Think Outside the Bottle

Bottled water is the new fad. Unlike developing countries where mineral water is sometimes the only source of pure and clean water, in the West it is hyped as a fashionable lifestyle choice. So much so that the annual bottled water business is estimated to be worth US$ 11 billion in the United States alone.

This is ironic because the regulations governing the quality of public water supplies in the US are far stricter than those governing bottled-water plants. While the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates the quality of public water supplies, it has no authority over bottled water. Bottled water is considered a food product and is overseen by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which simply mandates that it be bottled in sanitary conditions.

It is true that some industrial belts of the United States have had the groundwater contaminated by irresponsible and unethical companies-- my town, for instance, is still paying for the greed of the Ford Motor Company and the DuPont Chemical Company-- but atleast I am mailed the Annual Water Quality Report with ppm (parts per million) values of regulated and unregulated substances, allowing me to make an informed decision of whether I need to filter or boil my tap water before drinking.

Bottled water, on the other hand, merely masks itself behind images of glaciers and waterfalls, and the generous abuse of words like "pure", "pristine" and "natural". After a U.S. News and World Report article revealed that Pepsi's Aquafina is actually municipal water from Wichita, Kansas, PepsiCo decided to regulate itself by adding the words "Public water source" to the label. However, Coca Cola has not been so contrite-- seven million pounds of marketing for Dasani as the pure alternative to tap water in England went down the drain when the company admitted in early 2004 that the water comes out of the London public supply. Despite this negative publicity in Europe, Dasani's advertising budget has helped establish itself as one of the top brands worldwide.

The environmental impact of bottled water cannot be overstated. Besides the fact that oil-derived polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles end up in landfills where they need hundreds of years to biodegrade, the act of transporting trucks loaded with bottles, along with costs involved in refrigeration, makes the model extremely energy inefficient. Moreover, perpetuation of the myth about the purity of bottled water is ultimately self-defeating as politicians and policy-makers might be tempted to cut the budget for municipal water filtration plants, making tap water (and bottled water) less safe.

UNICEF's Tap Project is a much-needed counter-movement to popularize the truth about tap water in developed countries, and raise money for pure water in others. It requests diners to donate $1 to the project on World Water Day (22nd March) every year, which is enough money to provide forty litres of safe drinking water. This, along with the marketing of the newly rechristened New York Tap, makes it conceivable that an informed public might just be able to kick the bottled water habit.

Water, water, everywhere,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, everywhere,
Nor any drop to drink.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

Hergé at Hundred

Any journalist would kill to have a job like Tintin's-- as an investigative reporter, Tintin travels the world (England, Russia, America, Congo, Japan, Belgium, Egypt, India, Germany, Switzerland, Scotland, England, Peru, Tibet and China at last count) and even the Moon, without ever having to file a report!

Tintin debuted in the most unlikely of places-- in the pages of a Catholic newspaper in Belgium, where he was serialised by Georges Remi (known to the world with his initials reversed, "RG" or Hergé) as being dispatched to the Soviet Union to discover the ills of Bolshevism. This first book, Tintin in the Land of the Soviets, was out of print for many years and is strikingly different from the other Tintin adventures that generations have grown up with. Besides the fact that it was never colourised, it does not do justice to Hergé's eventual artistic talents, especially because of his awkward use of perspective. Born in this work, however, is Tintin's trademark tuft of hair as a result of racing in an open-air convertible in Germany, making his silhouette one of the most recognisable in the world.

A friend recently observed that Tintin reinforces cultural stereotypes with reference to his visit to India as a guest of the Maharaja of Gaipajama, where he meets an Indian fakir who is a snake-charmer, a palm-reader and prefers lying on a bed of nails. While this is true in the first few albums (Tintin in Congo, in particular, faces flak for popularising the existing prejudice that the white colonial had the inalienable right to rule over a poor black nation), Hergé soon wisened up to his responsibility as a popular story-teller and conducted meticulous research before putting anything down in print. By the time Tintin was to visit India again, en route to Tibet, Hergé had Indian street scenes down to the last detail, including a Nepalese porter shouting back at the white sahib in chaste Hindi in the Devanagari script. Last year, the Dalai Lama awarded Tintin in Tibet the "Truth of Light" award for Hergé's sensitive and authentic portrayal of Tibet and her monasteries.

