Here in Pune I get my hair cut at A Cut in Time barbershop, located in the Boat Club Road area only about 4 or so kilometers from my flat. Some months back I posted a picture of a roadside barber; these are very common across the city. However driver Rupesh recommends this place as better quality, and I’m always happy to have him guide me in matters of this sort. The cuts I get here are good, though a bit reminiscent of the Kennedy Administration.
This shop provides a great many services:
At Rs. 50, a haircut is less than $1.
I have not yet dared the chest-hair trim, but I have sampled the head massage with oil. Among the oils you can choose from is a rather terrifying fire-engine red substance – this I declined, and instead selected olive oil – extra virgin of course. The experience was both relaxing and invigorating, though the waft of olive oil that followed me the rest of the day kept me much in the appetite for shrimp scampi.
Grilled Spicy Fish with Pineapple; Grilled/Roast Pork with Chili; Sticky Rice Steamed in Pineapple; my own personal pot of rice noodles in tomato/vinegar/chili sauce. Heaven indeed.
But I get ahead of myself. Almost since I began my assignment here in India, I have been looking for opportunity to travel to China. It’s only 2 1/2 time zones away; my IBM division has a sizeable presence in IBM’s China Development Lab (CDL) in Beijing; and, my IBM Sametime product line has many customers in China – so a visit would be a great chance to connect with the team I have worked with remotely for so long, and also to learn about the China market.
Work-wise, I think the trip was a great success, both with customers and with the team. In this post, though, I want to share some experiences of the trip itself.
First order of business is I need to extend my deepest thanks to my friend and colleague, Yu Y Wang, aka Charlie (many Chinese people who work with Westerners adopt a Western name to simplify communication). Here’s a pic of Charlie and myself at Beijing’s Olympic Park, in front of the famous Water Cube and one of IBM’s buildings in Beijing:
Not only did Charlie create an excellent and detailed agenda for my trip, all the time I was there he extended the greatest, most famous hospitality of China.
He fed me.
Back in USA you may get a sense of how food is viewed by Chinese people, by going to better Chinese restaurants and seeing the round tables with the carousel, packed with numerous plates of food and many people deftly wielding chopsticks to pick off morsels as the food travels by. One of our team lunches during my stay was exactly that:
Here we had: Duck Braised with Fish (anchovy size fishes you ate head, bones and all – I probably ate more than my share), Soup, Green Vegetable with Chili and garlic, Noodles, more Braised Duck, and Chicken with Peanut. And a few more dishes were added as the lunch progressed. There were about 10 of us but still, it was a hearty meal.
Talking to my teammates I find that lunch like this is pretty common, maybe not every day, but many days. What a fantastic change from our typical American work lunch of hastily grabbed pre-prepared sandwich, eaten at your desk, while you attempt to catch up on email. This lunch connects you with your teammates, clears your mind for the afternoon’s work, and just tastes really great.
My first night in Beijing Charlie took me out for one of the culinary must-dos of a Beijing visit: Eating Beijing Roast duck. This we did at Jiuhuashan Roast Duck, one of the top duck restaurants in all of the city:
The duck here is fantastic: The skin has a flavorful crunch, but with just the perfect amount of oil so that is seems each mouthful melts as you taste it. And we had not only roast duck but duck intestine – sautéed with vegetables and chili, amazingly tender – duck gizzard – roasted and sliced paper-thin, chewy and full of duck flavor – duck tongue – small, chewy bits in agar jelly – and duck soup – very rich duck flavor and also with the right hint of ginger and scallion.
Charlie is from Sichuan Province and after a few tentative inquiries – “Do you really like spicy food?” – on Tuesday night he shared with me the signature dish of Sichan: hot-pot at one of the branches of Haidilao Hot Pot restaurant. Haidilao is an award-winning place, and deservedly so – the service, quality and ambiance was outstanding. We arrived a bit early so there was no wait for us, but when we left we saw the large waiting area was filled with 100s of people, playing cards and other games, and having free snacks while they waited for tables.
The whole point of hot-pot is, well, the pot:
We got a pot with 2 separate soups, a peppery, vinegary soup on the left and a rich, mushroom-flavored soup on the right. I saw other diners using a single type of soup.
While your soup is heating up, the servers bring the ingredients:
From left to right they are: Duck throat, Catfish, Pork intestine, Duck intestine, Pork Sausage. And these are only some of the ingredients; we also had beef, vegetables, shrimp dumplings, and tree-ear mushrooms.
