This road will take you

To Takshashila!

The following poem is an excerpt from Rahul Soni’s translation of 21 poems from Magadh, by Shrikant Verma


I am going
to Takshashila

Where are you going?
To Nalanda

But this road does not lead
to Nalanda

It used to once, but not anymore
The road to Nalanda has changed
Now this road will take you

to Takshashila
not Nalanda

Do you want to go
to Takshashila?

People going to Nalanda, often
the roads that you are shown do not
take you where you want to go –

like Nalanda

Mirpur se Birmingham tak

A thrilling ride across continents

This is the unedited draft of today’s op-ed in the Indian Express.

For a mere $200 you get a 12-day, 6400 km “thrilling ride” across the English channel through France, Belgium, Germany, Austria, Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia and Bulgaria, Turkey, Iran before the journey–and perhaps your enthusiasm–ends at Mirpur, in Pakistani-administered Kashmir.

If the ‘Azad’ Jammu & Kashmir transport minister’s plans come to fruition, Birmingham and Mirpur, two parts of the same city separated by distance but joined together by immigration, shall be connected by the world’s longest local bus route. Families will reunite more frequently. Nephews will find jobs more easily. Tourists who have plenty of accumulated annual leave will be able to spend $525 more on supporting the local economies instead of on air tickets.

It’s hard for many of us to get our minds around the idea of a bus that crosses a dozen national borders today. Yet, just over three decades ago, there were many intrepid travellers who could make the journey.

Between 1968 to 1976, Albert Tours operated a Sydney-Calcutta-London route, doing 15 overland trips in those years. I found an old brochure advertising departure from London’s Victoria terminus on July 25th 1972 and arrival at Calcutta’s Fairlawn Hotel on September 11th. You could experience “Banaras on the Ganges, The Taj Mahal, Afghan Tribesmen, The Khyber Pass, The Peacock Throne, Communist Bulgaria, The Blue Danube and the Golden Horn”, while enjoying shopping days in New Delhi, Tehran, Salzburg, Kabul, Istanbul and Vienna. Unscheduled adventures included having to “dig out a dry riverbed plus a piece of the mountain.” The fare for the journey of around seven weeks, including food and sundries was £145, which in those days was a lot of money.

Geopolitics put an end to those adventures. By the late-1970s, the Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolution in Iran, General Zia-ul-Haq’s coup in Pakistan and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan made it all but impossible for an ordinary passenger to innocently sit in a bus and get off at the next continent.

Violence, sanctions, travel restrictions and international suspicions cut off the Indian subcontinent from Europe since then. Hiram Warren Johnson, the US Republican politician who declared that truth is the first casualty of war was obviously wrong. It’s the bus route that suffers first. (Our own Atal Bihari Vajpayee thought starting a bus would end the war, with rather mixed results).

Is a trans-continental bus service from Birmingham to Mirpur feasible today? Three decades ago, the European leg had to traverse two geopolitical blocs. Today the entire stretch from the United Kingdom to the border with Turkey is within the European Union. It’s the journey from Turkey to Pakistan that is, to put it mildly, rocky. Turkey to Iran across restive Kurdish areas, Iran to Pakistan through a Balochistan under an insurgency and military occupation. Then through a Pakistan undergoing a political transformation under the shadow of severe violence.

While it may well be possible to squeeze past these conflicts, it is unclear if people will want to take the risk to save a few hundred dollars. Or, whether it will be possible to price the ticket at $200 after factoring in security risks. In any case, twelve days’s food, accommodation, transit fees and other administrative costs might already bring the fare close to that of a cheap air ticket. It is quite likely that the Pakistani politician allowed his excitement to get ahead of the business case.

Given the differences in purchasing power in Birmingham and Mirpur, the bus is likely to appeal more to those making the journey into the EU. Immigration authorities in the UK and elsewhere in the EU are likely to scrutinise visa applications a little more than they usually do. The security dimension adds to the economic one. Birmingham’s MP, a British politician of Pakistani origin, was putting it mildly when he suggested that “there could be a guarantee from the Pakistani government that there would be rigorous security checks.” A Pakistani government guarantee? On rigorous security checks? Seriously, now.