Hergé's eye for detail and use of photographic reference helped him create a parallel universe for Tintin where imaginary countries like Syldavia (King Ottokar's Scepte) are complete with national dresses, cuisines and even travel brochures. In fact, Hergé visualised the landing on the moon over a decade before President John F Kennedy even made it a priority for America, and did it with such uncanny accuracy (with the exception of the presence of ice) that New Scientist magazine admitted "the considerable research undertaken by Hergé enabled him to come very close to the type of space suit that would be used in future Moon exploration".

Getting hands on a new Tintin, with its colourful cast of characters comprising his faithful dog Snowy, and friends Captain Haddock, Professor Calculus, Thomson and Thompson (the twins also make a cameo in Asterix in Belgium) among others, is a thrill that cannot be explained to the uninitiated. I distinctly remember the amount of cajoling that led to my parents gifting me my first Tintin, The Blue Lotus, for my tenth birthday. The hardcover edition, or albums as they are called, provided the additional pleasure of trying to identify all the Tintin characters from the collage of frames in the endplates!

That is why I envy the Americans today-- having grown on a homemade brew of comic superheroes with superhuman powers, they have summarily dismissed the androgynous man-boy from their national ethos--who now have a rare second chance to revel in Tintin's magical world. On the eve of Hergé's hundredth birthday, Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson (of Lord of the Rings fame) announced a three-film series based on Tintin's adventures. If this doesn't make Tintin accessible to an entire country that have deprived themselves of his charms, then not even ten thousand thundering typhoons can.

And the two grieve
That that bright world, so just and splendid,
Of Haddock, Gorgonzola, Wagg,
Moon rockets, grog, Red Rackham's swag,
And foul-mouthed parrots could have ended
In adulthood, where truth and light
Do not win out as if by right.
Vikram Seth, The Golden Gate

Jewel in the Crown

Unlike modern occupiers, the British were honest and unapologetic about their intentions in India. The geographic entity that was yet to be defined as India was a fertile ground of spices, textile and priceless stones, waiting to be plundered. And over the 190-year occupation, she was plundered repeatedly and mercilessly, first by the East India Company Limited and then by the British Empire (no less!) when Queen Victoria placed the stolen Koh-i-Noor diamond in her crown and declared herself the Empress of India.

The contributions of the British in India, from industrialization (the Indian Railways network, for instance, was established to facilitate the movement of goods from villages to important ports like Calcutta and Bombay) to education (Lord Macaulay's aim was to build an army of English-speaking clerks that would remain subservient to their English political masters) were not acts of philanthropy, but shrewd business moves to reap long-term commercial benefits. However, the real legacy of the British Raj continues to be a deeply divided society, split along religious lines, as a consequence of their disastrous Divide and Conquer policy.

The first step in this direction was the Government of India Act of 1935 that proposed separate electorates along religious lines. Although most proposals of the Act were not implemented, the seeds of communalism had been successfully sowed and with gentle stoking and ruthless exploitation culminated in the eventual independence of a weakened and partitioned India.

As pointed out in this week's New Yorker magazine, this was no mean "achievement" given that a Babelish diversity of languages, cultures and traditions existed in British India cutting across religious communities, and few people identified themselves exclusively through their ancestral faith. The Pashton tribesmen in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP), for instance, had absolutely nothing in common with the jute farmer in the far eastern province of Bengal, barring their religion. Yet the British policy of defining communities based on religious identity had the effect of radically altering Indian self-perceptions, and began to raise the awareness of their religious roots over societal bonds that had existed among neighbours for years.

This was perfected almost to an art-form when Sir Winston Churchill, the self-professed hater of Indians, was elected Prime Minister of England during World War II. Alex von Tunzelmann's thesis in his new book "Indian Summer" is that by encouraging Hindu-Muslim antagonism and opportunistically supporting Muslim separatism, Churchill became “instrumental in creating the world’s first modern Islamic state” and this cynical pandering to political Islam has had far-reaching consequences.

Cyril Radcliffe was given the unenviable task of carving out a Muslim Pakistan from the Indian subcontinent, and he did so without taking the pain of visiting either of the two states, Punjab and Bengal, that his pen doomed to the horrors of partition. That such an arbitrary division was unrealistic was proved in 1971 when the Bengali-speaking citizens of East Pakistan rebelled against Islamabad's political and linguistic domination to form the independent Republic of Bangladesh, the first country to be born over a language dispute.

