Some Gems on wealth and ownership

October 16, 2016

Unto this Last, John Ruskin:

Political economy (the economy of a State, or of citizens) consists simply in the production, preservation, and distribution, at fittest time and place, of useful or pleasurable things. The farmer who cuts his hay at the right time; the shipwright who drives his bolts well home in sound wood; the builder who lays good bricks in well-tempered mortar; the housewife who takes care of her furniture in the parlour, and guards against all waste in her kitchen; and the singer who rightly disciplines, and never overstrains her voice: are all political economists in the true and final sense; adding continually to the riches and well-being of the nation to which they belong.

But mercantile economy, the economy of “merces” or of “pay,” signifies the accumulation, in the hands of individuals, of legal, or moral claim upon, or power over, the labour of others; every such claim implying precisely as much poverty or debt on one side, as it implies riches or right on the other.

There is, however, another reason for this habit of mind; namely, that an accumulation of real property is of little use to its owner, unless, together with it, he has commercial power over labour. Thus, suppose any person to be put in possession of a large estate of fruitful land, with rich beds of gold in its gravel, countless herds of cattle in its pastures; houses, and gardens, and storehouses full of useful stores; but suppose, after all, that he could get no servants? In order that he may be able to have servants, some one in his neighbourhood must be poor, and in want of his gold—or his corn. Assume that no one is in want of either, and that no servants are to be had. He must, therefore, bake his own bread, make his own clothes, plough his own ground, and shepherd his own flocks. His gold will be as useful to him as any other yellow pebbles on his estate. His stores must rot, for he cannot consume them. He can eat no more than another man could eat, and wear no more than another man could wear. He must lead a life of severe and common labour to procure even ordinary comforts; he will be ultimately unable to keep either houses in repair, or fields in cultivation; and forced to content himself with a poor man’s portion of cottage and garden, in the midst of a desert of waste land, trampled by wild cattle, and encumbered by ruins of palaces, which he will hardly mock at himself by calling “his own.”

The most covetous of mankind would, with small exultation, I presume, accept riches of this kind on these terms. What is really desired, under the name of riches, is, essentially, power over men; in its simplest sense, the power of obtaining for our own advantage the labour of servant, tradesman, and artist; in wider sense, authority of directing large masses of the nation to various ends (good, trivial, or hurtful, according to the mind of the rich person). And this power of wealth of course is greater or less in direct proportion to the poverty of the men over whom it is exercised, and in inverse proportion to the number of persons who are as rich as ourselves, and who are ready to give the same price for an article of which the supply is limited. If the musician is poor, he will sing for small pay, as long as there is only one person who can pay him; but if there be two or three, he will sing for the one who offers him most. And thus the power of the riches of the patron (always imperfect and doubtful, as we shall see presently, even when most authoritative) depends first on the poverty of the artist, and then on the limitation of the number of equally wealthy persons, who also wants seats at the concert. So that, as above stated, the art of becoming “rich,” in the common sense, is not absolutely nor finally the art of accumulating much money for ourselves, but also of contriving that our neighbours shall have less. In accurate terms, it is “the art of establishing the maximum inequality in our own favour.”

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Kholstomer – The Story of a Horse, by Leo Tolstoy:

I was quite in the dark as to what they meant by the words “his colt,” from which I perceived that people considered that there was some connexion between me and the head groom. What the connexion was I could not at all understand then. Only much later when they separated me from the other horses did I learn what it meant. At that time I could not at all understand what they meant by speaking of *me* as being a man’s property. The words “my horse” applied to me, a live horse, seemed to me as strange as to say “my land,” “my air,” or “my water.”

But those words had an enormous effect on me. I thought of them constantly and only after long and varied relations with men did I at last understand the meaning they attach to these strange words, which indicate that men are guided in life not by deeds but by words. They like not so much to do or abstain from doing anything, as to be able to apply conventional words to different objects. Such words, considered very important among them, are my and mine, which they apply to various things, creatures or objects: even to land, people, and horses. They have agreed that of any given thing only one person may use the word *mine*, and he who in this game of theirs may use that conventional word about the greatest number of things is considered the happiest. Why this is so I do not know, but it is so. For a long time I tried to explain it by some direct advantage they derive from it, but this proved wrong.

For instance, many of those who called me their horse did not ride me, quite other people rode me; nor did they feed me – quite other people did that. Again it was not those who called me *their* horse who treated me kindly, but coachmen, veterinaries, and in general quite other people. Later on, having widened my field of observation, I became convinced that not only as applied to us horses, but in regard to other things, the idea of mine has no other basis than a low, mercenary instinct in men, which they call the feeling or right of property. A man who never lives in it says “my house” but only concerns himself with its building and maintenance; and a tradesman talks of “my cloth business” but has none of his clothes made of the best cloth that is in his shop.

There are people who call land theirs, though they have never seen that land and never walked on it. There are people who call other people theirs but have never seen those others, and the whole relationship of the owners to the owned is that they do them harm.
There are men who call women their women or their wives; yet these women live with other men. And men strive in life not to do what they think right but to call as many things as possible *their own*.

I am now convinced that in this lies the essential difference between men and us. Therefore, not to speak of other things in which we are superior to men, on this ground alone we may boldly say that in the scale of living creatures we stand higher than man. The activity of men, at any rate of those I have had to do with, is guided by words, while ours is guided by deeds.
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The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint Exupéry:

The fourth planet belonged to a businessman. This man was so much occupied that he did not even raise his head at the little prince’s arrival.

“Good morning,” the little prince said to him. “Your cigarette has gone out.”
“Three and two make five. Five and seven make twelve. Twelve and three make fifteen.

Good morning. FIfteen and seven make twenty-two. Twenty-two and six make twenty-eight. I haven’t time to light it again. Twenty-six and five make thirty-one. Phew! Then that makes five-hundred-and-one million, six-hundred- twenty-two-thousand, seven-hundred-thirty-one.”

“Five hundred million what?” asked the little prince.
“Eh? Are you still there? Five-hundred-and-one million–I can’t stop . . . I have so much to do! I am concerned with matters of consequence. I don’t amuse myself with balderdash. Two and five make seven . . .”
“Five-hundred-and-one million what?” repeated the little prince, who never in his life had let go of a question once he had asked it.
The businessman raised his head.
“During the fifty-four years that I have inhabited this planet, I have been disturbed only three times. The first time was twenty-two years ago, when some giddy goose fell from goodness knows where. He made the most frightful noise that resounded all over the place, and I made four mistakes in my addition. The second time, eleven years ago, I was disturbed by an attack of rheumatism. I don’t get enough exercise. I have no time for loafing. The third time–well, this is it! I was saying, then, five-hundred-and-one millions– “
“Millions of what?”
The businessman suddenly realized that there was no hope of being left in peace until he answered this question.
“Millions of those little objects,” he said, “which one sometimes sees in the sky.” “Flies?”
”Oh, no. Little glittering objects.”

“Bees?”

“Oh, no. Little golden objects that set lazy men to idle dreaming. As for me, I am concerned with matters of consequence. There is no time for idle dreaming in my life.”
“Ah! You mean the stars?”
“Yes, that’s it. The stars.”
“And what do you do with five-hundred millions of stars?”
“Five-hundred-and-one million, six-hundred-twenty-two thousand, seven-hundred-thirty-one. I am concerned with matters of consequence: I am accurate.”
“And what do you do with these stars?” “What do I do with them?”

“Yes.”

“Nothing. I own them.”
“You own the stars?”

“Yes.”

“But I have already seen a king who–”

“Kings do not own, they reign over. It is a very different matter.”

“And what good does it do you to own the stars?”

“It does me the good of making me rich.”

“And what good does it do you to be rich?”

“It makes it possible for me to buy more stars, if any are discovered.”

“This man,” the little prince said to himself, “reasons a little like my poor tippler . . .”
Nevertheless, he still had some more questions. 
”How is it possible for one to own the stars?”

“To whom do they belong?” the businessman retorted, peevishly.

“I don’t know. To nobody.”

“Then they belong to me, because I was the first person to think of it.”

“Is that all that is necessary?”

“Certainly. When you find a diamond that belongs to nobody, it is yours. When you discover an island that belongs to nobody, it is yours. When you get an idea before any one else, you take out a patent on it: it is yours. So with me: I own the stars, because nobody else before me ever thought of owning them.”
“Yes, that is true,” said the little prince. “And what do you do with them?”
“I administer them,” replied the businessman. “I count them and recount them. It is difficult. But I am a man who is naturally interested in matters of consequence.”
The little prince was still not satisfied.
“If I owned a silk scarf,” he said, “I could put it around my neck and take it away with me. If I owned a flower, I could pluck that flower and take it away with me. But you cannot pluck the stars from heaven . . .”
“No. But I can put them in the bank.”

“Whatever does that mean?”
“That means that I write the number of my stars on a little paper. And then I put this paper in a drawer and lock it with a key.”
“And that is all?”
“That is enough,” said the businessman.
“It is entertaining,” thought the little prince. “It is rather poetic. But it is of no great consequence.”
On matters of consequence, the little prince had ideas which were very different from those of the grown- ups.
“I myself own a flower,” he continued his conversation with the businessman, “which I water every day. I own three volcanoes, which I clean out every week (for I also clean out the one that is extinct; one never knows). It is of some use to my volcanoes, and it is of some use to my flower, that I own them. But you are of no use to the stars . . .”
The businessman opened his mouth, but he found nothing to say in answer. And the little prince went away.
“The grown-ups are certainly altogether extraordinary,” he said simply, talking to himself as he continued on his journey.

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More musings

May 31, 2016

(More from Facebook – am archiving my posts)

A guest at our farm

================

I must have been of my daughter’s age when I last saw a chamaeleon. Now we spotted it along with her at our farm, allowing her amazement and ardour to seep into us. The lovely chamaeleon obliged by posing for my wife’s camera for over an hour in different positions and shades. (And yes, we do have an hour, and more, to spare for a chamaeleon or a Coppersmith barbet or a touch-me-not.)

Of all animals, possibly more than even the ape, its movements seem to resemble humans the most…especially its cautious outstretched limb to catch the next branch or twig. I was somehow reminded of Smeogol.

The slightly bulging eyes that rotate back and forth, independent of each other, was another sight to cherish. Precious.

We could sense that it was moving strategically, and waiting to catch one of the bees that were buzzing around, but we didn’t have as much patience to stay back and watch the catch.

As our friend Suresh observed, its camouflage is perfect. Even while we were looking at it, if we took off our eyes for a moment and tried to spot it again, it was quite a task. I wonder when we will meet it again.

 


Mornings at the village

===================

Contrary to the seeming tone of some of my posts, I have strenuously refrained from entertaining too many romantic notions about an idyllic Indian village. Whatever little might have seeped through to my heart, get sucked out every day, at dawn. Starting from 3am and with periodic snoozes, the natural alarms of the village – the domestic fowls, go off, as one should expect. Okay, good, waking up early gives me time to do some reading, writing or weeding – I cheer myself up. My Thirukkural translation has really picked up steam.Then, at 5 am, three different loud speakers commence their loudcasts. “Welcome to the new age village”. Our village speakers are secular. One is from the mosque, and goes silent first. Another plays myriad Mariamman and Murugan songs from Tamil movies. And the third, the loudest, hails how Ayyappan turns stones and thorns into a mattress for the feet. If I still happen to be in bed, the thorns prick my sluggishness. And up I rise.

By 6.30 or 7, the speakers are muted, and one starts hearing the chirping of birds, hosted by the tamarind tree nearby. The crow sits on our compound and caws for the leftover dinner. The egrets start their flight to the rivers and canals. The sunbirds come for the flowers of the drumstick tree behind the house. Even the little sparrows are back, apparently after a few years, ‘defying the doomsayers who assailed everything from pesticides to telecom towers for their disappearance’, as one villager put it.


Cows

=====

Robots that have feelings, or even life, should not be in the realm of science fiction anymore. We already have such robots. We even worship them. They are called cows. Cow, the mother. Cow, the Goddess. And we like our Goddess Mothers to be virgins.

These calf-reproducing goddess-robots lead a life of forced eternal celibacy and milk-production. Why mate, when injections are cheaper, and perceived to be safer?

So what happened to the males, the city mind asks.

When we talk of cows and beef, are bulls included? Already, we heard it from many a horse’s mouth that exported beef is nothing but buffalo meat. (No, there is no holiness-protection for black buffalos.)

When a bull is born, what is the farmer supposed to do with it? He doesn’t use it to plough anymore. Even the urban folks can understand that the bull can’t be milked, yet. The farmer doesn’t have a need for the cart any longer. With rampant abuse of chemical fertilizers, even bull shit has been banished to the urban lingo. Jallikattu, the courts have concluded, violates the rights of the bull.

Can we make an exception for bull calficide?

The cow’s economy is dead. Long live the cows.

OMG! This is too complex. Let us go and lynch the next beef-eater.


 

I was guiding a girl, from the village, in her final year BE, in her preparations for her campus interviews. [So, having shunned the corporate life, you may ask, why am I doing it? The girl’s family just sold off their land to us, to help her, and her younger brother, finish college. Her job is their big hope. Helping her get one will assuage my guilt feelings. You get the picture?]

She was a district rank holder in her SSLC. She had done all her schooling in Tamil medium. Overcoming the hassle of English at college, she has a GPA around 9.

I could see that the harder I tried, the more I was shattering her confidence (and my wife concurs). For a smart girl like her, the distance between ‘is’ and ‘was’ seemed insurmountable, especially on the eve of the visit of Infosys, her best bet to break through. She said she could crack all the puzzles in the Shakuntala books but had trouble with the verbal questions, which could be the major chunk of the written test. To compose her thoughts in an alien language, her eyes kept wandering up. I told her to keep looking straight, and keep smiling. She somehow managed to command her eyes to obey but couldn’t forge a plastic smile at the monster before her. Luckily there was the little trickle on the river nearby, giving her comfort, and a setting sun, a dog and goats around us. If she manages past the verbal sea, a cramped room awaits her. With another monster. But not a mock one.

All the best, young lady. You’ll do well.

(P.S.: She is now working at Infosys.)


The road to hell is paved with felled trees

May 31, 2016

A compilation of some of my FB posts, published in the Sarvodaya Talisman magazine.


 

The road to hell is paved with felled trees
==================================
The long walk from the bus stop to the farm, and back, never ends without a long conversation with someone in the village. Engrossed in the conversations, we sometimes miss the bus, which comes every half an hour or so. So what? There is the next bus.
Yesterday, we were talking to an elderly lady, and her husband, whose house was on the way. She was mentioning how painful it was to see any tree being cut, especially the palmyra trees. She said people used to believe that palmyra trees (and snakes) live for a 1000 years (பனைக்கும் பாம்புக்கும் ஆயிரம் வருஷம்). A palmyra tree can withstand any drought, and a snake gives its pearl (manickam/nagamani) after 1000 years, she added. Science may claim otherwise, but there could be something more than the literal meaning in her proverb. The tamarind tree at the bus stop was older than their living and inherited memories.
I shared a news item from the Hindu with her, which stated,  ‘A long-pending demand of the district is likely to be met soon, with the National Highways (NH) wing of State Highways Department preparing a detailed project report to develop the Coimbatore – Pollachi Road into a four-lane one.’
She was, obviously, not part of those in the ‘district’, who make such demands.
Then when I spoke of another part of the report, I couldn’t quite retain its cold, indifferent ‘non-editorial’ tone:
‘Almost all the trees (nearly 1,700 of them) on either side of the road will have to be felled for this project.’
“Isn’t that road already broad enough? (அந்த சாலை ஏற்கனவே அகலமாத்தானப்பா இருக்கு?)” she exclaimed.

