The Vengeful Racist Story of how Economics got labelled “The Dismal Science”

Today, I tell you a simple story. Its a story, many a times told and retold. A story of colonies and slavery, of a rapidly industrializing England, of corn and sugar, of the Irish and the Blacks, and importantly, of a crazy racist thinker Thomas Carlyle, who would give economics its “dismal” identity, which has lasted a whole 156 years after the term was coined in 1859.

British Empire 1833. This is the year that the empire formally abolished all forms of slavery in all of its colonies. How? By literally paying compensation to the slave owners and giving them an additional window of 12 years in which the system was to be revamped completely. However, there were issues, as one can guess. The British West Indies slave owners, many of whom ran sugar plantations in the Carribean, notably in countries like Jamaica, Barbados and Trindad, were found to be using the 12 year window period in plotting schemes that would enable them to continue their grip on slaves in the future too. The Empire took a strong view and eventually, gave legal and financial aid to the slaves in the Carribean prompting a huge exodus from the sugar plantations to distant villages. Labor shortage made sure that the costs rose astronomically, crippling the plantation owners. In the meanwhile, the neighboring countries of Brazil and Cuba, where the British did not have hold, continued to produce sugar with cheap, low cost slave labor. This near-destroyed the economic model of the British West Indies colonies. Except for one relief. They were given tariff protection on sugar imports, which in part helped them to sustain the Brazilian competition.

Interestingly, it is here that a twist in the tale appears in the form of a completely unexpected figure: Napolean Bonaparte. It was in the year 1747 that German scientist Andreas Marggraf made the amazing discovery that sugar crystals obtained from cane juice and beet juice were the same. In 1811, French scientists presented loaves of sugar made from beet to Napolean. History tells that Napolean was so very impressed with this that he got 32,000 hectares of land in Europe under beet plantations and gave subsidies to set up beet sugar factories. Factories, which were by 1840, creating cheap sugar to give the Carribeans, a run for their money. Except that the British laws protected them through tariffs.

I depart here from the main stream story to mention the economic contributions of a great economist: David Ricardo. The contributions of Ricardo to classical economics are many, but here, what would be relevant to note is that David Ricardo championed the cause of free trade. He was of the opinion that the Corn Laws in Britain, which levied a tariff on import of corn, were shifting the distribution of income in favour of landlords and away from industries. He held and propagated the belief that such restrictions on trade were one of the major causes of stagnation in UK.

Ricardian theories gained currency (John Stuart Mill and Charles Darwin were champions of the free market free trade theory) and the Corn Laws were actually repealed in 1846 (after Ricardo’s death). A year later, so were the laws protecting the colonies from import of sugar. Further, the repealed laws also allowed Britain to stop giving preferential treatment to their colonies; Britain would hence now either import sugar from France or from Brazil or Cuba.

We pause here for a minute to reflect what the free market, free trade, anti-slavery brigade established here. These free market economists had morally and intellectually backed freedom; do you see that? Its a freedom movement. Freedom from tariffs, from protection, from slavery, from bonded labor. Let the markets be. Laissez faire.

The major consequence of this free philosophy was that UK now started importing more sugar from Brazil and Cuba, inadvertently giving more business to the slavery model in these countries by dismantling the slavery models in their own colonies. It is here that Thomas Carlyle publishes the angry and spiteful, intellectual-expletive ridden text, backing the pro-slavery plantation owners and calling economics a “dismal” science.

Who was Carlylye?

Thomas Carlyle was a Scottish –born philosopher, mathematician and history writer, whose early years were deeply influenced by the Church. In his later years however, he seems to suffer a crisis of faith, generally rendering a manner of goading the church in his later writings.