India has come a long way since 15th August 1947 when Jawaharlal Nehru declared, "A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance". Although India's soul has indeed found utterance in her powerful democratic ideals and unwavering faith in secularism, as well as intellectual contributions in today's Information Age; at the societal level, the scars of the Raj's misguided policy remain indelible.

Why the pink blackguards bothered to tax Indians I will never understand, for they had successfully stolen everything they needed for centuries, from the jewelled inlays of the Taj Mahal to the Kohinoor on their queen's crown, and one would have thought they could have done without the laborious extraction of the Indian working-man's pittance. But there has always been something perversely precise about British oppression: the legal edifice of the Raj was built on the premise that anything resulting from the filling of forms in quadruplicate could not possibly be an injustice.
Shashi Tharoor, The Great Indian Novel

Day the Music Died

Tucked away in a corner of this week's Rolling Stone magazine is the following news item: "British private equity firm Terra Firma purchased EMI, home to the Beatles, Radiohead and Coldplay, for US$ 4.9 billion, taking the company off the London Stock Exchange and making it the only one of the four major labels to be privately owned."

While a merger (Warner Music had expressed interest in EMI before backing out) or takeover appeared imminent for a while, given the continued lack-lustre performance of London-based Electrical and Musical Industries Ltd, it is shocking that a tragedy of this magnitude went largely unreported by the media. To have what was once the venerable Gramophone Company pass into private hands, specifically to an investor with a diverse portfolio but no music industry experience, means the consolidation of labels in the interest of profit (Angel, Blue Note, Capitol, GramCo, Harvest, HMV, Hollywood, Odeon, Parlophone, Real World and Virgin are among a handful of EMI labels catering to a wide palette of tastes), and the inevitable loss of patronage for non-mainstream music. Would a music company run by accountants have allowed an unknown beat group from Liverpool to audition, especially when rival Decca had dismissed them as "we don't like their sound, and guitar music is on the way out"?

My connection with EMI is through GramCo, the stock ticker for Calcutta-based Gramophone Company of India, which (in 1901) became the first overseas operation unit of EMI London. I grew up with Francis Barraud's painting of Nipper on our family records, since the His Master's Voice label monopolised the classical and popular music scene in almost all Indian languages. This poignant picture partly contributed to the love for long-playing records that I maintain to this day. Again, it was an accident of fate that the Parlophone label from the EMI stable was easily available in India and led to my discovering The Beatles-- over the years, I would scour the employee-only inventory at the HMV factory in Dum Dum for rare and lost vinyl recordings. For this and other reasons (including the facts that the company was briefly chaired by the famous statistician, P. C. Mahalanobis; and that their original factory at 139 Beliaghata Road was near our family's old rented house), HMV has always held a very special place in my heart.

Today I mourn the loss of this eminent behemoth, whose early research pioneered stereophonic sound recording and radar equipment, who revolutionized coloured television broadcasting in the 1970s (the Monty Python series was shot using EMI 2001 colour cameras), and most importantly, who touched the lives and hearts of music-lovers everywhere by encouraging artists of all genres in the furthest corners of the world. It is little wonder that one of their smaller labels is called Music For Pleasure.

A tournament, a tournament, a tournament of lies.
Offer me solutions, offer me alternatives and I decline.
It's the end of the world as we know it.
It's the end of the world as we know it.
R.E.M., And I Feel Fine

Gym Jam

Remember that episode of Friends where one of them accompanies another to the gym to stop the recurring charge for the former's unused membership, and ends up getting one himself? Finally realising that another visit to the gym's cancellation department would be unrewarding, they decide to close their bank accounts instead to "cut them off at the source"! While not quite in such a situation yet, I am increasingly feeling the pressure of renewing my health club membership although I haven't been there in almost a month.

My summer began with the best of intentions-- to get myself in shape for the New York Marathon. With that in mind, I drove down to my local spa and health centre to sign up for the summer programme that they had been advertising heavily. After being given a detailed tour of the facilities, I was almost brainwashed into signing up a one-year commitment, but managed to extract myself in the nick of time.

The following couple of weeks saw me driving to the fitness centre as much as three times a week. I consulted with my personal trainer about preparing for the marathon, and the best way to maintain my form. However, something funny happened on the way to the form-- even as the length of the days increased, the action of going to the gym started resembling a chore, an unpleasant duty that could be put off without much effort. Even as my plans to kick off the running season with a 5K warm-up fell apart at the last moment, I was able to convince myself (without much guilt) that I could keep myself in shape by running around the neighborhood lake. Inspiration hit a new low when I did not qualify in the lottery drawings for the NYC Marathon.

