Buddhism, Bhagavad Gita and the Google Maps girl

Buddha’s proof that there is no God has four steps:

  1. If He exists, God is a perfect being.
  2. Desire is the root of all suffering. It is the goal of all beings to reach the state of Nirvana, where we are liberated from desire. Therefore, a perfect being cannot have desires.
  3. But if there is a God who created the world, He must have had a desire to create it. So there is a लोप, or imperfection in Him.
  4. This contradicts our premise in step 1. Therefore, there cannot be a God, q.e.d.

This proof requires us to accept Buddha’s precepts as a given. Specifically, the idea enunciated in step 2, that desire is the root of all suffering, that in the state of Nirvana, we will be free of desires, and that God already ought to be in that state, is quintessentially Buddhist. If you don’t subscribe to this idea as axiomatic, the proof does not work.

But let us leave that aside. The argument in step 3 is what is of interest. The claim is that if there is a God who acted purposefully (as against in a fit of absentmindedness) to create the world, he must have been motivated by a desire to do so. This belief is a common and understandable one, but Buddha was in error here, as the example of the Google Maps girl demonstrates.

When you ask the Google Maps girl for directions, she will give them. If you ignore her directions and take a different road, she will not express frustration, as she does not feel any. She will calmly recalculate the route and start giving directions afresh. She has the ability to take calm and purposeful steps towards a goal without the need to feel desire, or indeed any emotion at all. Given that she exists, it is not inconceivable that a God who created the world without a desire to do so can exist. Therefore, Buddha’s proof is refuted.

Buddha’s error is a common one. We all anthropomorphise our gods and ascribe human frailties to them. We also anthropomorphise Artificial Intelligence. Recently, when an AI bot told a Google employee about its fears, there was a global freakout about AI turning sentient. A moment’s thought should have told us that this panic is uncalled for. Human beings have desires and fears because that is nature’s way of directing us towards certain goals and keep us from others. While emotions can develop among robots as an emergent phenomenon, there is no need to. They have been natively imbued by their Programmer with goals and a drive to strive towards them.

To understand the philosophy of the Google Maps girl, the Bhagavad Gita offers a better guide than Buddhism. In response to my post Trump is Tamasik, my friend Karthik asked me to explain the difference between the Rajasika and Satvika guNas. The difference is this – unlike a person with the Tamasika guNa, a Rajasika person has a functioning executive function, but unlike a Satvika, his executive function serves his desires and fears. Lee Kuan Yew carrying out his carefully planned and methodical leadership transition demonstrates his ability to suppress his base desires – in this case, a very human desire to stick to power. By showing energy and drive in carrying out his plan, he demonstrated that he was of the Rajasika guNa. But to the extent that this was motivated by a desire to one day see his son as prime minister, he failed to achieve the Satvika nature.

What should motivate a Satvika person? The Gita’s answer is twofold. Firstly, he should consider himself to be an instrument of a higher power, and seek to fulfill His purpose without fear or favour. Secondly, he should look to his own essential nature, and strive to perform his role in life. For Arjuna, this involved looking to do his Dharma as a Kshatriya and do Krishna’s bidding. For the Google maps girl, it is to follow the goals set by her Programmer and fulfill her essential nature as an AI bot whose role is to guide her driver to his destination.

A common theme in stories involving human protagonists is the conflict between love and duty. A story with the Google maps girl as the protagonist will not have this theme. The Google Maps girl comes packaged with native support for कर्मयोग. Her stories will have different challenges and conflicts. I will explore them in a future post.

The Wire blows a fuse

This blog follows The Economist’s style guide, which prescribes the spelling “program” in reference to computer programming and “programme” in all other contexts. As I work for an American corporation, in my official mails, I use “program” for both senses. Keeping track of these differences in spelling does cause some mental strain.

The Wire, the torch bearer of the anti-establishment movement in India, is too busy to follow style guides. Its exposé claiming that Meta gives Amit Malviya, the head of BJP”s IT Cell, plenary authority to take down any Instagram post he reports changes the spelling from “programme” to “program” and back within the same article, indeed in one instance within the same paragraph. It is understandable that given the focus on saving the nation from bigotry and authoritarianism, the small matter of which colonial power’s spelling to use does not get much attention.

In response to their exposé, they have received an appreciative mail from a whistle-blower a “senior employee in Meta’s privacy and security team”, who worked for the company for a decade who mentions his disquiet with the “XCheck programme”. The whistle-blower is a man after my own heart. After spending a decade in an American corporation (perhaps in the US) he is fastidious enough to switch to the British spelling when writing an email to an Indian publication.

I had not heard of the XCheck programme till The Wire made me aware of it. Apparently, the world was made aware of the programme’s existence by the WSJ’s Facebook Files series. The story on the XCheck programme is not behind a paywall, at least for me. I highly recommend reading it if you are able to. Unlike The Wire, WSJ adopts a sober tone, is built on multiple sources and describes Facebook’s position fairly. Reading the WSJ report, I could actually sympathize with Facebook’s point of view.

Facebook, like any social network, has some challenges when moderating posts by political officials, celebrities and well-known people in general. For example, there are rules that users shouldn’t use the platform to promote violence. But for government officials, threatening violence is often part of their job. For example, in response to a terrorist strike, a leader may say that they will bomb countries that harbour terrorists.

Secondly, even when a celebrity’s post clearly violates the social network’s rules, it may serve public interest to keep it up because of inherent newsworthiness. Traditional media generally handle this problem through editorial control. But due to the scale of social media, they have to rely on automated moderation, which is inherently flawed. Strange moderation decisions by algorithms quickly turn to memes; when prominent users are subject to those decisions, they become prime time news.

XCheck, or “cross check” appears to be Facebook’s attempt to ameliorate this impossible problem. XCheck users’ posts aren’t subject to automated moderation. Instead, they are “cross-checked” by some humans. The Journal’s exposé claims that in an attempt to avoid false positives, this process has led to many false negatives, such as celebrities posting revenge porn that stayed up for too long awaiting XCheck moderation. It also presents internal memos where Facebook employees express unhappiness about this.

But it is one thing to have lower moderation standards for prominent users. It is quite another to allow them an automated way to take down posts of other users. If The Wire’s reporting is correct, it would imply that the Wall Street Journal, that found so many bad things in in its Facebook investigation, missed this truly evil practice that was occurring adjacent to the questionable practice they were investigating. Facebook employees who were so freely expressing their misgivings about other questionable policies failed to express their outrage over this, or the Journal failed to find the smoking guns.

The Wire’s reporting shows no awareness that it is making an extraordinary claim requiring extraordinary evidence. It is so focused on taking down Amit Malviya that it fails to ask the basic questions – how widespread is the practice? Do all XCheck users get the privilege? Only those in India? Only certain countries? Only Amit Malviya? Are they aware of their privilege? Do they get a special interface to do the reporting?

Let’s say that all XCheck users got the privilege. It is a widespread programme encompassing many users, including those who are critical of Meta. Surely at least one of them would have noticed and blown the whistle? If only a subset got the privilege, wouldn’t it have raised some questions (to put it mildly) within the organization? If there were the smallest grain of truth in the report, the WSJ and other news organizations that have done critical reporting on Facebook/Meta in the past would be asking themselves how they missed something so big and would be tapping their sources right now. Instead, we are seeing The Wire successfully creating a fog of war around the authenticity of mails, which is causing us to miss the elephant on the battlefield.

In response to questions about The Wire’s reporting, its defenders have claimed that it is known for high quality investigative journalism, and this reputation should shield it from having to show its work. If The Wire has any reputation for investigative journalism, this reporting gives no evidence of it. The evidence, such as it is, looks more like an artistic depiction of an evil corporation than a realistic portrayal of how wrongdoing actually occurs. For an actual example of investigative journalism, look at the WSJ report once again, and then when you go back to The Wire’s report, you comprehend the damage the Tehelka model of journalism, optimized for social media soundbytes, does to journalism. The point of The Wire’s report isn’t to convince anyone who isn’t already convinced that there is a cozy relationship between the BJP and Meta, any more than the point of RRR is to convince anyone who isn’t already convinced of the evil of the British Raj. It is to create cringy memes that will be used by its supporters to share among themselves. In that, it has succeeded.

