Thoughts

Is Happiness also becoming a Rat Race?

It has happened more often than I like. I start getting passionate or agitated while talking about something and people interrupt with “Why are you angry?” Or “Why are you getting so agitated?” And worst of all “What is the point of being so unhappy?”

That usually succeeds in thwarting me. And I am left wondering: What is wrong in being angry, agitated or unhappy when there is something worth being angry, agitated or unhappy about?

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Photo by Andre Hunter on Unsplash

What can I say, I am guilty of talking about happiness repeatedly in my talks on entrepreneurship. The gist of those has been that you don’t take your career decisions based on what the society tells you is the right thing to do. You do what makes you happy.

But I would like to believe that I wasn’t advocating this strange fetish with happiness which delegitimizes any emotions that are considered negative. This isn’t a pursuit of happiness through your choices and actions. This is advocating closing your eyes to anything that can cause distress. Sometimes it is couched in a language that makes it seem more profound than that, but it is essentially asking you to look the other way. This is delusional. And worse, there is a peer pressure to embrace this delusion.

Anger, agitation, unhappiness are perfectly legitimate emotions. If we didn’t feel them, we wouldn’t be human. And feeling them might be the only way to becoming humane. When the world is unjust, unfair, unequal, exploitative – and smug in all of these – we should feel angry. And then, perhaps by speaking out against it and doing something big or small to counter it, we may be able to find our bit of happiness. It may never be perfect. The happiness and peace we seek may never come. Still, being delusional is not more legitimate than being angry or agitated or unhappy.

So, now, I want to put my foot down. Why am I angry? Because of what I was trying to tell you about as I got angry. What is the point of this unhappiness? That it is for a legitimate reason and I am not closing my eyes to it. Happiness can go to hell if a delusion is the only way to achieve it. Be angry, dear world. Be angry, because you should be. Too much is wrong with you. And then perhaps you can try doing something about it.

I don’t give entrepreneurship related talks these days. But if I have to, I will update it. Yes – don’t pick up a career because of peer pressure or rat race. And don’t force yourself to be happy because of peer pressure or rat race either.

Note 1: I hope it is clear but in case not – this article is not about wallowing in self-pity or self-loathing or being paralyzed by a sense of victimhood.

Note 2: It is also not about a situation where you may have a clinical problem like depression. If that is likely to be the case, I strongly advise seeking professional help. There is nothing wrong with that.

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Thoughts

Liberalism is Defeated. Long Live Liberalism!

Note: I am talking of political and social liberal ideas, not economic liberalism.

We should all be tired of being outraged every time liberal values are trampled upon. Outrage is meant for the exceptions. It is tiring for what is no longer an exception. Liberalism is defeated in India (and elsewhere, one could argue, but let’s limit the scope to India for the purpose of this article). The state is coming down hard on its citizens and the privileged majority is cheering on. Individual’s rights, liberty, freedom of expression, right to dissent are being frighteningly delegitimized.

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Photo by Elijah O’Donell on Unsplash

No, let’s not fool ourselves that it’s a minor setback. Let’s not pretend that there is one screw gone loose in the system and once it is tightened we will again start marching down the liberal road. That’s not how it is. It’s a fundamental shift away from liberalism. It is one kind of a thing when the disadvantage of poverty is pitted against the disadvantage of being a Dalit. It is one kind of thing when the unemployed youth get taken in by nasty propaganda. It’s not right, but it is understandable. It has nuances which a poor and unemployed person, who is struggling to find a toehold, may not be willing to indulge in. It is one thing for all of this to happen. But it’s quite another what is happening now.

A middle-class person, who hasn’t suffered hunger, who has a decent roof over his head, who has no contacts with Dalits or Adivasis, who hasn’t been affected by communal riots (not in many years, at least), whose children are well-settled and hold good jobs, whose grandchildren are being brought up in relative prosperity and aren’t exactly lusting after the government jobs of the future, that person is convinced that he is a victim. He is not grateful for or proud of all he has. He is a victim. A victim of reservations, a victim of Muslim appeasement, a victim of Maoists (he has never encountered a Maoist). And while we humans always tend to find someone else to blame for the slightest of our miseries, it wouldn’t have been acceptable to turn that blame into this appalling sense of victimhood a few years ago. But now it is. And that thought is so comfortable, that it is well-nigh impossible to eradicate it. It. Just. Works. What is more, it works for those children and grandchildren too.

No wonder, liberalism is defeated.

This means a fundamental shift in how an average liberal person navigates the world around them. We knew that liberal values were not always practiced, but in certain spaces, nobody could have opposed them in principle. So, when the practice differed from principles, you could scoff, outrage, point out the divergence and hope that over time, as you point out and fight against more and more such hypocrisies, they will be fixed. Hence the world will become more liberal, even in practice, as the time passes.

That assumption of the theoretical acceptance even in the face of practical divergence is no longer valid. So, the task has moved fifty or hundred years back. The theory itself needs justification now. The ideas need to be sold all over again. The principles that we had assumed were well-accepted, need to be argued for all over again. Scoffing at diversions would be meaningless.  Imagine the reformers of the early 20th century who would have had to argue even with the most educated of the upper-caste people that untouchability was bad. And they would have had to argue that from a position of weakness. Well, we are back to that situation in the 21st century. Depressingly, in some cases, the issues may exactly be the same as they were 100 years back. In some cases, they may take a different form. But we have to start from a position of weakness, in even getting the principles to be accepted. We better eat that humble pie.

What it also means is that its a long journey all over again. The victory was never complete. But all the gains have been reversed as well. Even if the political power equation changes in the short-term, this beast of social conservatism has been legitimized and unleashed. Political overlords of any denomination are not going to challenge it.  They will only seek to utilize it. The only hope from electoral politics is that some balance of power is maintained with changing governments so that no one group can continue to inflict damages unchecked. The social fight is going to be long and repetitive. And also thankless. Let’s brace for that. Somebody may yet live to see the tides turn.

Thoughts

Whither Gender Equality in Religion?

You may or may not know a whole lot about it, but you would be living under a rock if you haven’t heard of the Sabarimala Temple case being heard by a constitutional bench in Supreme Court.

I don’t feel invested in the outcome of this case. They could ban entry of women in all functional temples for all I care. At least then nobody would be able to emotionally blackmail me into visiting them. (They should leave the ones with historical importance open, though. Else I will scream discrimination!)

I care about gender equality. Religion, however, is a lost cause to me. Almost all the mainstream religions are essentially misogynist and trying to reconcile them with the ideas of equality – specifically gender equality – sounds futile to me. (If it offends you, great! At least you care about gender equality. If you agree, thank you, and you are welcome! If you think it doesn’t matter what I think, congratulations! You are the wise one.)

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Photo Credit: ragesh ev

As can be guessed by now, I am not a religious person. And that is the reason that despite the question of gender equality involved here, I do not care much about the outcome of the case. Religion just doesn’t matter to me (Thank God, I live in a liberal, secular democracy! Irony intended.)

When you are in such a position, you are likely to think that this is an unnecessary fight. A waste of court’s time, a waste of resources, a waste of whatever else, on an issue that doesn’t matter. I would have been inclined to declare so a few years ago. But like a few things, I talked about earlier, I have changed my mind on this.

I can’t reconcile my feminism and (any) religion. But that doesn’t mean that others are not allowed to be both feminist AND religious. I may have my priorities, but I am no one to dictate what kind of equality is important for everyone else, and what isn’t. I will choose my fights, and so will everyone else. Just because religion is not important to me, I don’t get to say that it shouldn’t be important to you too and you shouldn’t fight for gender equality in religion.

I don’t know which way the court will go. Whichever way it does, it may not make much difference on the ground. Even if the court decides to lift the ban on women’s entry, perhaps the only women trying to go in would be the ones who want to prove a point. The “really” religious women may never want to visit a deity who doesn’t welcome them. Or they may surprise us by defying such patriarchal customs around deities and visiting Him in droves!

But irrespective of what happens, it is a good fight. I can’t invest myself enough in it to follow the court proceedings closely. But I cheer on!

P. S. The case may still be very important from the point of view of legal precedence. Especially since it is a constitutional bench that is hearing it right now. Other religious matters may come up in future whose effects could be more widespread than this particular issue’s are and the decisions there may be guided by the outcome of this one.

Business & Entrepreneurship · Thoughts

A Translation Apocalypse

What is common between a Facebook joke about funny subtitles and a controversy around the results of one of the most important entrance exams students of this country take?

Bad translation!

The joke in question showed a screenshot of a movie scene with its English subtitle. The song fragment bahne de, mujhe bahne de from Hindi was translated in the subtitles as give me sisters, give me your sisters, instead of let me flow (or let me drown if you feel the need for more intensity).

A Hindi speaker can immediately figure out what had happened. The word for flow here sounds like the word for sisters in Hindi. The two words don’t have common origins. In their root forms, they are sufficiently different. It’s just this particular form of the verb flow that sounds similar to the plural form of the word sister. The pronunciations and spellings are not exactly the same. They are similar enough that you may make a typo and write one for the other in Hindi. But a native speaker is not going to confuse the meaning of the two words. Even if they had exactly the same spellings, there is ample information available in the context and this translation mistake cannot be justified.

And NEET organizers apparently mistranslated 49 questions! This happened in Tamil, a language that I don’t know. So, I won’t understand what the exact mistakes were. But a similar issue had come up in another exam a while back. There clearly putting English questions through Google Translate and blindly pasting the output had been considered sufficient work for translating a crucial question paper. While so much attention is focused on whether students will get grace marks and if so how much, nobody seems to be asking how so many errors crept in. Does it happen more often than is reported? And even when there aren’t outright errors, what is the quality of translation in these question papers?

Unfortunately, bad translations are not a one-off issue. In fact, they are so prevalent that nobody seems to care. In literary circles, people debate a lot about good and bad translations, the challenges of translations, losses in translation and what not. But it doesn’t get discussed enough outside of it. The result is that a lot of documents, manuals, websites, instructions, etc. are translated every day and they are translated poorly.

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Just Another Odd Translation!

Typically, these translation jobs will go to some agencies claiming expertise in all languages and a fast turnaround time at a reasonable cost. The quality is, at best, implicitly assumed and never checked. Most of the time, nobody even thinks about the quality. There doesn’t seem to be any difference between ordering pens for the office, which nobody uses except to sign documents, and ordering translation of your most crucial content. As for the “expert” translators who work on these jobs, they are typically any graduates who can claim to know the two languages. Sometimes they might be agency employees; most of the time, the agency will pick a freelance translator. Their credentials will be their past work – sometimes for big-name clients – but of the same shoddy quality. It was not flagged because nothing ever is. Most of the translators at work around us have never bothered to really study the nuances of the languages they work in; they seem to have no notion of the complications involved in a good translation, and nobody ever asks about the target group for a translation job which should matter a lot in how something is translated. They mindlessly do the word-by-word or phrase-by-phrase translation without caring about whether the output would make sense to a native reader. When you encounter a weird sentence or phrase in your native language (listen closely to announcements in the airports and metros, read signages that would originally have been written in English), try translating it mechanically back to English and see if it doesn’t start making sense. The translator, however, is not aware or doesn’t care. Access to Google Translate has made things worse. Many of these “professional” content creators and translators have no idea how Google Translate works and how it can’t be used blindly. Sometimes it results in funny or wrong output like the examples mentioned. But meaninglessness and unreadability are much more prevalent. Corporates, governments, NGOs – everybody is getting these poor translations done every day. Nobody has a mechanism to check, because nobody seems to realize that you can’t take translation for granted. Translation is a specialized skill that needs the understanding of both languages, their similarities, their differences, their colloquial expressions, their phrases and idioms, their regional variations, and very importantly the target audience for the output. Nobody is being trained for any of that. A few great translators might be producing great literary output, but things that get used every day by common people are at the mercy of those who don’t care. Neither the person ordering the translation, nor the one doing it. Without realizing it, we are in a translation apocalypse.

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A laughable Hindi translation of “organic”, but in Tamilnadu, I will excuse it!
Travel

Snippets from Europe Trip: Of Languages and Dialects

Languages Repressed

After visiting Les Combarelles cave, Abhaya asked our guide where the name of the cave came from. The answer was a little unusual. It apparently came from a word in a language called Occitan and as far as I remember that word meant cave. I tried to verify from the only Occitan-English dictionary I could find online and the nearest word I found was Comba, which means a gorge or a hollow. It still fits. So, perhaps that’s what she was referring to. But the best part of the conversation was the discovery that there is a language called Occitan.

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France wasn’t traditionally French-speaking. Since after the revolution, targeted policies have been followed to repress, even destroy, “patois” or “dialects” in favor of a unifying French language. It was considered essential for democracy (else non-French speakers are excluded!) and for making France a unified power to contend with. Some, like Occitan, have survived to date, but like many Indian languages and “dialects”, they also have mostly older people left as speakers and hence are endangered. There are some scattered efforts here and there for these languages, but it doesn’t look like they are a priority. French is the only language of the French Republic and there is really no space for other languages to flourish under official patronage.

By recognizing a large number of languages in the constitution, India did a better job than the Republic of France with the languages. Since each of our states can have their own official languages, which can be different from the official languages of the central government, it has ensured that at least some languages are not yet obliterated. But there has been a sweeping classification of a large number of languages as dialects even in India (and Hindi – to whose dialect status many of these languages are consigned – might be the worst culprit here).  Large modern nations just don’t seem to know what to do with their languages.

And Multilingualism!

Luxembourg stands in stark contrast to France as far as the language policy goes.

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In Luxembourgish: We want to remain what we are

People in shops and streets of Luxembourg are effortlessly multilingual. The default seems to be French, but English and German are easily switched into. There is also Luxembourgish, which has refused to succumb to the status of a dialect of German. It is, in fact, the national language of Luxembourg and one of the three administrative languages apart from French and German. Perhaps if we had more city- and micro-states in the modern world, we would have had more languages and fewer dialects.

Luxembourg seems to take its multilingualism seriously.  Looks at the description of how different languages are used in education.

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Click the Image for a clearer screenshot.

This, in particular, blew me over:

Language learning over the entire school career accounts for 50% of the curriculum.

There is something to learn here. A multilingual country like ours should have much more emphasis on learning multiple languages in school than it currently has. Multilingualism, as a talent, is not sufficiently appreciated in our society, but it can be a great practical asset to people.

Then there was Brussels. Walking down one of the streets Abhaya suddenly told me something like, “They have such rhyming names for places. See, they have a chapel that’s called Kapel. I noticed other such names too.”

“Huh? A chapel called Kapel?” I hadn’t come across a chapel by that name in Brussels during my research on the places to see there.

He dragged me back to show me the street sign. It read

Chapelle
Kapel

“Uh oh! It’s not a chapel called Kapel. It chapel written in French and Dutch!”

Henceforth, this story shall be known by the title “A chapel called Kapel“.

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By KapsuglanOwn work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

Belgium consists of three regions. Flanders is Dutch-speaking. Wallonia is French-speaking and Brussels is officially bilingual (hence those bilingual signs). There is also a German-speaking minority in the country, but it isn’t a separate region. Dutch, French, as well as German, are official languages of the kingdom. We didn’t visit any places in Wallonia. Bruges, Ghent and Antwerp, all in Flanders, sported Dutch-only signs. But the multilingualism of the country seems to accommodate English also amidst all this without any signs of grudge or snobbery.

Language Troubles

French snobbery about their language is much talked about. Although in smaller places like Les Eyzies we faced language problems, we, thankfully, didn’t find anyone who was rude to us for not speaking French. In fact, in the place worst known for its language and cultural snobbery, Paris, we had a super nice Airbnb host. The elderly lady spoke very little English, but she was infinitely patient with us and went out of the way to help us at every stage. Since she had an easier time understanding written English, she always had a set of post-its about her and would ask us to write down when she didn’t understand what we were saying or asking.

At many places in Les Eyzies we had to resort to keywords, gestures, and pointing to written words – especially to get food! I suppose the Indian experience of often not knowing the local language even while traveling within your own country makes us more used to it. We are more likely to smile apologetically for the language trouble and make attempts to overcome it than act like it’s their fault that they don’t speak English. So, most people also respond in kind. Sorry for stereotyping, but many (not all – obviously) clueless American tourists seem to think it is everybody’s responsibility to learn English for their pleasure and this sense of entitlement gets returned in kind in some cases.

In Paris, people in shops, streets or restaurants usually always started by speaking in French, even when it should have been obvious that we don’t know the language, but most of them switched to English when we started using gestures and keywords (always with an apologetic smile!) to respond.

At the tourist attractions all over, even in Les Eyzies and other less visited places, there was almost always English-speaking staff available.

But, Museum Troubles

Unfortunately, information in English was missing in most of the museums. So, wherever available, one should take an audio guide.

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One of the cards at National Museum of Prehistory

National Museum of Prehistory in Les Eyzies and Musee du Compagnonnage in Tours were two very interesting museums which didn’t have information on the exhibits in English and had no audio guides available either. However, at the Prehistory museum, there were A4 cards available which had some information in English about all the exhibits in a room. It took some effort to figure out where they were for different parts of the museum and what they described, but they were ultimately fairly informational. One member of the staff did something very sweet for us there. Although her English was so labored that we understood very little of what she was saying, but she voluntarily came forward to speak to us and tried her best to explain how the exhibits in that room were chronologically arranged. After struggling with the cards for a while, what she was pointing out made sense to us and we were better able to use the cards.

At Musee du Compagnonnage we discovered a little late that the landing place, which was so crowded with a large group of elderly French tourists that we had thought it was a meeting/resting place and had skipped it, had some background information available, which helped to understand the rest of the museum with the help of a little pamphlet available in English.  So the visit was slightly frustrating, although we did finally get a hang of the place.

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At Musee du Compagnonnage

At Lourvre we had opted for their “Welcome to Louvre” guided tour in English. At other museums in Paris and Brussels audio-guides saved the day.

We had popped in for a very quick look into Museum of National History and Art at Luxembourg and the cards in English there were fairly easy to use.

The Industrial Museum is Ghent turned out to be unsatisfactory. There were no audio guides although there were booklets provided in English for each of its floors. But in some cases, there was too much to read. Then on the main floor showcasing textile industry equipments, after the first few, we couldn’t match exhibited machines to their description in the book very accurately. But the Plantin Moretus Museum (related to printing) at Antwerp was very English-language friendly. All the information was available in all three languages – French, Dutch and English.

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From Plantin Moretus Museum, Antwerp (Fragments of Dutch on the left, French on the right)

The Language Families

This is purely academic information, but one which I became aware of only after this trip. French is a Romance language, while English is a Germanic language, as is Dutch. So, English and Dutch are more similar than English and French are. But if there are many words in French that you recognize from your knowledge of English, it is because English borrowed most of them from French. After what is known as Norman conquest of England in the 11th century, a large number of such words entered the English language. More might have been borrowed over time too, because before English started donning the mantle sometime in the 20th century and after Latin had been displaced, French was the lingua franca of Europe!

Given that last bit, we can excuse the French some languages-snobbery, can’t we?

Others

Our Food is Poisoned! And We have been Misled by the Myths about Organic.

The shiny-looking food we bring from supermarkets or even good old sabzi mandi is poisoned.

I don’t need to make that point all over again. This episode of Satyameva Jayate has done a pretty good, if necessarily dramatized, job. (Please watch if you are not familiar with the dangers of chemical farming.)

The tragedy, however, is that organic has become a word that arouses skepticism more than hope. Anecdotal reaction to the word organic is typically:

  • Too expensive – only for hippies and elites
  • Low yield
  • Doesn’t work

This, unfortunately, is the result of half-hearted, half-baked attempts that have been made in practicing organic farming at many places without understanding its holistic (oh yes – that much misused word) principles and implications. Newtonian Mechanics and Relativity have some fundamentally different axioms. It would be futile and unfair to ask Relativity to be explained in terms of Newtonian Mechanics. It is similarly futile to talk the language of chemical farming, believe in their axioms and ask organic farming to prove its mettle.

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The following conversation is not fictitious, although slightly dramatized and reconstructed from memory.

Person A: So, did you grow vegetables with the help of compost. How was the output?

Person B: Very good. Very good. Farmers were very happy. Healthy vegetables. Good weight. But there is one problem with compost.

Person A: What problem?

Person B: Amount of Nitrogen is less in compost. Something needs to be done about that. Otherwise, it is very good.

Person A: You measured NPK? [1]

Person B: Yes.

Person A: Was there a problem with the vegetables?

Person B: No. No. Very good vegetables.

Person A: They why care about NPK?

Person B: But Nitrogen was less.

We don’t eat nitrogen from Urea. We eat vegetables. Person B – a guy who has worked for years in the field with farmers – didn’t see the irony. This was, at least, not a case of failure. But because organic farming is often attempted with misguided notions and expectations, it is no surprise that it results in disillusionment.

Below I talk about some common beliefs about organic farming.

Belief: Organic is about replacing each chemical input with a corresponding “organic” one.

It’s not. That is like explaining Relativity with Newtonian Mechanics. Chemical farming has dissociated the process of farming from the natural way the plants grow (Think about this: Who applies Urea, DAP, MOP or pesticides in jungles? Don’t plants grow there and grow ferociously?). It has been like replacing a balanced diet of cereals, lentils, fruits, and vegetables with different pills and potions which directly introduce specific proteins and vitamins into your body with some calories thrown in. All of us intuitively understand that this isn’t going to work for our bodies. The plants are no different and chemical farming is doing this to our plants. So, organic farming can not work on this principle and when organic farming is treated as using “organic” fertilizer, “organic” pesticide, and “organic” this and that, it is going to result in disappointment.

Belief: Organic farming is more expensive.

I found this to be a tricky one. Everybody thinks so (perhaps judging from the “expensive” organic products in the market). But nobody has been able to explain to me exactly why. Recently, I visited a very good NGO which has done extensive work in the fields of health, education, water management, horticulture, sports and what not. “We tried horticulture with organic. It didn’t work. Too expensive and there is no market for organic.” I pressed on, asking specific questions.

“What do you mean there is no market for organic? Could you not sell the produce or did you not get more than the market price?”

“Was the input cost higher with organic?”

“Did the yield go down with organic?”

It resulted in answers like

“We could sell, but not get more than the market price of regular produce.”

“Input cost didn’t go up; it went down.”

“Yield didn’t go down.”

So, what was the problem? Even if you got the same price as everybody else, your input cost was less and the yield was also fine. Doesn’t that leave you better off?

It took me some effort to navigate through the muddled up conversations. Finally, I realized that the devil was in the certification! I don’t even know the entire process, but everyone agrees that certification is a nightmare and small guys can basically not do it. But the problem is that most of these initiatives start with a focus on certification, which is expensive. So, they need a higher market price.

In summary, the farmers don’t spend more to grow organic, the consumers don’t pay more to eat organic. They are both paying for the certification.

Please keep that in mind the next time someone says “organic is expensive”.

Belief: Organic farming results in low yields.

What organic farming takes care of and what chemical farming destroys is the fertility of the soil. What is the fertility of soil? It’s not a “thing” that you can put into the soil. Fertility comes from the soil ecosystem which includes inorganic material like minerals, but also, very importantly, a large number of micro- and macro-organisms and organic matter. These organisms and plants have a mutually dependent relationship. Through photosynthesis, the plants release “sugar” into the soil that the micro-organisms feed on. These organisms, in turn, through their regular metabolism, release the minerals and nutrients from the soil in a form that the plants need. If you have this process going on in the soil, you don’t need to put nutrients from outside in the form of fertilizers.

With the use of chemicals over decades, this ecosystem in the soil has been destroyed. The organisms and organic material have disappeared. Hence, all the minerals of the soil are locked and not available to the plants. When you talk to older farmers, they will say that the soil has become “addicted” to the chemical. It is because the natural process is no longer functional. So, now, if you just stop using chemicals and try to grow plants, it will obviously not grow well. What you need is for the micro-organisms to return to the soil and for the soil to have enough organic material and moisture to sustain that life. This change needs some intervention and blindly trying to procure “organic inputs” from the market doesn’t work. The solution, of course, involves using some inputs, but they can be prepared with the animal and plant waste available to the farmers in their houses, farms or nearby areas. And they are best prepared by the farmers themselves, involving community wherever needed and possible. Firstly, because even when the inputs are available in the market, their quality is by no means guaranteed. There is no regulation and there is no dearth of unscrupulous businesses trying to milk the organic fad. Besides, preparation of such inputs in-house also helps come up with a system that is sustainable and suitable for the locality. It makes the optimum use of everything a farmer has at his disposal – land, plants and animals. Finally, it reduces outside dependence of the farmers. Different inputs work at different rates, some fast, some slow, some more easily made in one area, some in another and so on. But they exist, they work and they can be used.

While the well-off urban professionals turning to farming can usually take their time in building up an organic farming operation, the process of transition needs to be carefully managed for the small and marginal farmers. The thing is, it is entirely possible to manage. We just have to focus on the correct principles and outcomes and not obsess on measurements like NPK which don’t really matter!

Belief: But pests will still destroy everything.

An ecosystem similar to the one regulating soil fertility works to regulate pests too. The Satyameva Jayate episode also touches upon it. Basically, if there are pests in nature that destroy plants, there are others which eat these plant-pests. The organic approach is not to identify every single plant-pest and kill them with external inputs. But to get that ecosystem running in which the predators of the pests do that job of keeping the plants safe. There are again ways to manage the transition, which must be done carefully so as not to leave the small and marginal farmers stranded. It will have to be designed keeping in mind local conditions with minimal dependence on external inputs.

There are a few other important pieces of the puzzle including the now widespread practice of mono-cropping, water management, and seeds. But I don’t intend to write a technical treatise here.  What I want to emphasize is that organic is not a distant, hippy, expensive or unnatural idea. It is, in fact, the default idea. That chemical farming enjoys the badge of ‘conventional’ is the real distortion. It needs to be corrected. And it can be corrected.

[1] Nitrogen, Phosphorous, Potassium (in soil)

Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash

Travel

Snippets from Europe Trip: Lessons in Smelling

Of Wine

We went on a wine-tasting tour in Bordeaux. To educate us in the art of appreciating wine, they had a game for us. They give us four vials which had four different smells (pretty strong, not subtle like in actual wine) and we had to figure out what each of them smelled like. There were four couples on the tour and each couple was a team. We were also given a huge list of all possible kinds of smells a wine could have. I gave up on the game almost instantly when the very first vial confused the heck out of me. But Abhaya was more sporting; so we stayed put.

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This is the story of two vials and their smells. While handing us one of those, our host said something to the effect that it was difficult for the Indians to recognize that smell. We glanced through the list of and without even smelling the vial, wrote “Truffles” against it. So did everyone else, we realized later. That was one vial we were all right about.

The second one, Abhaya was very sure, was cinnamon. He tried to get me to confirm, but for the life of mine I couldn’t figure out the smell. “Yeah. It’s spicy,” I mumbled to get him off my back. When it came to checking the answer it turned out that the correct option was pepper. We smelled it again. Of course, it was pepper. How could we ever think it was anything else? How on earth could it ever have smelled like cinnamon?

Indians usually get spicy smells right, our host informed us. It is all about what kind of smells you are used to, he was trying to explain with badly-behaving examples. We blushed and shrugged and giggled dutifully in response.

And Of Smelly Feet

Rains were our constant companion on the trip. One fine day in Paris, I realized after leaving the Airbnb that my shoes had not properly dried. but I didn’t want to go back to change and decided to keep it on. That evening we visited a fromagerie (cheese shop) and bought some cheese. We had decided to savor the cheese in our room. I freshened up after reaching the Airbnb and settled down to lay the cheese out. When Abhaya walked into the room he declared, “Your feet smell. Did you wash them?” “Not with soap,” I conceded as I was also smelling sweaty shoes or the stink they leave on your feet. I had been wearing the wet shoes the entire day. So, it was totally possible to have smelly feet. I went to the bathroom, washed and made sure that my feet were as fresh as daisies (or fleur-de-lis). But the smell won’t go. It must be the shoes, we figured. Abhaya collected both our shoes and socks and left them out in the balcony. That should keep the smell away also help them dry. But the smell in the room was still there. So, now Abhaya decided to give a soap treatment to his feet. We were still not entirely free of smell, but we decided the smell must be inside our noses now and it will subside in a while. It did. Either because the smell was finally getting out of our noses or our noses were getting used to it. We focused on cheese.

After eating a bit, Abhaya started reading about them on Wikipedia. He read thoroughly – all about their history, how they were made, what their chemical composition was and then he reached to this particular piece of info:

Camembert cheese gets its characteristic odor from many compounds. These include diacetyl (buttery flavoring for popcorn), 3-methylbutanal, methional (degradation product of methionine), 1-octen-3-ol and 1-octen-3-one (degradation products of fats), phenethyl acetate, 2-undecanone, δ-decalactone, butyric acid, and isovaleric acid (odor of gym socks).

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Yes. We were eating Camembert cheese. After this experience, we ate blue cheese in a restaurant.

Every bad smell in France can be explained by some good cheese. And with wine and cheese being the thing, I don’t know how they ever manage to smell wine.