My summer membership ends in August and already I am being bombarded with mails hyping the investment being made to modernise the fitness equipment and how the special renewal rates are offered to select members with discerning taste like yours truly. Even though it is unlikely that I shall have much motivation to visit the gym during the short cold evenings of winter, the knowledge that I would have the freedom to exercise that option (even if I don't exercise my body!) is indeed a comforting thought.

If I end up signing the contract for a year, it will be the ultimate triumph of mind over muscle, and marketing over mind!

I can't sit still and see another man slaving and working. I want to get up and superintend, and walk round with my hands in my pockets, and tell him what to do. It is my energetic nature. I can't help it.
Jerome K Jerome, Three Men in a Boat

To Bee or Not To Bee

CCD, or Colony Collapse Disorder, is the new buzzword. Beekeepers across America are discovering, to their chagrin, that adult western honeybees have abruptly disappeared from their hives, leaving behind their brood, pollen and honey. It is almost the modern equivalent of Prince Siddhartha Gautama deciding to leave the royal palace in the middle of the night in search of Enlightenment. Except that nobody knows where the bees have vanished.

Conspiracy theories abound, from the absurd to the mundane, although none of them account for the sudden mass exodus of honeybees in the last one year. Explanations include the increased use of pesticides and antibiotics in or near their colonies, the side-effects of bees being exposed to genetically modified (GM) crops, global warming, and even RF exposure from cell towers (the last, in fact, was a misinterpretation of a pilot study by University of Koblenz-Landau scholars on the effect of digital cordless phones on honeybees).

While scientists and politicians are now equally distressed by this phenomenon (the former at the cause, and the latter at the effect-- the honeybee is the predominant cross-pollinator for crops valued at US$ 15 billion annually), its effect is more pronounced in today's America because the western honeybee was imported from Europe to take the place of the native wild bees which did the same job, but at a slower rate. Resiliency, in this case, was the victim in the pursuit of efficiency.

It is being said that since colony collapses have occurred in the past and the bee population has recovered every time, there is nothing to worry about. That is only partly true because of two reasons: the magnitude of the current CCD is unprecedented, and the habitat of the honeybee in the "industrialised west" has indeed been destroyed considerably (if not irrevocably). So even while we hold on to the forlorn hope of the honeybee's resurrection, a lesson for all us (Darwinist and Creationist alike) should be that Nature knows best.

I don't much mind if it rains or snows,
'Cos I've got a lot of honey on my nice new nose!
I don't care if it snows or thaws,
'Cos I've got a lot of honey on my nice clean paws!
A. A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh

Isn't Blogging Passé?

Some may scoff at the idea of a blog in the age of podcasts (give me a microphone and I shall move the world) and orkut (brave new world of the public inbox). Isn't blogging the ultimate ego-trip-- the outrageous fantasy that denizens of the Internet would mill by the millions to read your words of wisdom? Isn't it akin to delivering a sermon from a mount, nay an ivory tower, to subjects who are not deaf but indifferent? Isn't it an insular concept that is obsolete in this era of connection with anybody, anywhere, anytime?

All of the above accusations may be true, but isn't it also true that we are blogging mentally at every moment of every day? Of course, not every gedankenblog is worth remembering, let alone recording, but the occasional profundity of thought makes the exercise thoroughly worthwhile. At worst, a blog is a public diary that forces accountability on the man (or woman) who ever exclaimed, "My life is an open book!".

A friend once said that I should enjoy blogging since editorializing comes naturally to me. Although it was probably meant as a veiled criticism, I chose to accept it as a broader recognition of my latent journalistic talents, and my desire to become an editor. Unfortunately, I never recovered from the shock of learning that the daily task of writing three editorials was usually delegated to one of the sub-editors, and abandoned the dream by the time I joined college.

I hope these pages will give me a second chance to put down my thoughts and opinions, and share my joys and disappointments (with untold millions!), without resorting to the royal pronoun of a sanctimonious sub-editor.

"The time has come," the Walrus said,
To talk of many things:
Of shoes, and ships, and sealing-wax,
Of cabbages, and kings,
And why the sea is boiling hot,
And whether pigs have wings."
Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass