National Culture and the Cricket Test

I recently watched an episode of “Imagination” on BBC on an American teacher in the US. The class comprised a good mix of students from different ethnicity. Quite a few of them were second generation South East Asians and Hispanics.

I felt that the teacher was using his English class to inculcate values that would do not only America proud but humanity as well. There were a number of works that were being studied. Hamlet and Huckleberry Finn seemed to have significant mindshare.

In one of the sound bites the teacher said that the students were learning to identify with the American culture. This struck me as a remarkable sentence. The idea of a democracy has been stumbled upon in various geographies by quite a few cultures in different ages. There has been civil war in the United States of America because a significant number of citizens adopted a strong position on freedom as a birthright and that all men are created equal.

But aren’t these “values” only? Or do values form a dominant component in the definition of “culture”? The phrase “American culture” feels, sort of, strange to me. I have been hearing of the term “the melting pot” for years and have only partly understood it

I remember the short story “The Ice Palace” from way back at school. The compatibility, or lack thereof, of the way of life between the northern and southern regions was under the microscope of the class. In India we call it the unity in diversity.

The Canadian way of life – on the other hand – that I was exposed to while in Toronto was very different. I commented to a lot of people that America tolerates while Canada accepts. The arterial road has signs in Korean, Japanese, and Arabic besides the ones in the standard language. In fact there are two standard languages. Every paper napkin in the Subway fast food chain has text in English and French at opposite corners.

Australian, I have heard, is possessive of its Australian identity. The white Caucasian American will go back to Ireland or Wales to re-discover where her or his ancestors were from, but that is not the way of the Australian. An Australian is an Australian is an Australian.

On 21 May 1972 a Hungarian-born Australian geologist name Laszlo Toth damaged the Pieta by Michelangelo at The Vatican with fifteen strikes of his hammer. Catholics and art connoisseurs of the world were disturbed. So were a group of Christian Brothers. One of them was an Australian. Another, an Irishman settled in India, remarked “It seems he is of Hungarian origin” to soften the blow. The Australian Brother was stern “He is an Australian”. Is that another version of the melting pot?

What is a melting pot anyway? A euphemism cooked by a nation of immigrants? Can the melting pot be a culture? What is culture, or more importantly, what is this concept of the national culture? The concept of the nation state is fairly new in the history of mankind while culture is as old as human civilization.

In India we have this trail of culture that recedes beyond history, legends and myths. It certainly reaches out beyond the constraints of the nation state that came in being on August 15, 1947 A.D. Pundits have found threads that have evolved from the banks of the Indus and have got entangled with the confluence of the three seas at Kanyakumari.

We, the people of the modern day nation state of India, are comfortable with this evolution of thought, values, civilization, religion or language. We call the current stage of this evolution as our culture. We have this comfortable feeling that our fore fathers have been around for millennia and have been part of this evolution.

There have been settlers who have come in from time to time; but that too has been centuries ago. They are now an integral part of Indian culture. So when I see second and third (or even fourth or fifth) generation settlers becoming one with the “culture” of the administrative entity of a nation state I feel something is not being defined correctly.

You can adopt a family and become one of them. The duration of the process would perhaps depend on the size of the family, the diversity in thought processes, the bond within the members and a host of other factors. It is, nevertheless, conceivable. But can one come from a culture half way round the globe and adopt another in a matter of a few generations? Can one ever really pass the “Cricket Test”?

Br. Kelly

In an April email to a Yahoo group Amitava Sengupta, a fellow alumnus of St. Patrick’s, let us know that Br. Kelly “the legendary ambidextrous science master, quick and practical thinker – died at about 5.30 pm on January 16, 2007, in Ireland.” I was surprised.

 

The surprise was not to learn that he has passed away. It was to note the sadness that suddenly crept in. For some time I could not figure out why. I was not “close” to him as a favorite student would. I was not related to him. What had he done to touch my heart? Was it because Br. Kelly had taught me how to think scientifically?

 

It must have been a difficult task for him. Not because we were dense, but because his approach was so alien to us. I remember the first encounter.

 

We were seated in the class beside the lab. Br. Kelly entered wearing the battered habit and carrying a blue kit bag with “BOAC” fading on its sides. He solemnly went to the board, wrote out the English alphabet in lower case, turned around and calmly looked at us with a quizzical trace of a smile.

 

In a while we realized we were expected to also do the same in our exercise books. As we completed our task he murmured “pass” to some and “fail” to the others. When he was done with the class he said “Those who passed do it again, those who failed try it again”.

 

Later on we realized that he was getting us to practice lettering. It was a skill that would be handy while labeling the diagrams that we would need to draw in the exams. But why did he suddenly ask us one day that how come the tear was more or less a straight line if you creased the paper first? And it is an uneven line otherwise?