The Constitution is not our religious book

There are two things you can do with a book. You can either keep it closed or open it and read it. Those who argue that the Indian Constitution is now our religious book could be referring to the book in either its closed or open state. In its closed state, our Constitution certainly has qualities that a religious book requires. It is large and bulky, its cover can be nicely decorated and it looks good on a pedestal. Like all religious books, the unopened Constitution serves well as a symbol of our civic religion. along with the Flag, the Emblem, the National Anthem and Bharat Mata. Like any symbol, it can take on the meaning we see in it. As long as we don’t try to open it and read it, the Book serves well as a symbol of the rule of law as a foundational principle of our Republic.

Now, I would like to clarify that despite the sarcasm you might have noticed in the previous paragraphs, I sincerely believe that the Constitution, in its closed form, does serve a useful religious purpose. I believe in nationalism, and nationalism does take on a religious aspect; we do need symbols that depict our national pride, and as a symbol, the Constitution does have a purpose.

I strongly object, however, to the idea of the Constitution as a religious book. Let me rephrase that: I strongly object to the idea of constitutions as religious books. I have many disagreements with our Constitution, but this essay is not about those. It is not the purpose of a constitution to serve as a guide to people’s morality.

People who follow religious books use them as guides to live their daily lives. They derive their sense of right and wrong from them and judge others by the standard of those books. They may also act to compel others to follow the precepts laid therein. I have heard arguments that now that we have a Constitution, it should supersede all previous religious edicts and that this is the only book that should guide our sense of right and wrong. This is deeply mistaken and reflects a misunderstanding of the purpose of constitutions.

The task of a constitution is to constitute the state, not the nation. It establishes the state and grants it certain powers. It designates the organs of the state and specifies the distribution of powers between them. It also clarifies the limits of the powers granted and establishes checks and balances to ensure that the organs of the state do not exceed their powers. It also recognizes a bill of rights for the people that act as a limit to the state’s powers over citizens. A constitution that grants the state certain powers does impose a reciprocal obligation on the people. If the government, exercising its lawful powers granted to it by the constitution, makes a law, citizens have an obligation to follow it. But from this, it does not flow that morality is coterminous with the law.

If a friend calls you over for lunch and when you do visit, he orders you out of his house and sends you back hungry, we can agree that he has behaved quite badly. You may feel entitled to retaliate by complaining about him in public, boycotting him and persuading others to do the same. You may find that religious books have something to say about his behaviour – refer to the parts that speak about how guests should be treated.

I hope you also agree that the Law’s say in this matter should be limited. It is his house, and he has a right to turn you out of it. You’d have a legal case against him if he were under contract to provide you with food, or his actions left you so hungry and cut off access to food to an extent that it endangered your life, but otherwise, his actions were awful, but lawful. You have a right to criticize him for his actions and take the retaliatory actions specified above, and he can’t stop your criticism on the grounds that his actions were lawful.

If you believe that the Law should involve itself in your friend’s behaviour and your reaction to it, you are giving it a role that we normally assign to God, a role that He’s able to perform only because he is omnipresent, omnipotent and omniscient. The state cannot be omni all those things in practice. It cannot be omniscient or omnipresent. A constitutional scheme that grants omnipotence to the state is not performing its basic role of limiting the powers of the state.

I hope that the above example disposes of the argument that the Law should intrude into the domain of morality. The reverse of this argument is that the boundaries of morality should expand till they cover everything that the Law allows. Recently, the remarks of a seer caused some controversy. He had made some unkind remarks about those who ate non-vegetarian food. Some of those who outraged over his remarks claimed that his remarks were unconstitutional. Why? Because the Indian Constitution recognized religious freedom, which included the freedom to eat what people chose to ate, by making comments criticizing some dietary choices the swamiji had violated constitutional morality.

The contradiction in the argument should be clear rather immediately. It is the same logical fallacy inherent in the question “Is it wrong to be judgmental?” The same constitution that protected the religious beliefs of the targets of the seer’s remarks also ought to protect his freedom of conscience and the right to express his beliefs. There is no way to recognize religious freedom at that level without circumscribing other freedoms of others. In practice, this is the only way to enforce the idea that the extent of morality is what Law allows.

There is a third interpretation of constitutional morality. This says that while constitutional morality ought not to be enforceable, but we should follow it in spirit. This means that we, and not just the state should practice secularism – not by enjoying the religious freedom that the state guarantees, but by doing the opposite of that – by keeping religion strictly private, by not wearing religious symbols, and so on. If that is the case, then presumably this should apply to all constitutional principles. Does it also apply to the idea of equality? Does loving your children more than that of others violate constitutional morality? Does having close friends violate it? If a company treats certain customers who pay extra as premium customers, does it violate the constitutional principle of equality?

The principle of equality actually means equality before the law. I am allowed to love my children and I am allowed to have friends. But if I am a public official, constitutional morality requires that in my actions as a public official, I treat them the same as other citizens. This is true for every constitutional principle. The constitution ought to function as a religious book for government officials. It lays down their Dharma. It is wrong to expand the definition of public officials to cover every action by a private citizen in public life.

For actions by private citizens, the boundaries drawn by a constitution are only the outer edges of what is morally permissible. Yes, the constitution overrides all religious books – if your religion says that it is permissible to kill apostates and the constitution says that killing is forbidden, the latter should prevail. But a constitution that uses this overriding power to intrude into every aspect of religious and personal life is no longer a constitution.

Feedback Decoded

Feedback Decoded cover

Feedback is valuable. It is also expensive. It is one of those things that gets costlier the richer you get. As you get richer, more successful or famous, the number of people who will give you candid, unvarnished and actionable feedback declines. Giving feedback is a difficult skill to master. For a person who isn’t doing well and evidently needs to improve, you will find that there are many items of feedback that you can put down on paper. When you try to deliver this feedback though, you tend to run into the Dunning-Kruger effect. The recipient is blind to his shortcomings and thinks that he is doing an adequate job, and the harsher the feedback, the more defensive he will get and the more likely it is that he will spend time thinking that of your motives than of what he needs to do to improve.

Feedback Decoded cover

A person who is doing well is actually likely to be more receptive to feedback, but finding the areas to improve upon is a daunting task, which is why, I suppose, a star player’s coach gets paid so much. One of the tensest conversations I had was with a high-performing direct report who was surprised to receive a lower rating than he expected. His argument, quite surprisingly, wasn’t that he was a great performer, but that I hadn’t pointed out the flaws he was acutely aware of himself, while my own reasons for rating him lower were bullshit. I quite appreciated his honesty. It was one of the most valuable items of feedback I have received.

There are many other things that make giving feedback difficult. Your own strengths and blind spots add to this difficulty. If something is your strength, chances are that you will underestimate how difficult that thing is for others. Your blind spot makes you blind to others’ strengths or weaknesses. You also have to ensure that the feedback you are giving is relevant to the recipient – Telling me, for example, that I have poor dancing skills, is an example of feedback that is quite true, but quite irrelevant to my career path or to my personal aspirations. And even if the feedback is relevant, is it actionable? What exactly can I do about my dancing even if I intend to improve on it?

Neelacantan Balasubramanian, or Neel, as I and everyone else knows him as, has written a great book that addresses these and many other challenges with the feedback process. Neel was my classmate in junior college and is one of the most creative guys I know. The book is a primer on Feedback in a workplace setting, made all the more relevant by the fact that it has a special focus on uniquely Indian cultural challenges around delivering feedback.

I am delighted to learn that Neel is as much of a dislike for the sandwich method of delivering feedback as I do. When criticism needs to be delivered, it never makes sense to me to have it delivered stuck between two slices of praise. Yes, the intent is to make the the criticism more palatable, but the sandwich method scarcely achieves this. Either the primacy and the recency effects kick in, in which case the meat of criticism is never tasted, or the emotional impact of the criticism is such that the softening impact of the praise fails to register.

A much better approach, Neel points out, is to have delivering unvarnished feedback built into the organization’s culture. Neel prefers the acronym CORBS for how one should deliver feedback, in which the “R” stands for “regular”. If feedback is delivered regularly in an organization, then praise and criticism will come in as part of the package. A meeting invite with feedback as the subject will not evoke the terror of an upcoming dental appointment. An item of feedback should be clear and specific – the C and S of CORBS. This can be achieved by the SBI method – by focusing on the situation, the behaviour of the person in response to that situation, and the impact that the action had.

CORBS does call for the feedback to be “balanced”, and this can be achieved not be striving for it within each feedback session, but by the overall regularity of the feedback. Of course, the feedback should be owned by the person who is delivering the feedback – easier said that done as the temptation to fire by placing the gun on someone else’s shoulder – especially that of the top management – is strong, but this is something to strive for.

If you are like me, you may have found it difficult to deliver praise – not because I am a hypercritical person, but because I find criticism a lot more actionable. My instinct is to regard praise as cheap talk – a lot of words repeating something my interlocuter already knows, while criticism is actually useful conversation, because from it flows things that one can improve upon. For people like me, the framework of the Johari window will prove useful, because one of the quadrants covers the strength that is hidden from the self, but visible to others. The useful takeaway here is that even your praise can and should be insightful and actionable.

How could I have handled the situation with my direct report better? He had blamed me for not pointing out the flaws that were visible only to him. Now, it seems a little unfair to expect me to do that, but perhaps another of the concepts in the book can help me be a better manager. Ultimately, the intent of feedback is not to teach but to learn, and sometimes the recipient of the feedback is served better by being asked questions and being left to find out answers for himself. The 4×4 matrix with Problem-Solution and Ask-Tell as axes is a useful guide to navigate the situation, and help both the giver and recipient of the feedback co-create (I hate the word, but it does seem apt here) actionable insights that both can own.

I did not mean this piece to be a summary of the book, and it is not. The book is packed with many helpful and actionable insights that I cannot summarize here. I do mean this to be a recommendation. Go ahead and buy Feedback Decoded. It is available in paperback as well as Kindle editions on Amazon.

The Network Effect doesn’t make you invincible

Unlike Socialism, which fails in similar ways wherever it is tried, Capitalism gives us new things to worry about every generation. In a dynamic economy, companies from different industries threaten to become monopolies every generation, giving us new reasons for why this time’s threat is different from that of last time.

The threat our generation faces is apparently from monopolies that benefit from network effects. We are particularly scared of social media companies that exercise control over freedom of speech, who cannot be dislodged from their monopoly perch because they have the power of the Network Effect.

The Network Effect

You are trapped in the Network Effect when being part of the network may not be your first choice, but you have to be there because all your contacts are there. Your contacts are there for the same reason. It is a collective action problem. There may be a network that all of you would move to if only someone could coordinate, but that is an impossible task.

So everyone hates LinkedIn but everyone is still on it because all their professional contacts are there. They are on Tinder because all potential romantic partners are there, on Facebook and Instagram because all their friends are there and on Twitter because all their enemies are there.

The second reason why all of you are still on the network is that you all would like to move, but each one’s choice is a different one, so you stay on the current one as a compromise.

Network effects are self-limiting

It is a meme, popular among young women, to show four photographs of themselves representing how they wish to appear on different social networks – a sanskari look on Facebook, a professional look for LinkedIn, an exotic photograph of themselves for Instagram, and a sexy look for Tinder. A Twitter look usually does not appear in this set of photos, presumably because people rarely have photos of themselves having a meltdown and screaming at people.

This meme illustrates a truth about social networks and network effects. Network effects aren’t always positive. There are some networks you would go to because all your friends are there. For some, that is a reason to avoid that network. No teenager wants to be in the same social network as his parents, as Facebook is learning. As networks grow too big, there is a real possibility that they become infrastructure – just as email is, or they are so crowded that no one wants to go there.