The idea of seamless overland connectivity across countries and continents is a good one. It is possible, for instance, to drive from northern Thailand, across Malaysia into Singapore. Even if few people actually drive down this route, international road connectivity has contributed to the economic development of South East Asia. China is plugging into South East Asian road networks by building good connections. India is late in the game and trying to build its own road links to the region. The ASEAN-India car rally, covering 7448 km from India to Indonesia is a showpiece of this effort (and has been scaled down due to budget cuts at the Ministry of External Affairs). There is sound economic, strategic and common sense in building good road connections.

It does not follow, though, that good overland connectivity must have an end-to-end bus route. The economics of bus routes might not hold up favourably compared to air, rail and sea transport for distances that span several thousand kilometres. Like the old Albert Tours, the journey will certainly appeal to those with the time, taste and money for adventure. It is unlikely to result in bringing Birmingham and Mirpur any closer together.

Copyright © 2012. The Indian Express. All rights reserved.

Sunday Levity: Handmade writing instruments

Now for something completely different

Here’s an excerpt of an article I wrote for Mint Lounge on the wonderful handmade fountain pens of Andhra Pradesh.

Several years ago, I heard about a manufacturer of fountain pens in Rajahmundry, Andhra Pradesh, whose products were said to have been used by national leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Rajendra Prasad, and legendary newsmen such as Ramnath Goenka, N. Subba Rao Pantulu and S. Kasturi Ranga Iyengar. So when a speaking invitation recently took me to this town at the head of the Godavari delta, I decided to check this intriguing story for myself.

That’s when I stumbled on Andhra Pradesh’s tradition of handmade, ebonite fountain pens.

…it’s the fountain pens that have class. You might have noticed the boutique pen stores that have sprung up in shopping malls and airport lounges, selling foreign writing instruments that cost upwards of Rs. 10,000. Classic Indian pens will cost you a few hundred rupees, and although some might contend that the lower cost is a reason not to buy them, I find the idea of owning the pen that both Indira Gandhi and Goenka used rather appealing. [Read the whole thing at Mint]

Check out the blogs of Jayasrinivasa Rao and Satish Kolluru and the Fountain Pen Network forum that I mention in the article.

Fasting & Political Blackmail (Regulation) Bill, 2011

The following is the civil society’s draft of the Fasting & Political Blackmail (Regulation) Bill, 2011 (also known as Jan Fast Pal or #FastingBill2011). This Bill has been compiled using inputs from members of the civil society including @Acorn, @Pragmatic_D, @Calamur, @Filter_C, @SudhaKanago, @Smitaprakash, @mango_indian, @sjagadish and @spinoza9642 The full list of participants and their deliberations is available from these archives. You may also download the Bill in PDF format.



An Act to create an effective framework for regulating the lawful practice of fasts, hunger strikes and other forms of political blackmail through the establishment of a Fasting Regulatory Authority, that shall also be known as Jan Fast Pal.