You probably can guess how this works, but if you can’t: The soup comes to a boil, then you grab a fresh ingredients with chopsticks and plunge it into the hot soup. After 1 –2 mins, it’s cooked, and you can dip it into a bowl of other sauces, or just eat it hot from the pot. The various ladles can be used to rescue lost morsels – of which I created several, as my chopstick skills are not as great as Charlie’s.
Another great treat at Haidilao: hand-stretched noodles. I should have captured a pic, but here’s one from the web:
In this “noodle dance”, the noodle-guy will stretch one noodle using moves half rhythmic gymnastics, half wu-shu – the noodles fly around like lassos till, when finally stretched enough, they gather up the long strand and drop it in the soup.
My last night Charlie took me to the Middle 8th Restaurant (a name I still don’t understand) which specializes in Yunnan food; Yunnan is just to the south of Sichuan and Charlie explained the food was similar to that is his home province, though not quite as spicy.
The picture that introduces this post was taken at Middle 8th … I should have taken more, but even though I was at end of my trip and had tried more dishes than I can remember, I was still more eager to eat than to photograph. In addition to the grilled fish, roast pork, and pineapple rice, we had cold noodles, a kind of cold spicy grain dish (not sure if it wheat or some other grain) and “steam pot chicken”, the famous soup of Yunnan, which looks like this:
That was my trip: 5 days and 50 dishes, and each dish delicious. I hope to be back in the spring. Till then … thanks, Charlie, and thanks everyone at CDL – you can be sure I’ll bring my appetite with me when I return.
* In China there is a proverb, “To the ruler, the people are heaven; to the people, food is heaven.” There is a book of this very title, which I have, written by AP reporter Audra Ang about her experiences as an expat journalist in China.
Imagine a piece of jewelry, painstakingly crafted, subtle and refined in ornament, and composed of natural materials selected for the richness of their innate beauty. Imagine this made as a keepsake, a thing such as any of us would present to a wife, or a husband.
Now imagine this work of the jeweler’s art at monumental size, surrounded by gardens that project silence and peace, and placed on a riverbank where the openness of the floodplain and the slow, steady flow of sacred waters bear continuous testimony to this most singular gift.
Imagine this, and you will have some sense of the Taj Mahal.
I would say most people thinking of the Taj typically envisage images like these:
Taj Mahal is built entirely of white marble that was brought to the city of Agra from the town of Makrana, in Rajasthan. This marble has a milky, cloud-like quality to it such that from far-off, or even from a middle distance, the palace seems light and floating.
However one of the more striking things to me was the incredible detail work that can be seen in virtually every surface of the Taj, like these:
The floral adornment in the middle bottom is carved in relief on the face of the stone; the surfaces feel extremely smooth. The main embellishment is inlaid into the marble, using the ancient technique of pietra dura and a variety of different minerals, including: yellow marble, jasper (black marble), jade, turquoise, coral and lapis lazuli.
The other amazing part of the Taj Mahal is the plan of the entire site. The marble palace stands at the head of a long, rectangular garden:
Mughal architecture makes extensive use of 2- and 4-way symmetry. The Taj is 4-sided, is surrounded by 4 towers, inside has 4 chambers around the main tomb. To left and right of the palace are smaller palaces of red sandstone, one of which is today a functioning mosque:
The minarets, domes and smaller flanking domes all are mirror images. To our modern way of thinking this symmetry would be dull and boring. but here, with the great scale, the riverbank setting, and the detailed ornament – which constantly draws the eye – the effect is grand, dignified and serene.
Most visitors to Taj Mahal, it seemed to me, were there to take photos of each other, and to enjoy family or group vacations. Yet the peacefulness of this place can be very affecting, as this fellow Westerner seemed to find:
For our part, after seeing the palace close up we spent much time strolling the gardens. These were flanked by trees and were virtually deserted – everyone really wants to just take photos of brother and sister making funny faces in front of the Taj. For us, we spent our own meditation time looking on these scenes:
At last, it becomes time to leave and one must reflect on the story of Taj Mahal: How the Mughal Emperor Shah Jehan had a treasured wife, born Arjumand Banu but that he named Mumtaz Mahal, or “Jewel of the Palace”. The histories tell us that she was the Emperor’s trusted partner and favorite of his three wives: Jehan and Mumtaz had between them 14 children, including Aurangzeb, who ultimately succeeded his father and became the last Mughal Emperor. Mumtaz was also Jehan’s most trusted advisor. Holder of his royal seal, she advised Jehan to sire no more children with his other wives; this of course strengthened her own position, but at the same time Mumtaz hoped to prevent the political unrest that would come from different bloodlines competing for primacy. Alas, this proved to be a vain hope.