Thomas Carlyle suffers the dubious distinction as being the philosopher who supported slavery in the British colonies. Is it that Carlyle is actually advocating slavery here? Well, while his writings (and are they fiery) do seem to support slavery, what he actually propagates is some kind of a compulsory activity for the bulk of the populace. His extremely biting references to Ireland too are unnerving. Remember that it is around this time that Ireland had suffered its potato famine. The potato blight destroyed potato farms in Ireland, causing the demographics in Ireland to permanently change as people re-located and immigrated to other parts in Europe. On seeing the masses in the Carribeans as well as in Ireland unemployed, he arrives at the conclusion that it is the freedom of movement, it is the freedom to choose one’s occupation that creates such public issues. Take away the freedom and people will learn to appreciate the “joy” of being gainfully employed. Reading Carlyle is upsetting, and that is an understatement. Sample this.

“Between our Black West Indies and our White Ireland, between these two extremes of lazy refusal to work, and of famishing inability to find any work, what a world have we made of it, with our fierce Mammon-worships, and our benevolent philanderings, and idle godless nonsenses of one kind and another! Supply-and-demand, Leave-it-alone, Voluntary Principle, Time will mend it:–till British industrial existence seems fast becoming one huge poison-swamp of reeking pestilence physical and moral; a hideous living Golgotha of souls and bodies buried alive..”

Around 1840, Carlyle also published his famous works “On Heroes, Hero Worship and the Heroic in History” in which one can see how he reveres leadership models that have leaders offering visions to society despite their failings. One off-shoot of this work is also his no-holds-barred attack on “hereditary” leadership models as well as on democracy, which in his true attacking style he calls “anarchy plus a street constable.” There is also a clear impact of German idealism on his mind; his translation of Schiller and Goethe into English make him a candidate whose philosophies guided fascist forces in the later period.

One last story before I wind up. In 1866, the islands of Jamaica witnessed a black uprising and Governor Eyre (obviously white) of Jamaica had hundreds of blacks flogged and even executed. The event shocked the Britishers and one of the most famous legal cases pertaining to racial discrimination happened in Britain. Against Eyre were Mill and Darwin; Carlyle was the one to defend Eyre in this case. He was supported interestingly, by Alfred Tennyson.

Was Carlyle a racist? Yes, undoubtedly. His ideas on forcing the blacks into work are not pretty. But, it is obvious as you read him, that it is not the blacks per se that he really mounts his attack on; he is extremely viciously opposed to ideas of freedom and the free market philosophy. One may go so far as to venture to say that it is not the blacks, but rather economists and economic systems that embitter him. That definitely does not absolve him of his fascist, extreme thoughts, but well, this is how economics was seen as a dismal science by this spiteful, anger spewing thinker.

Carlyle unnerves the average reader with his goading and spiteful language; its like being with a spiteful version of the Captain Haddock of economics. This is certainly not a great way to end this post, but let me share with you the actual paragraph in which Carlyle proceeds to call Economics a dismal science.

“Truly, my philanthropic friends, Exeter Hall Philanthropy is wonderful; and the Social Science—not a “gay science,” but a rueful [one]—which finds the secret of this universe in “supply-and-demand,” and reduces the duty of human governors to that of letting men alone, is also wonderful.

Not a “gay science,” I should say, like some we have heard of; no, a dreary, desolate, and indeed quite abject and distressing one; what we might call, by way of eminence, the dismal science. These two, Exeter Hall Philanthropy and the Dismal Science, led by any sacred cause of Black Emancipation, or the like, to fall in love and make a wedding of it,—will give birth to progenies and prodigies; dark extensive moon-calves, unnameable abortions, wide-coiled monstrosities, such as the world has not seen hitherto!”

 

Advertisements

Of cumulonimbus | Business Line

Hi All!

This is my “Tweakonomics” article on Indra Dev and Monsoon Forecasting in India published in the Hindu Business Line today. Here’s a quick excerpt:

————————————————————————————————————–

The scene opens in the Indra Sabha, where LOTR, Lord of the errr, “Rains”, presides in full glory over humbler portfolios like Costumes and Jewellery.

Sevak: My Lord, the Indian Meteorological Department has given its long range forecast. Its website claims that the monsoon will arrive on time this year and will hit Kerala on 1st June 2015.

Indra Dev (interested): Oh ho! Really? Tell me, Sevak, on what basis do they make such claims?

Sevak: Sir, the poor earthlings at the IMD still use statistical modelling for monsoon forecasting. Can you believe it, Sire? I mean, this “identification of predictors to forecast the predict, assuming that the nature of the long run relationship between dependent and independents is stable” is boring ole OLS stuff. Almost Muggle stuff, you know, Sir! But Indian blizzard, being more wizard, defies predictability and hence, prediction. If you’ll permit your humble servant a quick spell, Sir…Cumulonimbus cyclonum!

Indra Dev: Confound that Potter woman! Not one of my trusted Sevaks can create a cumulonimbus in Sanskrit anymore. Sevak! Stop rolling about Rowling. And get Tolkien, I mean…talking.

For the full article, please see Of cumulonimbus | Business Line.

John Nash and some musings on Philosophy

On reading about John Nash passing away, I spent some quiet time mulling over stories I’ve heard about him, incidences from the “Beautiful Mind” that touched my heart and have stayed with me and obviously, thinking and re-thinking the many applications of game theory in general and Nash equilibrium, in particular. Unknowingly, but perhaps unresistingly too, I was also drawn to other philosophical issues that always crop up when Nash is being discussed. Yes, philosophy. Because I’ve often felt that the beauty of Nash’s work is that it gives us a mathematical tool to look more logically at deeper, more soul searching, non-mathematical issues.

I cannot help going back to Laches, that famous dialogue between Socrates and two men (Nicias and Laches) on why children should be trained in warfare. In this dialogue, there is a very interesting story that Socrates narrates. There is a soldier on the border, who is observing the war. He observes that his side is winning without his intervention. It now becomes unimportant for him to actively engage in combat and increase the probability of his own death, especially given that his side is winning. He does not engage in combat. If he observes that the opposition is winning, the chances of his getting injured go up even more than earlier and so he decides to run away. Socrates argues that here, running away is something that every soldier would want to practice, immaterial of who wins the war. This is “prudence”. In Nash’s terms, folks, we have now seriously identified dominant strategies.

Prudence demands that soldiers wouldn’t want to fight; yet they do. So there could be a bigger motive to this; perhaps it is not always rational to be only selfish. The moment you say that, you have opened THE Pandora’s box. There are uncontrolled number of opinions that take off from this point, each irresistible in its appeal and yet, aggressive in its persuasion. There would be Plato, Mill, Kant, all arguing that ethics are larger than selfish acts of prudence. And then of course, there would be Charles Darwin holding the opposite end of the spectrum. Nature, in its raw form, supports only survival of the fittest. And that implies that the game of life is so created to support only and only rational individual self-interest. And where do we go from here? Where else can we go from here? We can, only and only move to individualism, supported by Rand and followers. The only rationality lies in selfish focus; you can pretty much discard any other notion of altruism with a shrug.

Very close, so close that you may be tempted to call him the economic version of Ayn Rand, is Adam Smith. Smith, the father of Economics, with his utterances on how a laissez faire economy will automatically promote the best possible outcomes. However, careful here; there are significant differences between Ayn Rand and Adam Smith. In the Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith admits “How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it”. And it is here perhaps that Smith scores rather heavily over Rand. While Smith agrees that self focus would lead to profitable outcomes, he does not always presume that the self is the center of the rational human universe. And this is perhaps his biggest departure from Rand, who goes so far as to say that the only God is “I”. “The word “We” is as lime poured over men, which sets and hardens to stone, and crushes all beneath it, and that which is white and that which is black are lost equally in the grey of it. It is the word by which the depraved steal the virtue of the good, by which the weak steal the might of the strong, by which the fools steal the wisdom of the sages. I am done with the monster of “We,” the word of serfdom, of plunder, of misery, falsehood and shame. And now I see the face of god… This god, this one word: “I.”

But if people only focus on their own individual strategies, then there could be a case where greed brings in anarchy. So Thomas Hobbes, in his unparalleled and rather unconvincing work Leviathan, brings in “tyranny” as a whiplash over anarchy. Since individuals may be so blinded by their self-interest, it perhaps makes sense to have an intervention in place…perhaps, a tyrant, called as the Government?

The main point however is: Why do I write about Plato and Smith and Rand and Hobbes, when my musings are primarily about Nash? Well you see, Nash gives me the tool with which I can connect the philosophies of all these thinkers onto one platform. A platform called Game Theory.

In the prisoner’s dilemma, each prisoner decides to choose that strategy that minimizes the sentence given to him, irrespective of the strategy used by his opponent. What every prisoner is really doing is that he is employing his own dominant strategy; he focuses on the self.

As all players employ self centered strategies, the game settles to a stable Nash equilibrium. Ayn Rand would rejoice in this choice and would perhaps like to call it the God equilibrium.

Plato, Mill and Kant would perhaps not be so convinced. Their point was that stable equilibria are not always the most ethical equilibria. And fortunately, people don’t always behave in a self centered manner, do they? Nash would interpret this to say that there are other altruistic pay-offs that we would need to incorporate in the game. Further, its not always possible for us to have dominant strategies. People do reciprocate an act of kindness; in Nash’s world, strategies are at times reactive.

Enter Hobbes and Nash will show that the presence of the Government will change the equilibrium from a competitive one to a co-opetitive one. It could be a law or a cartel or a mafia or a Government that could affect this change.

Every philosophical idea can be equated to a change in pay-offs as perceived by the players. Or it could be equated to introduction of new strategies being made available to the players. Or it could be equated to introduction of a new player altogether. Whatever be your philosophy, the theory of games and the dilemma offers us the perfect mathematical tool with which to view it.

The vision is entirely yours. The choice of philosophy is entirely yours too. John Nash is the name of the binocular through which you suddenly see things close by.

NaMo takes on the Inscrutable Chinese!

Dear Reader, this article appeared in the Hindu Business Line today under my column titled “Tweakonomics”. You can see the original article at http://www.thehindubusinessline.com/opinion/inscrutable-chinese/article7206260.ece

There is a lot riding on this visit. Such as settlement of disputes pertaining to border, trade, border, economy, border, investment, border, railways and just in case you missed it, border. Bordering on the border of the impossible. Ony NaMo’s charms may be able to push the Indian bull (now officially growing at a faster-than-dragon pace) into the proverbial China shop.

The Indian PM will start his visit on the Xi homeground, at Xian. This is largely, claim the diplomats with an all-knowing nod, to reciprocate the Jhula ride at Ahmedabad. The PM will be taken for a ride to the Wild Goose ummm Pagoda, before he can do the WG chase on getting Indian goods more access to the Chinese markets. One of the many economic objectives of this visit is obviously to boost the total trade between the Hindi-Chinis from $70 billion to around $100 billion. While it sounds grand this side of the border, it sounds grander on the other. Because, of those $70 billion, around $ 58 billion are exports from China. That’s about 80%, folks. If only the same ratio be maintained! Why $100 billion, we should try for $ 120 billion, the dragon will roar. I can almost see the Chinese Tai-Itching in glee at the thought. Though I am admittedly more worried about the Indian Yogic Acceptance-Of-The-Inevitable trance at the moment.

While Xi will give NaMo the home comfort, Li will meet him next day at Beijing to do the State honors. Premier Li Keqiang is not only China’s head of Government, but an economist to boot. This is the guy who is the brains behind the current Chinese strategy of looking at internal consumption as a harbinger of growth rather than on the more traditional, more reliable, more let-the-west-look-east, export-oriented strategy. Keqiang is also extremely famous, or infamous, depending on which side of the argument you are, for one more thing: THE Keqiang Index! The index by itself is not so interesting as the making of the same. As the story goes, Li Keqiang had apparently told a US ambassador in 2007 that he didn’t really believe in the official GDP figures (now you know what gossip happens at those by-invitation-only dinners) and instead relied on railway freights, power consumption and loans disbursed by the banks to know how well the economy was really doing. The Wikileaks dutifully leaked this to the world.

In the meanwhile, the Economist, which since the Mac Index had enthralled readers based on pure snobbery and pessimistic forecasts, saw that their golden moment had arrived, yet again. Let no one say that the Brits don’t understand economics. The Economist used its in-depth analysis to create the Li Keqiang Index! Using the same three indicators as Premier Li. While you may accuse the British of being non-creative in terms of variable selection, let no one accuse them of plagiarism. The American Investment Banks took this personally as a blight on their index-building capacities and came out with the more powerful “augmented” Keqiang Index. That neither the basic Brits nor the augmented Americans are privy to internal Keqiang data and are hence using the wrong “official” data, beating the whole purpose of the index, is of course, statistical trivia.

Any eco-political talks start with GDP growth rates. I wonder how much the Indian delegation will be able to convince Premier Li that India is REALLY growing at 7.9%. Sigh. After all that effort we put in just to grow faster than the dragon!

The New Contagious Crisis called GDP Revision!

Pssst. The IMF team is here on a two week visit to study India’s data collection process. Why? We have’em running scared, that’s why. The poor devils cannot fathom how a country that was stuck at the jinxed sub-5% growth rate with “macroeconomic vulnerabilities” could suddenly show a 7.4% growth for FY15, and expect 7.9% for FY16, give or fashionably take 20 bps. It’s not only them; the UPA too is scowling how they couldn’t have seen it before. According to the new series, the GDP growth rate for FY14, the election year no less, was also a healthy 6.9%. Ouch! And to think they lost the election because they apparently didn’t perform on growth!

The IMF is now seriously scared. They have realized that the developing economies now have got hold of the Elder Wand with which they can create magical growth rates. It’s simple, really. The idea is not to revise the base year of the GDP series, come what may. So you stick around like a leech to a base year for 9 or 10 years and so, new products and services that the economy is creating are automatically not included in the GDP calculations. You get depressed GDP calculations and the west eyes you with pity and tries to give you the encouraging boost by calling you hearty and false sounding names like emerging markets and sunrise economies and stuff, when well, you in fact have already emerged, the sun has risen and the bric-mason is laughing all the way to the bank.

The rest, as they say, is economics. After around 10 years, you suddenly wake up from the GDP hibernation and declare in that tone of stellar surprise, “Omigosh, has it really been 10 years? Well, time to change the series.” But careful, here. For, while the tone of surprise is sufficiently necessary, it is not necessarily sufficient, you see. Because these multilateral and especially ratings agencies have got the habit of asking those nasty awkward questions like why you didn’t have this brilliant idea before. So, think about answers. If the party in power has changed, great! It was THEY who were lazy, right? Add to it useful words like policy paralysis, and you are through! Hmm, however, not every country has such wonderful luck. In that case, build up your case. Tell’em how no year in the past 10 years has been “normal” enough to be classified as the base year. After all, the US sub-prime crisis affected the EMEs too, making revision almost impossible. Twas the US, not US! That’s the line to take. That’ll make them go on the defensive and not ask too many deep questions. And if even that doesn’t work, there’s always good ole climate change. Climate change has positively made all years in the past 5 abnormal.. And please, do NOT call it bin badal barsaat, for heaven’s sake. The El Nino and the La Nina. That should do the trick.

And then, revise. That’s it. With a straight face. Further, “benchmark the series for ease of international comparisons”…oh, just use the GDP at market prices rather than factor cost. Increase the sample size for “statistical robustness.” The Sub-Saharan Africans discovered the trick a couple of years ago; Ghana posting a 19% growth rate was creating palpitations in a recessionary world, thanks to changing base after about 18 years, when the Nigerians announced wickedly that their base was as old as 25 years. With Africa revising, Modi Sarkar cannot be behind. Today’s visit to China has been fast-tracked so that we can crow about this before the Chinese cotton on and decide to put in their own revision. Won’t be surprised if, before long, the world is clocking global growth rates of about 7%.

The IMF is stumped. You see, there is a new contagious crisis episode in the globe. Its the GDP revision crisis.

 

Econ mom in God’s Own Country

Yaay! The long awaited vacation to Kerala! What a paradise…a totally different experience at Cochin and the backwaters; a totally different one at Munnar. As we headed from Kochi to the backwaters, we spent long hours driving through small picturesque villages, with coconuts, jackfruits, bananas and mangoes simply piled up on the trees, as if into competition with each other on the head count. It looked for a while that the jackfruits were winning, but I think at the end, the coconuts won, hands down. I was dismayed and irritated to see the kiddies comparing the features of the cameras to click pictures of the natural wonders I was so excited about. “Kids. Look out of the window. Enjoy the nature.” Such old fashioned statements only come from me in this mad family and the kids, torn between ignoring me and ignoring me, decided to ignore me. Giving a cursory glance outside the window that would not be long enough to spot even the biggest outsized jackfruit in Kerala, they said to pacify me “Wow! Nature!” and immediately went back to the more interesting artificial wonders that the cameras had to offer. “What did you see from the window?”I persisted and the lil one, without batting an eyelid said “There are no high rise buildings in Kerala. No offices. And no Malyalis wear glasses. Don’t they read enough?”

I could feel the economist in me rising and after taking 5 calming breaths most unsuccessfully to control my econ instinct, I told the kids (I mean, I HAD to) “Folks, we are in a 100% literacy zone. So I don’t want stupid comments about people in this state not reading enough. They don’t wear glasses because they are basically a fish eating people. High vitamin and protein content.” I could sense from the silence in the backseat that I had made an impact. “Really, mom? 100% literacy? Then why is all of Kerala not…urban? Its mostly villages and farmlands.”

How do you explain to children what the combination of communism, labor rights and high literacy rates can do to economic profiles of regions? For the past many years, Kerala maintained its numero uno status on the Indian HDI but would not make the grade on the State GDP rankings. While literacy is a terrific thing to happen to a state, it has not exactly served as an attraction to industries, which shy away from minimum wage conscious, union oriented and educated labor forces.

Why the industries, even conversations with small farmers and locals highlighted what an issue labor was in the state. On the way from the backwaters to Munnar, the spice haven of Kerala, the mangoes and coconuts suddenly give way to tall rubber trees, with the typical slanting line cuts on them and the small black pot tied to its middle to collect the sap. Looks rather like a tall, slient hermit with slanting ropes tied around the middle and a kamandalu in hand. A typical rubber plantation of an acre can host up to 120 rubber trees that start yielding sap after around 6 years. Most farmers also grow paddy, bananas and pineapples between the rubber trees for the first 3-4 years to make some money off the land. However, in its fourth year, the rubber tree roots grow so very robust that they start absorbing all the water content in the soil, rendering any other crop infeasible. “I had around 5 acres of rubber plantation a few years ago,” said a local hotel employee. “But my children don’t want the hard life of a farmer. They are well educated and want to have city jobs. One of my sons is in Bangalore and the other is now studying in Australia. So I sold off the plantation and took up a job. Its not amazing pay, but its steady pay, and a lot less heartache and worries for my age.” I could detect a similar strain in many people’s voices as they talked to us. Since most families have kids that have been moving away from homeland, labor shortage is a seriously huge issue and has lead to a humungous escalation in labor costs. An unskilled labourer at the rubber plantation can earn anywhere from Rs.500 to Rs.600 for a half day stint and a skilled labourer earns, hold your breath, something like Rs.900 for 8:00 a.m. to 11.30 a.m. profile, MNREGA minimum wages be damned. Compare that to the MNREGA pay of Rs.200 per day in other places like Maharashtra and Orissa and you can see what an issue the wages are in Kerala. In fact, since the coastlands at West Bengal and Orissa have similar plantation profiles, Kerala is currently witnessing huge migration from these two states to man these plantations.

As one moves ahead towards Munnar, the tall rubber tree hermits give way to shorter and extremely organized farms- tea! The road was distinctly narrower and help! definitely twistier…aaargh! Since it had been my idea to visit Munnar, the kids (lil one and his two cousins) were now holding me personally responsible for the winding roads built by the British to get to Munnar All my enthusiastic pep talks about the green and fresh fragrance of tea were now met by green-in-the-face little devils who had not known how rough this journey was going to be. “This is the worst journey I have ever done. I give it a rating of 0.05 out of 5” That was my older niece, all of 14 and the leader of the kiddie gang. As our car turned a sudden 100 degree left at about 60 degree incline, I learnt about the centrifugal force the practical way. Tummy lurching unpleasantly, I was suddenly thrown to the right, with my right cheek pressed tightly against the supercold glass of my window, with the lil one’s pointy chin pressing into my neck in a most life threatening fashion. For the first time I realized the full import of the description “a pointed chin”. As I was hanging there helplessly, our driver, who by the way was getting positively more cheerful with every turn, decided to declare “Cardamom Plantation to the left.” What! Cardamom plantations! My Carl Linnaeus green instinct fought against the Newtonian forces most helplessly; my struggle to sit upright causing the already upset lil one to react violently and push me rudely even more against the glass. “Look to the left. Cardamom!” I sputtered from that corner of my mouth that was free from the frozen glass impact. “I hate cardamom” said the pointed chin, with similar sentiments getting echoed from the other kids pressed against cold glasses in the backseat. Such co-operation! The car now hurled dangerously downwards causing all passengers to hang on to the seat in front of them for dear life as tightly as possible. Just as all three kids suddenly landed in the leg space, our driver enthusiastically pointed to orange farms on the right, urging us to click photos through the window. This was one wise Master in the driver seat; he is only speaking always in the present continuous tense. “Stopping now after turning for clicking?” he asked. By now, the sheer physical gravity forces had totally defeated the Grammar Nazi in me. “No,” I managed to barely squeak. “”Only stopping when reaching hotelling. When we reaching?”

Munnar. At last. As we recovered from that gruelling ride, we gradually started enjoying the spice beauty unfolding in front of us. The lush green tea plantations, the pepper climbers, the bushy cardamoms and the robust cinnamon trees…oh, ‘twas truly Munnar spice and everything nice. The kids recovered too and actually forced us to buy “I love Munnar”mementos. As I urged them to stay away from the gaming center in the markets, the lil one told me wickedly “Someone needs to play too, Ma. Otherwise with 100% literacy, people only land up reading. How will this gaming center make a profit?”

Three travelogues: Catharsis, Humor and Science!

I was never really much into reading travelogues. But, thanks to a friend, I discovered the genre recently and was lucky enough to get my hands on some really different styles. It’s been great fun and learning, browsing through all these different styles of writing, each connecting to me in a different way, each touching my mind differently, each showing me a different country, a different zone, a different reality, a different magic.

Firstly, “Wild” by Cheryl Strayed. Now this is one lady who can connect massively to her reader. She is passionate, she is crazy and she is a story teller. Cheryl starts by telling the reader about her childhood, not really very luxurious but a happy one. The figure of her mother looms large in the childhood episodes, the horse-loving spunky mom who tries to give a decent upbringing to her three children despite the not-so-decent living that she makes. When Cheryl loses her mom to a heart wrenching fight against cancer, she doesn’t have it in her to go on. She goes on a self-destructing spree, divorcing her husband, getting into drugs, putting up with junkies…the whole works. She also takes on a new name “Strayed” because well, she knows that she did. And then one day, picks up a book on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) just because she kinda likes the cover? Well, the guide book tells her that the trail is NOT for novices, but for some reason she decides to try it. She saves some money, says her goodbyes and finally goes hiking which is “just a bit of walking, isn’t it?” The PCT starts at the Mexican border of the US and ends at the Canadian border and moves through forests, hilly zones, snowy terrains and rattle snake infested areas. Not for your average novice, as Cheryl realizes after starting on it. Cheryl has some fairly romantic ideas about how she’ll feel one with nature and cry her heart out for her mom every night before sleeping. As things go, all she does every night is groan over aching feet, a bruised back and sleep like a log. There’s no place for tears because there’s no place in her mind for her mom. The forest trains her to focus on the trail at hand, to think about the next move and to pretty much leave the past behind her. Cheryl carries some books to read on the trail but soon learns to burn the read up pages every night because its an unnecessary burden. She meets a few people on the trail; strangers who have a kind word, who understand her desire to be alone and are yet willing to give her a pat on the back when needed. Its therapeutic, her journey and the reader literally sees the Sierra Nevada and feels its raw beauty through her eyes, gasps as a bear saunters into the trail and enjoys the quiet feeling of accomplishment when Cheryl completes the trail despite all odds. Reading the book was walking the trail and healing with Cheryl. Cathartic.

Now, as fate should have it, the book I picked up immediately post- Wild was the “Lost Continent” by Bill Bryson. My son was eyeing me with great anxiety because after having seen me sniffling red-eyed through the entire Cheryl episode, he couldn’t quite handle seeing mom breaking out into fits of uncontrolled laughter every 3 minutes. Bryson is madly, madly funny and gives you outstandingly witty commentary on nearly all the states of the USA that he travelled to on the roads. As it happens, Bryson was born in Iowa and literally “fled” to the UK to escape the dullness of it all once grown up. His father, who stayed in Iowa all his life dies and now Bryson feels like taking a trip back to Iowa, just to re-visit all the old haunts his dad had taken him to and to see whether the US has changed at all. Oh, don’t get me wrong. Even if the tone of this seems to be nostalgia, the genre is pure and simple humor. His account of how his dad used to drive all the kids to the grandparents and how the grandparents used to be always stationed at the same position at the gate making him wonder if they are only there when the kids arrive or whether they generally stay by the gate all the time, the bad baking and superb gossip skills of granny, the bad driving skills of papa dearest, how dad used to never know how to take the road straight to the mall or the circus and so used to drive the car and the kids insane by approaching the circus from every which side except the right one..there is never a dull moment. Loss of a parent is where both the books start; but their approach is so delightfully different that I was entranced. In fact, I read these two books back to back without really meaning to, but I would recommend that you plan and read these in this fashion.

And then there’s the “Kon Tiki”by Thor Heyerdahl. Genre scientific expedition. This is again another ball game altogether. In the 1950s, American anthropologists believed that human settlements found on the Polynesian Islands came in from the Australian side and could be Aborigines, who sailed in from Australia and settled on the islands. However, Heyerdahl thought otherwise. He stayed on the islands for 4 years and came up with the conclusion that these people had very intricate similarities to the Peruvian civilizations and hence must have sailed from Peru, from the Latin American end. His hypothesis was pooh-poohed badly by the Americans and a senior scientist said in jest that unless he could put a raft on the waters from Peru and sail to Polynesia, no one was going to believe in his hypothesis. Heyerdahl however now had got the definitive way to prove his hypothesis right. So he starts looking for the right crew, researches on how the Indians used to build rafts, goes into the forests hunting for suitable wood, gets rations from the US navy…the book moves between archaeology, anthropology, botany, ship building, history, civilization and the art of survival under the most trying circumstances. Whew!

Three travelogues, each with its own distinctive style and sub-genre. Highly recommend all three books, folks, if you haven’t seen them already!