  1. Short title and commencement:
    1. This Act may be called the Fasting & Political Blackmail (Regulation) Act, 2011, or the Jan Fast Pal Act.
    2. It shall come into force on the one hundred and twentieth day of its enactment.
    3. Fasting for the purposes of voluntary or peer-pressured religious observances shall be exempt from the provisions of this Act.
    4. The Union President, the Union Prime Minister and the Chairperson of the National Advisory Council shall be exempt from the provisions of this Act.
  2. Equality
    1. All Fasters shall be treated equally, regardless of race, religion, standing and credit rating.
  3. Definitions:
    1. A Fast means any act of voluntary non-consumption of any solid or semi-solid food, or beverages exceeding 20 kilo calories per 330 ml in a three-hour period; and, conducted in the presence of mainstream media.
  4. Prohibitions
    1. No person under the minimum age for the consumption of alcoholic beverages obtaining in any State in Union shall be permitted to fast. People below the permitted minimum age, may, however, carry wax-fuelled simple combustion based illuminating devices after sunset or 7pm, whichever is earlier.
    2. A successful Fast unto Death will only be permitted three times during the lifetime of an individual.
    3. No person by reason of unsoundness of mind or intoxication or by reason of deception shall be considered to have fasted.
    4. Fasters may not fast within 100m from any licensed restaurant, cafe or drinking house.
    5. Fasting is not permitted in government premises, property & rolling stock of Indian Raiways, airports & aircraft.
    6. No one may fast within 100m of the Line of Control, Line of Actual Control and international border
    7. No person under permanent service to any State or Union government department, including police and armed services are permitted to fast unless authorised by the respective State or Union government.
  5. Arrangements
    1. Each district will earmark separate areas, preferably in the form of perfect geometric shapes in order to assist succinct media description of the same.
    2. Fasting areas shall offer public amenities and comply with prevailing safety regulations. At least three parking spaces, no less than 200cm X 300 cm shall be made available for mobile broadcasting vehicles, of which at least one will be reserved for national, state and regional language media. Where Fasting is conducted by minorities, parking space reservations shall not apply.
    3. Women fasters must be provided with enclosed spaces upon request.
  6. Fasting Regulatory Authority
    1. A Fasting Regulatory Authority, also known as Jan Fast Pal, shall be established to administer this Act.
    2. The National Fasting Authority shall comprise of eleven individuals in good standing, preferably with previous fasting experience. They shall have a term of 5 years.
    3. To avoid conflict of interest, the Jan Fast Pal and its officials shall not be permitted to Fast as long as they are in office.
    4. The chairperson of the National Fasting Authority shall be selected by a committee that includes at least one television chef with not less than 52 half-hour-equivalent episodes, one five-star Michelin chef of Indian-origin, Nobel prize winner of Indian-origin and a Magsaysay award winner of Indian-origin. In the event of unavailability of such individuals, eminent persons from civil society shall appoint eminent persons from civil society.
    5. Government will appoint such persons as it thinks fit, having the prescribed qualifications, to be Inspectors of Fasts.
  7. Conditions for the conduct of Fasts
    1. Applications to Fast must clearly identify the Fasters and Fastees, and must be submitted in triplicate 48 hours in advance.
    2. Fasters must, at the time of application, specify the reasons of their Fast & conditions of termination thereof.
    3. A citizen will be permitted to fast for only one cause at a time.
    4. Fasters cannot fast on behalf of others. Commutative, additive and distributive laws shall not be applicable. Fasters who cause others to fast by financial or other inducements shall be fined up to Rs 5000 and one year of rigorous imprisonment.
    5. Fasters must specify consumption of liquids, including calorific value and purity levels.
    6. An officer of the rank of Superintendent of Police or above can force feed the faster after giving due warning in writing.
    7. No fast shall be deemed to have started or been broken unless certified by the National Fasting Authority.
    8. Fasters must obtain a certificate from a registered medical practitioner certifying that they were full when the fast started.
    9. Fasters must record their weight, blood sugar count and blood pressure every 3 hours and file it with the sub-registrar.
    10. Fasters cannot claim rations or entitlements under the food security act for the entire duration of their fast.
    11. Income from fasts by way donations, extortion and misappropriation shall attract Income Tax at the prevailing rates. Fasters cannot claim tax exemptions or dearness allowance for the duration of the fast
    12. No commercial advertisements of any kind are permitted within 50m from the location of the fast.
    13. Withdrawing from a Fast before fasting, also known as pulling a fast one, shall be permitted. It shall be counted as a Fast for the purposes of Section 4(2) of this Act.
  8. Dispute resolution
    1. Where two or more individuals or groups of Fasters go on a Fast until Death over a zero-sum dispute, the Government shall serve notice to all Fasters on the need to resolve the dispute using judicial or electoral means.
    2. In the event that two or more individuals or groups of Fasters continue their Fasting despite being served a notice under Section 8(1) above, the Fasting Regulatory Authority’s Inspector of Fasts shall allow the Fasts to proceed. The individual or group of Fasters that Fasts longer shall be deemed to have prevailed.
    3. Individuals or groups of Fasters who do not prevail in such circumstances may not Fast on for the same reason for a period of three calendar years. This is without prejudice to other individuals or groups Fasting for the same purpose, or the same individuals or groups seeking recourse to judicial or electoral methods.
  9. Power to make regulations
    1. The Union Government may, by notification in the Official Gazette, make rules to carry out the provisions of this Act.
    2. This Act shall be applicable to territorial and extra-territorial States, and Union Territories of India, and in the case of Jammu & Kashmir, after ratification by the State Assembly.
    3. No suit, prosecution or other proceeding shall lie against the Government for anything done in good faith, in pursuance of its duties under this Act.
    4. The Union government shall make every attempt, especially at the United Nations General Assembly and the Security Council, and the Non-aligned Movement, to sponsor a UN Resolution on Fasting, that shall universalise the principles enshrined in this Act.

