superlative has been sliced and diced so much, even the 'richest' have other gradations of 'richest' to aspire to - like 'richest man in the country' all the way up to 'richest man in the world'. I suppose I am content with being the 'richest person in my house' and, since I am the sole occupant of my house, that's a cakewalk.

Even the 'positive' version of 'rich' is sullied beyond cleansing. So, if I feel rich when I can get whatever I want, I want all the things that will make me feel 'richer than' the next guy. He has a BMW? I need a Rolls Royce before I feel rich. He goes to Thailand for a vacation? I need to go to Zurich. So, now, you cannot even trust your own needs and wants - whether they arise out of what you feel you will enjoy OR whether you have trained yourself to enjoy only those things that make you feel comparatively richer.

Me? I never grew up. I feel rich because, now, I can buy all the 'bubble-gums' I want AND my tastes have nothing to do with the brand of 'bubblegum'. So, since I do not bother about being 'comparatively' or 'superlatively' rich, I suppose I could call myself  'positively' rich.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Meet and Greet?

It is not enough that you have to learn your so-called three 'R's (And, no-one has given me a satisfactory explanation for why they call Writing and Arithmetic 'R's, when they so clearly are not) and, then, muddle through college, picking up desultory bits of thermodynamics, fluid mechanics and other such obscure pockets of, it is not! Leaving the educational system, happy with the thought that what passes for your brain shall be taxed no longer is a sure recipe for disappointment if not disaster.

I should have known, though. After all, in Tamil we were used to greeting each other with a "Vanakkam", to which the reply was the same. Since that meant a sort of "Hello", it was perfectly all right to reply with a "Hello" or a "Hi". In English, they had this habit of asking, "How do you do?" or "How are you?" How was I to know that this was a question that had to be answered with the same question, instead of a detailed listing of all my bodily ailments? (Would have loved to extend the concept elsewhere - most notably interviews? How wonderful if the acceptable answer for 'Do you know why .......?' could be 'Do you know it?' Alas!)

And, then, I take up a job in Delhi. Around the second or third day there, when I had come to know people enough to greet them, I ventured a 'How do you do?' with one of my colleagues. He replies with a 'Bus aapki dua hai' i.e '(Am well) thanks to your wishes'! Having searched my memory and found no sign of my having wished anything for this chap (could not come up with even his name, now that I was searching my memory), I felt guilty. Here was this guy depending for his well-being on my wishes and I had let him down. Luckily for me, someone else interrupted us before I started abjectly apologizing for having failed him.

Luckily, did I say? I made the mistake of greeting the other guy with a 'How are you?' too and got "Bus aapke chatrachaye mein' for a reply. Huh! I dredged my memory to recollect the last time I was crowned - since the other chap meant that he was happy under my aegis - and could only come up with the information that I had even lost my crown of hair. Feeling that the other guy had mistaken me for a newly anointed Cabinet Minister, I was about to disabuse him of the notion when a third chap, who seemed to understand the look of bewilderment on my face, took me aside and explained that all these were to be taken at par with a return 'Vanakkam' in Tamil.

It did take a while to get adjusted to the situation for me. Things that Tamilians say to each other, only when they were close friends, flow easily and well from Punjabis even to rank strangers and rabid foes. Most of what makes it difficult to trust people across cultures seems to be the fact that all that you learnt of how to assess character from behavior - and how you assessed behavior, too - give you misleading results when applied on a person from a different background.

Back I am, in Bangalore and more familiar terrain? I accost a new made acquaintance and he comes out with 'Oota aayittha?'. Well - I have, by now, learnt that this 'Have you had your food?' is only the 'Vanakkam' of Tamil and not an invitation to a detailed description of what was on your plate in the morning.

AND, there are people who love going around the world? All power to them, I say, but let them first make their detailed guide-books before the rest venture out. Would hate to be beheaded for saying the wrong thing in reply to someone's greeting.