No amma, not broad enough for those of us who covet infinite development. Not broad enough for those of us who charge by the hour. Not broad enough for our luxury sedans, with headlight beams turned high, to race along. We don’t have the time to relish the shades of those 1700 trees. There may come a day, when we yearn for the shade of a single tree, under which we can leave our grandchildren. But no, not yet. Climate change is still a state of the body and the mind.
An educative encounter
====================
“What games did you play at school today?” I asked (in Tamil) the sixth standard boy from our neighbouring farm, situated across the river. He goes to a government high school in the next village. He comes over to our place, often, with his younger sister, who is in fourth standard. They are vibrant children, bustling with activity, helping us with planting saplings and watering them, even on days when we couldn’t visit the farm. Our daughter’s first friends at the village.

“We didn’t have any PT period today,” he replied glumly.

“Oh, tell me what games did you play during the class hours?”
“I don’t play any games inside the class…I listen to the teachers”

That made my next question, which was the original intention anyway, easier to shoot.
“So, what did you study at school today?”
“An English poem,” he answered.
“I love poetry. Whose poem was it?”
“…”
“Do you remember any line from the poem?”
“No, I have to see the text book,” the boy was getting jittery.
“Ok , tell me any one word from the poem,” I persisted for a bit more.
“…”
“Do you know what the poem was about?”
“…,” the whiteness of his two large front upper teeth flashed through the uncomfortable smile.
“Does your teacher explain the poem in English or Tamil?”
“English”
I was surprised.
“Do you understand English?”
“No,” the answer came promptly.
“Get me your book tomorrow. I will teach the poem in Tamil.”
He seemed happy.
“Did you read the book that I gave you? Did you understand the stories?” We had presented him with a Tamil story book for his ear-piercing ceremony, held last week.
“Yes,” he cheered up.

Now, his sister chipped in, with some strange actions with her hands:”We didn’t have our regular classes today. They taught us words s*ell.”

I heard it as smell. It didn’t make sense, obviously.
“ka-a-tch. Catch,” she droned with the typical phonics sounds. Oh, she meant ‘spell’.
“Did they teach you spelling? How do you spell catch?”
“C-A-T”
I spent sometime guiding her through “t’, ‘tch’ and ‘catch’.
“Anna, what is the meaning of ‘little’?” she spurted out suddenly.
“Little means ‘kutty’.”
“Kutty?”
“Yes. Can you now tell me what is the meaning of little girl?”
“Girl.”
“No, little girl.”
“….”
“Little means kutty. Girl means ponnu. What does a ‘little girl’ mean? You just have to join the two words,” I repeated in a variety of ways to no avail. Her brother also didn’t have an answer.

“Don’t be shy. Tell the answer boldly,” their father said. He is unlettered but has an extensive knowledge about farming. He is the village priest at a local temple and tills the temple lands. When I had asked him, a couple of hours earlier, if he intended to continue with the education of his children, he had replied in a firm affirmative. I looked at him hopefully.

“Payyannu sollumaa (Say, it is a boy),” he said, feigning confidence.

“No, no. Little girl means kutti ponnu. Now tell me, what does a ‘little boy’ mean?”

After a few more errors, they arrived at kutti paiyan. Then we moved on to little dog, little cat. Finally, they seemed to have got a hang of little-something and rushed happily across the river – dry but for a small stream, overflowing from the check dam.

Thankfully, both these kids are still studying in Tamil medium. I shudder to think of the day when their schools will also be converted to English medium. English is certainly compounding the problems but the problem is not merely with English. We are faced with an entire educational system that alienates the rural children from their surroundings and knowledge systems. More needs to be written on this (and done about this).

But, for now, we, the English speaking elite, can go on belaboring about how we want our kids to compete with these children on a so-called ‘equal footing’ in a ‘meritocratic system’.

 
A close shave
============
I had gone to a barber’s shop, new to me, early in the morning. After a short wait, as the scissors started cutting off my over-two-month long unkempt hair, the unbearable stink of liquor from the barber pervaded my nose and thoughts. With a scissor and knife over my head, I meekly, but wisely, shut my eyes and mouth, and stayed quiet till it was over. Then I asked him, when did he have his ‘cutting’ – so early in the morning, or through the night?
He said something on the lines of ‘mind your business, and go away’.
“Go away, I shall. But don’t you want me to come back?” I murmured. He went off to get some change for the hundred rupee note that I offered.

The shop owner, who had just walked in, told me that it was habitual for this guy to drink at 4am. He was putting up with him, since he was a talented worker. But he was looking for a replacement.

The drunk barber returned with the change. I confronted him with some questions and unsolicited advice, “Give it up, anna. You can’t afford to get drunk in this work.”

He said, “Don’t worry, I have 25 years of service (in drinking and cutting).”

“But I don’t have any service. I could hardly resist throwing up.”
Cars and compromises
===================
 
An essay in the Economic and Political Weekly, dated 1-Aug-2015, was about ‘Car Credo’.  The essay made an important point:  “Countries—including many in the developing world—are now learning that discouraging cars, narrowing roads, improving public transport and reserving road spaces for buses, and building more pavements for pedestrians foster healthy and more equitable living. We in India are doing exactly the opposite.”
I completely support this view of EPW, and it pushed me to introspect on my own compromises.
We still own an 8-year old car (earned during my corporate life) – and not without a few pangs of guilt, and dilemma. I must also say that we walk when we can, take a bus if it is longer, and take out the car only if we must (and mostly, if I am not alone), after a lot of calculation and ‘convincing ourselves that this is the best of the feasible alternatives’. We have stopped using the AC on the car…our daughter has learnt to insist on it. In fact, it has stopped functioning now, thanks to non-use. Since, we have the car anyway, and it doesn’t make ‘economic sense’ to sell it, we do envision a few ‘essential’ occasional uses for it. But I, definitely, don’t need high-speed, multi-lane highways. I shall be happy to drive slower on narrower roads, with trees, shade and pavements on both sides. And I look forward to the day, when I could be a lesser hypocrite.
 
Degrees of despair
================
It was depressing and satisfying at the same time.
I was on a truck, with 6 mason workers – in their early twenties, who had come from Dharmapuri to demolish a century-old house near Coimbatore. They were doing real hard physical labour. They had started the day at 5 am, after sleeping on the street at night. We had some tea on the way to the village, where we were taking the remains of the house. The truck got stuck in the mud, dampened by showers at night. We blamed it on the inexperience of the driver. We had to wait for the tractor to come and clear the load in multiple trips. Work that we had expected to get over by 8 or 9, went on till noon. With no access to food in the vicinity. Some unripe guavas on the tree saved the day for a while. I felt cruel to preside over this but their priority was to finish the work and head back for more.

I came to know that most of them were diploma holders in civil or mechanical engineering. Almost all of them also held farm land, of even over 10 acres. They said, thanks to bad rains and failure of crops, they were now travelling all over Tamilnadu, doing any work that comes their way. Their next stop was Karaikkal.

I said it was good to see them not sit at home waiting for a suitable job.

In no time, the sharp reply was shot at me: “We can’t afford the luxury of sitting at home.”

Then I heard the cleaner telling them: ‘The driver keeps reading endlessly. He has already completed 4 degrees.’

None of us asked what degrees. Somehow it seemed superfluous.
“Four degrees? Why are you driving this?” one of them asked.
“I have to eat, no?”
Refugee
————
To be horrified by the picture of that Syrian child
on a distant shore
was regulation horror.
What do I do to that haunting look of the lonely lady
sitting amidst the ruins of her erstwhile house
with the calendars and photos
hanging
on the undemolished wall behind her,
and the JCB doing its thing to the next house,
and well dressed officers watching over,
with the uniformed policemen protecting them.
Roads, yes, we need broad roads,
to zip along and slip past such haunting looks.