Note: Under an amendment introduced by some other friendly members of civil society, the word the term “Jan Vrat Pal” appearing in the first draft of this bill was replaced with “Jan Fast Pal” to avoid misunderstanding.

Pax Indica: The sun doesn’t set on the Indian Republic

A plan for world domination

Today’s Pax Indica column was translated from the original Malayalam, today’s global lingua franca, into a fringe Western European language called English so that people in the past could learn about the future of their great nation.

Read the whole thing on Yahoo!. The following is an excerpt:

It was Jagmohan Mehta, a bright spark from Navi Pune (then called Boston) who first raised the famous slogan, “No Taxation Without Representation!” If the Indian government wanted to tax NRIs, he argued, it must also give them the right to vote, and seats in the Indian Parliament. Such was the simple force of this argument that in less than a week, it was a ubiquitous banner on the blogs (a quaint early twenty-first century form of self-indulgence) of NRIs around the world. In sympathy, activists fighting for the independent sovereign Liberal Republic of Bombay suspended their agitation and lit their perfumed candles for the NRI Cause instead. Members of New Delhi’s civil society–some say as many as fifty–turned up in large numbers to express support for India’s growth to be inclusive of NRI taxes. The third United Progressive Alliance (UPA 3) government, under Prime Minister Kapil Sibal, immediately constituted a Empowered Group of Ministers with Civil Society Participation (EGOM) to study the demands and propose recommendations in a time bound manner.

The EGOM supported the idea of creating a new type of political unit called the Extra-territorial State of India. It was a remarkable idea: the Extra-territorial State need not be part of the sovereign territory of the Union of India. It could be just about anywhere. As long as there were sufficient numbers of NRIs located in any geographical region anywhere in the world, that region qualified to be an Extra-territorial State of India. It was decided, over a particularly animated tea-break, that a sufficient number of NRIs for this purpose was 96,580.

It was decided that Extra-territorial States would be treated on par with territorial States in every way. They would form their own governments, have past-their-prime-but-loyal-to-party politicians as Governors, the authority to legislate over subjects in the State and Concurrent lists and participate in Ranji and Duleep trophy tournaments. (IPL, as you know, follows a different process of admitting teams). They would get funds from the Centre to implement programmes named after Nehru and various Gandhis, including NREGA. They would also elect representatives to the Lok Sabha based on the population, with one Lok Sabha MP for every 96,580 persons. Rajya Sabha seats were calculated by some weird logic no one really understood, but since each Extra-territorial State would get at least one Rajya Sabha seat, no one really complained.

Thus was created the first modern global nation-state of which there are so many today. But in the early 21st century it was a novel experiment. Most people agreed it would collapse within a decade. How could a nation with so much diversity and so vast a spread hold together? Little did they know how wrong they would be.

The first five Extra-territorial States thus created were Puthiya Keralam, New Jullundur, Jersey Pradesh, Paschima Kannada and Kizhakku Tamilnad. [Yahoo!]