 

He never answered that question. His favorite response to a lot of questions went like this – Stand. Tear out a piece of paper one centimeter by one centimeter. Write “T” on it. Put it in your shirt pocket. Sit. “Sir?” we would ask. “T is for think” he would say.

 

On an annual sports day he suddenly appeared wearing a new crisp habit without holes in it. This one hadn’t been to the chemistry lab with him yet. Also gone was his BOAC bag. He had a cloth side bag instead. “Sir what’s that?” we asked. “This is an object, occupies space, is made of matter and has some mass.”

 

So what does one do with this strange attitude of scientific thinking? That is, besides deciding that one would not draw conclusions on an issue or a problem with out rationally thinking it through. And I am not referring to issues like global warming, world hunger or the meaning of life. I have in mind more simple and immediate problems like managing expectations of this client project manager in an ERP implementation that I am responsible for.

 

Scientific thinking as an attitude is not enough though. One might need tools like six thinking hats. Or more simply, one may choose to mix together several facts, ideas and concepts to develop a technique that produces quick results.

 

I remember about the same time I was tearing out one centimeter square pieces of paper and writing T on it, I was reading this book on animal camouflaging techniques. Having coloration to blend in was good. But another trick used by animals is to assume a posture that hides their shadows.

 

Then there was another article that I read in a magazine that carried photos of microscopic object taken with the aid of a shadow casting electron microscope. This was another usage of shadow to reveal existence of shapes that may not be visible otherwise.

 

One day when I had accidentally dropped a broken piece of a needle on to this grey concrete floor. Illumination in the room was adequate. But the piece was too small. I did not know whether it was in the open space in the room or under the bed. Somehow in the back of my mind I had a solution. I brought out the flashlight, switched it on and placed in on the floor so the light hit it at a glancing angle. The needle piece cast a long shadow and there was no problem in spotting it any more.

 

I thought it was a neat piece of thinking. I was rather pleased at myself that I was actually learning to think. I hadn’t heard of Simon Batchelor then but Edward de Bono has recorded an interesting experience of this gentleman.

 

Batchelor was in Cambodia to help villagers drill for water. He was finding it difficult to get them involved so he taught them the six thinking hats method. It seems that the villagers soon became so enthusiastic that they decided learning to think was more important than learning how to drill.

 

I would say there is one more thing that is more important than to learning how to think. It is having teachers like Br. Kelly around you to show you the way. We need more teachers like him in our schools. I am sad that he is not around challenging students to think for themselves.

Cyberhelp in German Village

This could be a story on how strangers who want to do business in Germany would have to do so on German terms. This story could also be read as another example of the glory of the net. But I remember this incident as one that kindled in me a faith – on technology and on fellow human beings.

This had happened to me in 1999 and I do not know whether the situation is still the same. If it is, consider yourself forewarned. Folks in Bangalore and Bombay had warned me that I wouldn’t be able to use my laptop in Walldorf, Germany. I lugged it along, stubbornly, despite their advice. I decided to test the waters after checking into the hotel, even before going up to my room. I produced my laptop, requested for an adapter. She panicked and called for help.

The front office manager arrived and dived behind the counter to come up with a box filled with various adapters and power cords.  None of them were, however, of any use. Now, the power-input device in question comprises three parts: a power cord with a three-pin plug at one end and three small sockets at the other.  These are meant for the three pins of the AC Adapter that convert the 120-220V to the requisite 16V.  And there is another slim cord that connects the AC adapter to the laptop.

I explained to the manager that I could settle for a replacement of one, some or all the components. This made him very sad. Another guest had made a similar request a month ago. The electrical maintenance manager of the hotel had scouted all the shops in town without coming up with anything that would work.

The problem, he said, was that, in Germany, you could find adapters for use in any country for items manufactured in Germany.  But if you wanted to use a gadget from another country in Germany, you would need to bring in necessary accessories yourself.

It was a tough one all right!  Next day I tried the reception at the International Training Institute. “We do not use or support laptops in this office,” I was told. I plunged into the net and wrote to the support unit of IBM Germany. An IBM UK address responded saying that IBM Germany stocks adapters meant to be used in other countries.

I sank into deep gloom but hit the net yet again. This time I dug up the email addresses of three Heidelberg dealers of IBM products and wrote to them. In a while there were several new messages.

The subject line of one read ‘Re: Support for IBM Thinkpad’.  A dealer wanted some details. I mailed him the model number. Next morning, he asked for further details. I mailed him all the markings on the power-input unit. Things were warming up. The dealer sent me a bitmap image of a sketch he had drawn for me.  He asked me to identify which of the two would be suitable for my AC adapter.

The next mail was triumphant. He had identified the spare. Unfortunately, he didn’t have it in stock but would be able to get it on Monday. It was Thursday evening. I sent three mails telling him how useful it would be if he could arrange to deliver it by the weekend. I wouldn’t be going to office before Tuesday and wouldn’t be able to check my mail till then. I would be cut off from the rest of the world. Please help.