After 19 years of marriage, Mumtaz died in giving birth to her 14th child, a daughter, Gauharara Begum, who lived for 75 years. After her death, Jehan began construction of the Taj Mahal. Yet as he himself aged, he fell prey to disease and in his weakness his four sons – all by Mumtaz – began to contest for supremacy. Aurangzeb, third of the four, emerged as the victor: The second brother Shuja died in obscurity in Bengal after defeat in battle; Aurangzeb assassinated his eldest brother Dara after defeating him in another battle; then finally the youngest brother Murad was executed on trumped-up charges of murder. Whatever harmony Jehan and Mumtaz might have found in their own family life, it clearly did not extend to the lives of their sons.
The popular narrative told by guides and guidebooks is that Shah Jehan never himself experienced the completed Taj – at our hotel one of the stewards told us Aurangzeb was mad his father had spent so much money, so he imprisoned him in Agra Fort before it was done. But Jehan was actually imprisoned in 1658, 5 years after the palace and gardens were completed – I’m sure the great Emperor walked the very stones we did and looked at this sublime palace from the very same vantages. Doubtless Aurangzeb was motivated more by fear of his father – he had after all just killed all of his father’s sons excepting himself – than he was by thrift.
Shah Jehan is regarded as the greatest Mughal Emperor. He not only built Taj Mahal, but numerous other palaces, forts and mosques, all equally resplendent as the tomb of Mumtaz. Was Taj Mahal truly love’s last gift as the romantic stories profess? Or was it just another projection of power, a statement to the world and the last excess of an Emperor who had already created for himself the Peacock Throne, composed of over 1,000 kg of gold and 230 kg of precious stones?
I don’t think we can know the answer to that. But, from Agra Fort, through the narrow slot of a stone archway, we were able to see the same view that Jehan would have had:
Today, all is sadly smogged over with pollution. Yet perhaps Jehan saw through a mist as well, wondering at the end of life what had been vanity, and what had been truly important.
The #2 question* my Western friends ask me when they hear I am working in India is “Have you seen the Taj Mahal?” As one of new 7 wonders of the world, the Taj Mahal is certainly the best known of India’s many historical places. And I daresay everyone knows the romantic story, how a Moghul emperor built Taj Mahal as a memorial for a beloved wife – in India the Taj is a top honeymoon destination. So, bowing to the inevitable, just after Diwali we three Salazars made our way to Agra, to see this renowned palace of love.
* The #1 question is, “Are there really cows everywhere?” Answer: Yes.
In later posts I’ll share both the details and my impressions of the Taj, but today let me give some info on how we went about our visit. We were not part of a tour, nor did we get any guide, and for us these things were excellent choices. We saw a great many groups on tours, trooping about soldier-fashion. The advantage of a tour is there are no surprises and you see what you are supposed to see. The downside is, you can’t set your own pace, you are locked in to whatever timetable the tour has set. Since we are used to getting about here in India, we had little need to join up with a tour.
Which brings me to guides. If you visit on your own guides will accost you, flashing laminated badges and cards that supposedly are government-issued certifications. They will enlist you in casual conversation, “Oh, what country are you from? Are you liking India?” and quickly cut to the chase that for only Rs. 300/400/500/whatever, they will put their encyclopedic knowledge at your disposal and personally show you the deepest secrets of the Taj. The reality will be they will add numerous other charges – for example to supposedly get ahead in queues – and then relentlessly steer you to souvenir shops run by their relatives. On top of it all their knowledge is not much more than this:
My advice: Do what we did, read wikiPedia and other references on the Taj before you get here, and you will know as much, if not more, than all the guides.
The actual site of the Taj Mahal is very large, a complex of buildings and gardens over 42 acres in size. The complex has three accessible gates: West, South and East; the North side of the Taj Mahal is on the banks of the River Yamuna. We arrived at the East gate. Our driver waited in the parking area while we made our way to the adjacent ticket and visitors center:
Inside here you buy your ticket. If you are a foreigner this will be Rs. 750 per person, somewhat over $10 US. With your ticket you will get a bottle of water and some booties for your shoes – make sure you keep these!
We reached at about 9 am. I very much recommend arriving this time or even earlier. The lines will only get longer and the day will only get hotter the later you arrive.
The actual complex is about a mile from here. Every 5-10 minutes some electric shuttle vehicles will come by to take you to the real entrance. Every such vehicle is equipped with these helpful warning signs:
None of us had brought “nife” nor “helmate”, so off we went. After 5 mins or so ride, the bus/cart will drop you off just outside the first set of gates:
Just inside is a security check, and here is where the strange “prohibited items” list comes into play. There are guards there who will pat you down and check all bags, parcels, etc. Bring with you as little as possible! You risk getting sent back to the ticket building where you will have to check your contraband in a locker. This nearly happened to a Canadian tourist who came in near to us. His offense: He had a large bandana that featured the Canadian flag.