Sunday Levity: What did you learn from Gandhi?

The morals we draw

The father gathered the two little girls around him. Since they had disturbed him while he was reading a book on Gandhi, he decided to tell them about the Mahatma and more specifically, why he had a large framed photograph of the man in his study. So he told them the story of India’s independence and why it was unique among all such struggles. He told them that non-violent struggle, “not listening to the orders of the bad guys” was about thinking different. And if they looked carefully, they’d see “Think Different” written at the top right corner of the said photograph.

As usual, he asked “So, what’s the moral of the story?”

Instantly the Little Airy replied “Don’t listen (to orders).”

It figures, the father thought.

Sunday Levity: The Swami and the Emperor of China

Elixir of Long Life and the recipe for sugar

In The Real Tripitaka: and other pieces Arthur Waley narrates an interesting episode, a side-story in the aftermath of the first armed conflict between Chinese and Indian forces (see these two posts for the background).

In the summer of 648 the Chinese envoy Wang Xuance returned from India bringing with him a king and an alchemist. The adventures of this mission well illustrate the buccaneering spirit of early Tang diplomats. On arriving in Central India in 647 Wang Xuance discovered that King Harsha had died some months before. After his death great disorder broke out in Central India and eventually the throne was seized by a vassal raja named King Arjuna, who refused to see the Chinese Mission.

Wang Xuance with thirty mounted followers tried to battle his way to the capital. The Chinese fought till they had shot their last arrow and were then captured, along with the presents that various rajas had asked them to take back to the Chinese Emperor. Wang Xuance and his assistant Chiang Shih-jen managed to escape from captivity, reached Tibet, and there recruited a force of twelve hundred picked men, no donut through the good offices of the Chinese princess who was one of the king of Tibet’s wives.

With these and some seven thousand Nepalese cavalry he returned to India, routed the armies of King Arjuna, captured the king, together with a vast booty, and returned to China bringing with him not only King Arjuna, but…a magician named Narayanaswami, who claimed to be two hundred years old himself and to be able to produce (for the benefit of others) an Elixir of Long Life.

The Emperor (Taizong) was much interested, and allotted him a special apartment in the Palace, where he was to pursue his alchemical experiments. No less a person than Tsui Tun-li, the Minister for War, was made responsible for seeing that he was supplied with the necessary ingredients and helpers. The emperor took his first dose of Elixir in the autumn of 648, and the tenth day of the eighth month he wrote to the alchemist: ‘Since I tool the drug I have gradually begun to lose the feeling of heaviness in my hands and feet and I hope that if I go on looking after myself carefully I shall get rid of it altogether … but my fate depends on the result of further doses. I hope I may count on attaining a great age and look forward with certainty to far outliving my generation, without any change in my appearance; also my white hair is turning black again and my worn-out body losing its infirmities and becoming stronger than ever. Do you think these hopes are justified? Please tell me quite frankly. I have the highest regard for your noble art.’

There seems to be no doubt that the Emperor’s health did improve considerably, and one might have expected that Narayanaswami would have got full credit for the improvement. However, in an edict in the ninth month, ordering the enrollment of 18,500 fresh monks and nuns, the Emperor says: ‘In the recent campaign I was exposed to wind and frost, and often spent the night on horseback. I was given some drugs, but did not, while I was taking them, recover completely. Recently, however, I have entirely regained my health, and am convinced that this is due to the pious works I have been undertaking.’

The magician was told that he might go back to India, but did not avail himself of the permission and soon afterwards discredited his art by dying in Chang-an. [Arthur Waley/The Real Tripitaka: and other stories, pp 95-96. ]

Elsewhere in the book, Waley writes that while Harsha had sent an envoy to Taizong after being impressed with the itinerant monk Xuanzhang, the reciprocal embassy “was commercial as well as diplomatic.” Wang Xuance had been “instructed to obtain the Indian recipe for making sugar. The great Chinese centre of sugarcane growing was at Yangchow, and the sugar made there according to the recipe soon (we are told) excelled that of India.” (pp 78-79)