Monday came and went by in absolute silence. I was back in office on Tuesday. No mail from the friendly dealer, except the one he had sent on Friday telling me the cord cost 25 DM, freight extra. Back at my hotel, I had a message waiting in my room telling me to collect my “st from the front office”. A small packet that had come by post contained the object of desire along with the invoice for 25 DM. Hallelujah.

This is the section where I am supposed to enlighten you with the moral of the story. Germany equips its citizens to out in the world to do business in strange lands. Strangers who want to do business in Germany would have to do so on their terms.

But that really is not how I remember this experience. This incident kindled in me a faith; faith on technology – the internet, the emails and so on; and faith on fellow human beings in general. If you ask for help most probably people will respond.

It’s fun, and only slightly illegal

When I started this habit of quarterly updates last September I thought it was a neat idea. What I did not realize was that I might be short of words even if I wrote only once in three months. Now, if I am not able to figure out what have I done in the last three months that I would like to talk about, then am I leading the life I would like to? I am sure that some of my friends, colleagues and acquaintances would have the same feeling too.

So why am I doing this any way. I can still hear Br. MacCarthaigh’s commandment “no introductions” in essay classes back in school. This, however, is not an essay, and it is all that I would perhaps be able to write of in this email. I will take a few minutes to explain the purpose of these emails and go along with the risk of losing my readership.

For a number of years I have been noticing that I have been losing touch with people whom I knew. We would promise to be in touch and start exchanging emails. The gap between these mails or phone calls would increase and finally fizzle off. Some stray event would remind me of someone and I would try to write back but that person had by then moved on and the old email address was not valid any more. Even if it did work, it was awkward finding words and picking up the thread.

I tried out some tools and explored the possibility of developing one. I will perhaps write out the specs of the tool some day but I can’t wait till it is developed. Others might benefit but I would lose all my contacts by then. Then I remembered something from my brief encounter with the operations research approach to maintenance of light bulbs.

The approach says that you change all the light bulbs in your charge at a predetermined interval. It doesn’t matter whether they have conked off or not, you just change them. That does not rule out the need for changing bulbs as and when they break down, but you do that as and when required. I leave it to text books to explain the virtues of this approach. I will only say that I have adopted a similar approach.

I have started going in with a mass mailer before a quarter starts (or ends – depends on how you want to look at it). That triggers off notes from some of you. I try to get back with a reply that in turn some of you respond to. This goes on for a while and fizzles off till I return along with a change in the season.

Of late business networking sites have also interested me quite a bit. I have been able to track down some people I knew and had lost contact with. Late in 2005 I was able to find Joao in Portugal and last quarter I found Marcin in Poland . These sites also throw up interesting tidbits.

I have 170 odd contacts in my Linkedin contact list. One of them is in the HR function of Cognizant in Calcutta, one in Bangalore and works for HP, while a third works for Birlasoft in Noida. None of them know each other, but all of them know this gentleman who works for Novell.

I don’t know how such patterns in human connectivity would affect you but it amazed me when I figured this out. It is not difficult to imagine from a logical perspective but to actually see it happen within two degrees of separation is strange. Does that make me a “connector” as Gladwell would define it?

Before I lose all my readers let me squeeze in a few more words.

I pulled off a hat trick of having a visa stamped on the passport for an aborting long term travel. I didn’t travel to Moscow first time this happened, I did not travel to Paris the second time, and now I did not travel to Stoke, near Manchester. I am losing my touch. This destination was not as exotic or exciting as the last couple of times.

I was settling into business operations when I wrote to you last time. This quarter end finds me looking beyond that. Mild cribs, renewing contacts and going places have been major themes in my mailers till now. I will try to come back with a “things I built” theme next time.

Ah, and yes, I almost forgot this. During the last few weeks I have been spending a lot of time at a site that plays songs from the 50’s. I did not know that I did not know of a lot of singers like Alma Cogan, Miki & Griff, Teresa Brewer, Doris Day, Frankie Laine, or Tennessee Ford. The name of the station is “Jodash 50’s” at live365.com and the utility I use to record these songs is the Hi-Q Recorder. It’s fun, and only slightly illegal. Thus spake Monty Python.

(Note: You have received this email because you are in my address book and distribution list. Please feel free to ask me stop bugging you with these quarterly mailers)

Thoughtzine Vol. 2 Issue 1

This is my third general mailer. Thoughtzine Vol. 2 Issue 1 so to speak. Some of you in your replies or in subsequent conversations have told me that you enjoy my mailers; none have asked me to shut up; at least not yet. Some have referred to them as blogs, one as a page from a “Prison Diary”, but I liked the term thoughtzine the most. It gives you a freedom to write what you want to, yet the reader would expect and settle for a certain framework as far as the table of content goes.

So, to maintain the continuity, I am happy to report that I continued to catch up with some more friends. One of them is Shankar whom I met after thirty odd years. After earning degrees (or should it be learning by degrees) from five countries he now fixes spines of his patients who come into Delhi from all over the world. No wonder he gets to sleep for five hours a day and has to work seven days a week. God knows the number of people in this world who have some problems with their spine. Anyway, to get back to the story line, I met Shankar on my way back from a vacation in Rajasthan.

Meheran Garh of Jodhpur is managed well buy the trust that runs it. It is amusing that it is referred to as the “Meheran Garh” Fort. It is like saying “Meheran Fort” fort. The “Maharaja” of Jodhpur was educated in the west. He has been able to transfer some of the packaging that you would normally see in a museum in the US. Things like the elevator to take you to the main level, the audio tour that has the “extras” thrown in, and the souvenir shop that concludes the tour.

The fort is worthy of such packaging. I wonder though why only one part of the city has indigo painted houses. Or should I be wondering how is it that one part of the city still has indigo painted houses? Cynics might say they get paid to keep it that way.

No one, though, would describe the hustle on the narrow lanes of that lead to the Tripoli Bazaar as managed chaos. It might sound a bit romantic but I believe that you can feel the pulse of a city or town in such narrow lanes. I have always felt nostalgic about the lanes and alleys of places I have been. Be it Asansol where I grew up, or north Calcutta where I migrated to, or Assan in Kathmandu where I went on a project.

The snaking lane in Jaisalmer also threw up surprises. The shopkeeper who sold me a camel skin hat for eighty rupees (when the market rate seemed to be a hundred to one fifty) handed over a silk carry bag worth five rupees when we asked for a poly-bag. Then there was this terrace restaurant on the first floor that offered a wonderful sunset view of the Golden Fort.

A well in the fort is supposed to date back to the time of the Mahabharat. Legends apart; this fort is perhaps the only one in the country that housed the civilian population besides the military establishment and royal family. Real estate deals still take place within the fort walls. The houses are repaired with stones of the antique buildings supplemented by new blocks made from the same material. I saw the house of Mukul of the film “Sonar Kella” being repaired.

Jodhpur might have some industry that is independent of the tourist traffic. Jaisalmer is however totally dependent on tourism. And “Sonar Kella” it seems to have helped to generate a lot of domestic tourism.

The sand dunes that suddenly appear in the barren land about forty kilometers off Jaisalmer also seem like a make believe desert that has been planted there for the benefit of the tourists. It does give you a taste of the desert. You can use your imagination to extend the experience on the dunes to visualize the desert that you see on TV. But somewhere at the bottom of your heart you feel that this is not the desert that you had hoped to see.

I went as a tourist so I could excuse myself gaping at a lot of things. But there were a few feelings, realizations and observations. Commonplace experiences that made a mark: after all that is what travel is all about.

I used to swear by Lonely Planet. It is a great piece of work. I remember the advice to avoid a hotel in Benaras because all the rooms open inwards on to the staircase and that somehow make the hotel very noisy. It is a meticulously researched guidebook that is meant for visiting tourists. Domestic travelers should not plan village safaris in Rajasthan, for example, because the Book advises you to do so.

Then there is a section of the population in popular tourist destinations that are out to fleece you. Be it the “panda” population in Orrissa or the “tribal” population in Rajasthan, or the travel agent who will sell you one backwater trip while promising another. It is always a challenge to enjoy your vacation in spite of these fellow countrymen.

We people of India have a bad sense of history. A young nation with a rich past has complicated matters. The cannon balls on the bastions of the Golden Fort co-exist with the laundry that has been laid out to dry. Unfortunately we are part of the history. The non-western world perhaps remembers history perhaps in a different way too. In the movie Sahara someone says, “We use events to find dates, not dates to find events.”

So what else did I do in that quarter of the Christian calendar year when I went to Sonar Kella?

On the job front I mentioned a transition in my last mailer. I am trying out how “business operations” taste; what the war for talent really means; living the headache of managing young talent, or resources; the trick of housing members of the of the same project in the same work area. I could describe this job as “managing demand and supply in the space-time continuum.” 🙂

I have been active in the cyber space too. I have started using an e-mail it that says shoumo@ganguli.in. I have booked the http://www.thoughtzine.com domain – haven’t yet figured what to do with it. I have also started writing reviews at mouthshut.com. In case you want to have a look at the reviews of the hotels I stayed in during the Rajasthan trip (or the other reviews on Airtel or Pench) you are most welcome to visit http://www.mouthshut.com/user/Saumya.Ganguly.html. If you want to sign up please use the link http://www.mouthshut.com/SIGNUP/Register/register.php?ref=Saumya.Ganguly&rid=R9F1R2.