In terms of the crowds and getting around inside the grounds, these scenes show what we encountered:
We didn’t find the crowds bad. The main thing to watch for is everyone jockeying to get un-impeded photo-op locations. We saw at least 10 cases of someone doing the wildly original pose where they hold their hand in grasping position up and to the side and the shooter frames the shot so it can later be captioned, “Look, I am holding the Taj Mahal!” But by and large everyone was friendly and happily disposed – the place does radiate a certain peaceful nature.
Well, all happily disposed excerpt for this guy:
I snapped this while we were resting on a bench; this critter had no fear of us and I assumed it was because of long exposure to people. 15 seconds after I took this pic Kim screamed out, “AAH! What that – ?” The cheeky bastard had jumped up on the bench behind us and bit her finger! Later we saw touts who for a few Rs. provide handsful of meal, which you then can use to attract these pests to come and eat out of your hand. We did not partake of this service and thereafter took great glee in scaling pebbles and twigs at other chipmunks we saw massing to attack.
One last bit of logistics: With your ticket you receive some “shoe muffs” or booties. To walk on the actual palace you need either to remove your shoes or to wear the booties. Like most foreigners, we don’t like walking barefoot so we put on the booties:
If you decide to go shoeless, be aware that a) You need to carry them with you since there is no safe place to leave them, and b) You will be walking on bare stone for 100s of meters which, depending on time of year here, can get scaldingly hot. Use the booties.
Once you are done seeing the Taj you should exit the same gate where you arrived; ideally the same carts/shuttles can take you back. There are other options, like this:
The pre-paid shuttle was taking a long time – we waited 15 mins or so – and so we decided to engage a pony trap much like this one:
Like so much here, you bargain for these services. Do not get into any vehicle until you fix a price! Whatever they say, you say 1/2 that. If he re-states the original price, walk away – they will follow. If you get to a price you can live with, get in and go. Our pony driver asked for Rs. 200, we settled on 150. The difference is less than $1 – but it would not be India if you didn’t bargain.
Also on the walk back from the gate and the drop-off point are some small restaurants and many souvenir shops. We had no need of souvenirs, which mostly are miniature Tajs. We did stop for lunch – where we were the only westerners in the place – and had parathas and a dish of paneer korma for a grand total of Rs. 225.
How long did everything take? We arrived at the ticket place around 9 am, and returned 12:45 or so. I don’t think you need much more time to see what you want to see at the Taj Mahal. If you are in a big party, and/or you feel like taking your time, you might spend another hour or so. We in fact had more than enough time to go from the Taj Mahal to see Agra Fort, and then to get back to hotel in plenty of time for shower and dinner.
Those are the details of how we did our visit. It may seem odd, but for us we get significant satisfaction when, well, things just go as planned. Taking a trip like this there’s 100s of things that can go wrong, from missing your driver, to getting swindled or pickpocketed to getting denied entry and more. Even though we’ve been living here more than a year we still read all the travel sites we could find, especially India Mike – forewarned is forearmed.
The planning is worth it. After all your travels you finally reach the inner gate to the gardens, which is darkness all around, but through the archway you glimpse the palace, so white and ethereal it seems like a cloud:
Next time, I’ll do my poor best to show the many beauties of this wondrous place.
The holiday time of Diwali, the festival of lights, has come to India. The pix above came from Saturday evening, strolling about Koregaon Park after our dinner, and what they portray is typical – every home and business must show its lights. The “supermarket” shown in the right-most pic was doing a brisk trade; paper lanterns and fairy lights sell in vast quantities this time of year. We have such a lantern hung in our living room:
It is hard to describe Diwali. It’s natural to link such observances to something from your own experience. For example, there’s many gifts exchanged, so some people might say, “Oh, it’s like Christmas.” Others might hear Diwali commemorates different cases of good triumphing over evil – light triumphing over darkness and all that – so you might say it is like a more solemn Christian observance of Easter, or a Jewish one of Hanukah. Finally there’s lots of food and family visiting, so you might say it’s like Thanksgiving. None of these, nor any other trite parallel, is true to the feeling you get here – Diwali is its own thing.
In addition to our lantern, we are following our Indian friends and neighbors in yet another holiday practice: vacation! Since our visit to Aurangabad last February we haven’t really taken any time off, so we certainly are due. Since most schools are out all week for the holiday, this is when people go to visit distant family, take relaxation, or go sight-seeing. Count us in the latter category: Our destinations, Agra and the Taj Mahal, then India’s capital city, New Delhi. Tomorrow at 6 am our flight departs. I will try for some posts this week while we are seeing all these sights, though I can’t promise anything.
It’s evening here, and the festival fireworks are starting, color bursts in the sky far and near, interspersed with reports of varying loudness – from pop-gun to howitzer. Till I post here again:
Diwali ki Shubhkamnayein!
Seen at an antique dealer here in Pune.
It seemed old, but now it is set immovable in its frame – an un-openable door.
One of the bigger news items here of past few weeks:
UNNAO (UP): A sadhu’s dream of hidden gold treasure at Raja Rao Ram Bux Singh’s fort here has prompted a team of Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) to survey the area and begin excavation work from October 18.
The sadhu, Shobhan Sarkar, had apparently dreamt that 1,000 tonnes of gold was buried in the remains of the fort situated in Daundaia Kheda village. …
Let’s see, with gold at roughly $43,000 per kilogram, and assuming metric tonnes (why would a sadhu dream in imperial measures?) that is 1000 x 1000 kilograms or 1 million kg, dollar value $43 billion; a tidy sum, to be sure.
Getting back to the gold, the specific density of gold is 53 cc (cubic centimeters) per kilogram. Our sadhu’s dream therefore was about 53 million cc, which seems like a lot. Sticking with volume, 1,000 cc == 1 liter. The sadhu therefore dreamed a mass of gold 53,000 liters in volume – or, a rectangular block about 10 meters long by 5 meters high by 1 meter wide: that’s a big brick.
Alas, this particular dream seems to have been mistaken:
NEW DELHI: The Archaeological Survey of India has stopped digging for gold treasure at the fort of Raja Rao Ram Bux Singh in Unnao. According to ASI officials, excavations have confirmed that there was no gold at the fort, Times Now reported.
Some pottery pieces from Buddhist era have been found from the site.
Thus far, no word from the sadhu on what went wrong. Apparently one of the sadhu’s supporters, Azam Khan, the Uttar Pradesh Urban Development Ministers, believes that “ … had Narendra Modi not ridiculed monk Shobhan Sarkar, the gold would not have vanished.”
I feel the same way about lottery tickets. Many of mine would have doubtless hit, if only I had not bought them.
Where Indian food is concerned, the one thing that seems a universal constant here is comfort. I don’t find a lot of fine dining hereabouts, but all around is food that is filling, satisfying, simple and, well, yummy. A top example is Nandu’s, where they serve pretty much just parathas, a griddle-fried pancake made from wheat flour and stuffed with different things. Just like the swedish meatball, every culture has its own version of the pancake. India, abundantly blessed in so many ways, has many versions, from dosa to roti to paratha to uppam to madak saan to cheelas and more.
But Nandu’s is pure paratha. Here’s what you get:
This one was stuffed with potato and chopped fresh green chili. It comes with coriander chutney, some raita, and some pickle – mango, lime or other vegetable in salt, vinegar and more chili. On the spoon is a dollop of ghee – clarified butter. It all comes to you hot off the griddle. You drizzle the ghee all over, tear off bite-size chunks of pancake, dunk in raita or chutney, and then eat. Then you eat more, and along with thinking how just plain good it is – the butter, the pancake, the filling, all fresh and hot – you’re also cursing every hour you ever wasted eating American fast-food.
The price … wait for it … a big, big Rs. 90, or about $1.50.
I’ve been in India over a year, with less than a year remaining and people are already asking, “What will you miss when you go?” I have a lot of work to do on that list, but the #1 entry is easy: Nandu’s.
I really wanted David Eggers The Circle to be the dystopian novel of our time. It isn’t – it is all at once too approachable, too light-handed, too inclusive and, oddly, too believable to be truly menacing.
And that’s a shame, because the subject of The Circle is an insidious one, a true and deadly threat, and worthy of a dystopic classic.
Here’s a spoiler-free summary of the book: In a future fairly near to now, a company named “The Circle” – a combination of Facebook, PayPal, Twitter, Google and others – dominates the worldwide internet. The core of the company’s success is an authentication service called “TruYou”. TruYou can be used by any third party application, much like Facebook’s OAuth-based service does today. However TruYou purports to allow unique, real-world people only – no invented IDs allowed; when you login with TruYou, you can only operate as your actual self. The great benefit of TruYou is supposed to be the greater transparency (get used to hearing that word if you read this book) and authenticity it promotes. No longer can trolls, scam-artists, sexual predators and the like hide behind IDs like “rockrDude882”.
Into the world of The Circle enters Mae Holland, the every-person protagonist required by a dystopian story. Mae is in her mid-20s, in a job at an old-school company she finds unsatisfying. To the rescue comes Annie, Mae’s college roommate, who in the four years since she’s last seen Mae has had a meteoric rise in the management ranks of The Circle. Annie gets Mae a job at The Circle, something incredibly hard to do as an outsider. Annie does want to do a favor for her pal, but mainly she wants allies; even from the first few pages you see The Circle has a cruel corporate culture, though of course officially performance-minded and caring. Mae’s job is in “customer experience”, essentially a customer-service phone rep, as was explained to Mae by her trainer:
"Okay, as you know, for now you are just doing straight-up customer maintenance for the smaller advertisers. They send a message to Customer Experience, and it gets routed to one of us … When you figure out the answer, you write them back…
“Now, that doesn’t mean you just paste the answer in and send it back. You should make each response personal, specific. You’re a person and they’re a person, and you shouldn’t treat them like robots … you should always be sure to inject humanity into the process.
Humanity, however, is the last thing the Circle is about, as Mae finds when the trainer explains the rating system:
“Now let’s say you’ve answered a client’s question … that’s when you send them the survey and they fill it out. It’s a set of quick questions about your service, their overall experience, and at the end they’re asked to rate it. The rating pops up here.”
He pointed to the corner of the screen, where there was a large number 99, and below, a grid of other numbers.
Mae’s first day of work is all about her struggles and triumphs with her score. In the end she achieves a 98. This news – the highest-ever score by a first-day person – is “zinged” (The Circle’s equivalent of Twitter) to over 10,000 people and leads to 187 follow-up comments.
You may be thinking: So what? This already happens at countless companies today, and I don’t see the world coming to an end. Well, 99% of what happens in The Circle is happening today – it just is not happening under the auspices of a single entity. The Circle aggregates everything and is the one thing that has a total view, which it uses to promote its capitalistic growth and raw power. Another example: In the course of the story, The Circle launches “transparent democracy”, a 100% public life-log for elected officials. A fictitious Congresswoman describes the benefits:
“That’s right, Tom. I’m as concerned as you are about the needs for citizens to know what their elected leaders are doing. I mean, it is your right, is it not? Who they are meeting with. Who they are talking to. What they’ve been doing on the taxpayer’s dime. Until now, it’s been an ad hoc system of accountability … But still we wonder, why are they meeting with their former-senator-turned-lobbyist? And how did that congressman get that $150,000 the FBI found in his fridge?
“So I intend to follow Stewart on his path of illumination. And along the way,I intend to show how democracy can and should be: entirely open, entirely transparent. Starting today, I will be wearing the same device that Stewart wears. My every meeting, movement, my every word, will be available to all my constituents and to the world.”
In the story, “transparent democracy” becomes an unstoppable force, driven by the insidious view that, if someone protests, they must be hiding something. The persistent holdouts all find themselves forced from office, victims of sudden discoveries of past poor judgment, ambiguous financial dealings, or questionable tastes in pornography.
I hope no one doubts the fundamental plausibility of this. We live in a world where a significant portion of the US population believes Barack Obama was born in Kenya, all based on publically retrievable information. Given enough money and media control, anyone can be ruined just by “facts” – no need to concoct anything. In the world of The Circle, The Circle has all information, all media, and everyone’s identity. That “closing of the circle” is the danger.
Here’s a scenario to ponder. One of the links in this post is to the Goodreads page for The Circle. I am a member of Goodreads, having linked my Facebook ID. Like a lot of people I have rated some books. Now, imagine if I listed and rated every book I have read. In there would be works like The Occupy Handbook, The Price of Inequality and The Myth of the Rational Market. Looking at these and other books I have read it would not be hard to infer my political leanings. Now, let’s say I want to get a job. Hiring today is done more and more through a small number of online providers, and has a heavy component of online analytics, looking at public internet data about you, like what keg-party pictures you publicly post on Facebook.
Finally, imagine that the online company that does hiring is the same company as Goodreads, as Amazon, as Facebook, and more. They know everything you read, everything you buy, everything you search for on the web. What do you think about the hiring process now?
Maybe that scares you, maybe it doesn’t. This is one of the ironic truths of The Circle. It correctly captures the reality that people aren’t frightened by this, that while (for example) they maniacally protest that affordable health care for fellow citizens is somehow destroying their liberty, they happily surrender liberty by telling everything about themselves to Facebook, to Walmart, to Twitter, and just about anything online with a nice looking web page, all for the sake of a few “Likes” on a cat picture.
The arc of the story in The Circle is embodied in Mae, who goes from angsty CE newbie to one of the 20-most followed people on the planet. Like so many of us, Mae never notices what happens, every step on the path seems innocuous. Things happen to people – which I won’t spoil for anyone – and much of the book’s message is in Mae’s reactions to it all. The lobster/sea turtle scene made me squirm.
I said The Circle is not the cautionary story of our time. I think its great weakness as dystopian fiction is it never really personalizes the threat, the danger. Everything happens on the internet, as it were, and that makes it distant. Again, that is part of the message: when your experience of destroying an enemy is not shooting him face to face, but through a drone attack you view by remote video, it’s a lot easier to follow through and just kill him. But there’s a catch-22 here (another dystopian idea for which we should be thankful) that by showing the reality of how this threat works, Eggers weakens the message about the threat.
The most powerful thing in the book is the slogan of the Circle, articulated by Mae as she starts her rise to power:
SECRETS ARE LIES
SHARING IS CARING
PRIVACY IS THEFT
Because of these three lines, if for no other reason, we have to contrast The Circle with 1984, which made famous three lines of its own:
WAR IS PEACE
FREEDOM IS SLAVERY
IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH
1984 is still the more powerful work by far. In a way, the quest of Winston Smith and Julia, the lovers of 1984, is the problem of The Circle: How to be private, how to be alone with one another. Yet, nothing in The Circle comes close to the visceral, personal experience of Winston in The Ministry of Love, Orwell’s vision of the KGB-like future intelligence/torture agency that enforces political correctness and combats “thoughtcrime”. Here a fellow prisoner loses all control at the thought of torture in the dreaded “Room 101”:
’Comrade! Officer!’ he cried. ’You don’t have to take me to that place!
Haven’t I told you everything already? What else is it you want to know?
There’s nothing I wouldn’t confess, nothing! Just tell me what it is and I’ll
confess straight off. Write it down and I’ll sign it — anything! Not room 101!’
’Room 101,’ said the officer.
The man’s face, already very pale, turned a colour Winston would not have
believed possible. It was definitely, unmistakably, a shade of green.
’Do anything to me!’ he yelled. ’You’ve been starving me for weeks. Finish
it off and let me die. Shoot me. Hang me. Sentence me to twenty-five years. Is
there somebody else you want me to give away? Just say who it is and I’ll tell
you anything you want. I don’t care who it is or what you do to them. I’ve got
a wife and three children. The biggest of them isn’t six years old. You can take
the whole lot of them and cut their throats in front of my eyes, and I’ll stand
by and watch it. But not Room 101!’
’Room 101,’ said the officer.
Orwell was able to pull out the fear that is in all of us and place it in the light where it can be seen for itself: cold, cowering, heartless, and dreadful. The Circle verges on showing us ourselves but, at the last instant, it steps back and grants us too much absolution.
I did “like” The Circle, though you won’t see me reviewing it on Goodreads <g>. It is a fast read, though the somewhat nerdy sex-scenes might make you wince, especially the one where one of Mae’s lamer liaisons asks for a 1-100 rating so he can post it on his blog. (SPOILER: As women have done through the ages, Mae gives him a 100.) But that I think was part of the atmosphere Eggers was trying to capture. One side-aspect I really liked was the way it captured the faux-inventiveness of Silicon Valley, and the heartless nature of big corporate existence, though I think these are aspects that won’t be apparent to a reader unless they have experienced some of that first hand. I will say I disliked the character of Annie at the start, only to really feel for her at the end.
My final thoughts? I think it is part of human nature to care, to share, and to do the right thing. But only part. We are often worse in the aggregate than we are on our own.
Thinking on the title of this book, this came to me, something I haven’t heard in many years:
Like the hymn says, there is a circle that connects us. As long as we find ways to make that come alive, not with packets and posts, but with flesh and blood, I expect we’ll do alright. But if we don’t, we could be looking at a future that makes the brutality of Room 101 look like a merciful finality.
These two articles from the India Times caught my eye when I was on a trip a few weeks back:
BANGALORE: India’s launch preparations for the ambitious Rs 450 crore Mars orbiter mission achieved a major milestone with the successful thermo-vacuum test of the spacecraft with its payloads (scientific instruments).
… ISRO said the primary objectives of the mission are to demonstrate India’s technological capability to send a satellite to orbit around Mars and conduct meaningful experiments such as looking for signs of life, take pictures of the red planet and study Martian environment.
… After leaving earth orbit in November, the spacecraft will cruise in deep space for 10 months using its own propulsion system and will reach Mars (Martian transfer trajectory) in September 2014.
The vehicle that will convey the satellite on its journey is the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV):
PSLV was developed by India in the 80s and had its first launch in 1993. Providing a national means to launch communications satellites is of course economically very important. Just as significant is the national pride that stems from PSLV.
So, Mars! How cool is that? The US has of course sent many famous missions to Mars, and the ongoing discoveries from Curiosity are amazing. But we won’t have another mission till 2020. So for now I say, Go India!
The second article speaks to concerns both earthly and heavenly:
JAISALMER: For the dead in the desert town of Jaisalmer, their caste tag lives on. A government agency for urban affairs in the western Rajasthan district has sanctioned separate and clearly marked cremation grounds for different castes and communities.
The Urban Improvement Trust (UIT) in its board meeting on July 10 adopted the proposal for developing 47 new crematoriums and sanctioned Rs 5 crore for the project. The money will be spent as per the requirement of various castes and sub-castes, from across the hierarchy. Some of the 47 groups allocated cremation sites are nai, darji, bhatia, kumhar, puskaran, grahaman, ranvanarajput, maheshwari, soni and jeenagar. The UIT is under the jurisdiction of the state’s urban development and housing ministry.
This effort is all so families need not cremate their dead in the facility used by another caste, as shown in this picture:
The Indian Constitution makes caste discrimination illegal, but nonetheless caste is ever-present. For example, assignment as one of India’s Presidential guards is open only to Rajputs, Jats and Sikhs, three traditional military castes. The authorities explain this is done “purely on functional requirements”, as if only people born in these families have the objective capability of presidential guarding.
Castes are nearly synonymous with surname – just by knowing a name Indian people can often develop a fairly accurate picture of someone’s social standing. A book I have read and referred to since coming here is The Tribes and Castes of the Central Provinces of India. This multi-volume work – available on Project Gutenberg and for free on Kindle – was written by R. V. Russell and published in 1916. I have to admit I often take the family names of people I meet here and search for them in this book. For example, here’s what TCCPI says about some of the castes referred to in the cremation article: “Kumhars” are potters, while “Nais” are barbers. The “Ranvanarajput” or “rawana rajput” or “rawna rajput” are a sub-clan of Rajputs – soldiers, as I mentioned above.
Caste and occupation are inextricably related. As I said, people of the “kumhar” or “kumbhar” (the Marathi version of the word) community were originally potters; if your father was named Kumbhar, he made pots, and you would make pots, end of story. 100 years ago, or even 60 years ago, this was very close to absolute – there was no choice in what your role in the world would be. But today this is no longer true. While I’m sure many Kumbhars still make and sell pots, LinkedIn shows me over 870 professionals in the Pune area alone with surname Kumbhar, with job titles ranging from “Central Govt Servant” to “Accounts Executive” to “Senior Maintenance Engineer”.
While the hard and fast link between caste and occupation is largely broken, caste as community remains. One way you can see this is through the endless marriage websites that exist here, all providing matchmaking services to particular communities, like this one for Kumbhars. If you are a Kumbhar man, there you can browse the profiles and smiling pictures of lady Consultants, Executives, and Sales Professionals, all Kumbhars. And while more and more young people in their online profiles indicate “caste no bar” to marriage – i.e., they would marry outside their caste – today only about 10% of people here actually do that.
As an American I shouldn’t criticize. In USA people rarely marry outside their own socio-economic class, though in the US today inter-racial marriages are at an all-time high. But the hard part for me to understand is the arbitrariness of caste, to exclude people not because they are richer or poorer or have a different social experience from you, but because 100s of years ago their forebears were potters, while yours were weavers.
When I first read these two articles on the same day, I spent some time pondering the question, how can the nation that sends a spacecraft to Mars also publically acknowledge and promote the idea of caste? It’s no answer, but I found this observation, in Gods and Rockets: A Tale of Science in India, that offers some illumination:
“We are afraid that the thunder-storms might have an impact on the scheduled launch.” The Chairman of the Indian Space Research Organization, G. Madhavan Nair, was speaking to reporters in Tirupathi on the morning of May 5, 2005, as the countdown continued for the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle, a 140-foot rocket loaded with two satellites. Still, he said, he remained optimistic that lift off would occur as planned at 10:19 am.
Nair had reason for confidence. Since 1993 the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle, or PSLV, had been a success story of India’s space program. What’s more, earlier that morning Nair and more than a dozen other top space scientists had visited the Tirupati temple of Lord Venkateswara, where they laid a miniature prototype of the PSLV-C6 at the feet of the deity (a form of the sustainer-god Vishnu also known as Lord Balaji) and offered prayers for a successful mission.
Yes, send a vehicle to Mars by all means … but do not neglect to propitiate Lord Balaji before you go. This is India in a nutshell.