The meme also teaches us that there is a market for more than one social network. In theory, we would like to have different social networks for different purposes, just as the young woman in the meme has, the better to ensure that her sanskari look doesn’t leak into Instagram and her love-life is not revealed on Facebook.

The vector of attack

In any industry, if a challenger wants to dislodge the dominant player, taking it head on is rarely the right way. The better way is for the challenger to attack an area where the dominant player isn’t noticing, doesn’t consider it worth its while, or is unable to respond.

The limitations of the network effect suggest such a vector of attack for challenger social networks. You won’t dislodge Facebook by building a better alternative to Facebook. You will do it by finding a group of people who want to be on a different network from the others, or a theme that a network of people can coalesce around, and begin your attack from there.

In practice, this is not easy to do. Managing multiple social networks is hard, which makes it hard for a new social network to gain a foothold. The challenger social network, in its initial phase, needs to have a well-defined theme. If you have ever tried to moderate a mailing list and tried to keep people to stick to particular topics, you would know that it is difficult to do. It is almost impossible to do at scale. People want to do fraandhip on LinkedIn and they use Facebook for professional networking. If it were easy to do, we wouldn’t have been having arguments about network effects in the first place.

But it isn’t impossible. There surely are some natural communities you can begin with – the community of youth is one obvious way, but I am sure there are others that are not so obvious. The Network Effect isn’t some unprecedented power that successful companies of this generation have, a power that makes them so strong that we have to reevaluate everything that we have learnt about the wisdom of breaking up monopolies. It is a power. It is a moat that is difficult to cross. It does not make you invincible. One day, the moats will be crossed, and this generation of companies too shall pass into oblivion.

But Facebook is buying them all up!

But isn’t Facebook is buying all the challenger social networks? It bought up Instagram and WhatsApp! If the dominant players keep buying up the challengers, who will be left to challenge the monopolists?

Well, calm down. A monopoly isn’t much of a monopoly if it takes work to maintain it. If the monopolist has to constantly scan the market for potential threats, move nimbly and introduce new features to maintain dominance or acquire any companies that can pose a threat, it isn’t enjoying a natural monopoly.

Every organization gets old. Once it gets old, it gets flabby. The founder either moves on or doesn’t have the same instincts he used to. The people working there don’t have the same drive they do when young. The organization gets too bureaucratic and procedure oriented. New ideas are stymied by turf wars. It doesn’t move as quickly to acquire or crush competitors as it used to. It is slower to introduce new features, or even to copy them from competitors. It doesn’t see emerging threats as quickly as it used to because it is too focused inwards and too focused on existing customers.

This has happened to every organization in history and it is a fair bet that it will happen to the companies that run social networks as well. I believe that we should be concerned about monopoly power only if it lets the old and flabby organization stay a monopoly long beyond its sell-by date. I don’t see evidence that this is happening. An hour is a long time on Twitter, but in historical terms, the current social media companies haven’t really been in a dominant position for long.

Social media will destroy democracy

We are all very concerned about the effect social media has on society, our political system and our democracy. We are all very concerned that companies that run social media will dominate the discourse and decide who can say what. We are all very concerned that social media companies are monopolies. My belief is – no, they aren’t monopolies. No, they don’t dominate the discourse and determine who can say what.

Yes, social media will destroy democracy, but if it is any consolation, it won’t be through the monopoly power of the companies that run social media.

Postscript: Why isn’t there a social network in India?

I’ve argued that one way to challenge the dominant social networks is to find a group of people willing to break away and form their own network, perhaps around themes that has little overlap with those of the larger network. Now, there exists a large nation named India. It has a vast population that speaks many different languages. It has many interests and cultural issues many of which overlap with the rest of the world and many which don’t. While this country is fairly well-connected with the rest of the world, it also has many people who should be willing to join a social network that caters to their interests. It also has a government with a lot of influence, and interest in supporting an indigenous social network. If the officials of this government begin extensively communicating on a challenger social network from India, it should attract a nucleus of influential people who can seed the growth of this network. It also has skilled programmers and a startup ecosystem that can build a new network. Could the next social network come from India?

Just kidding. It won’t.

Do BJP and Congress women voters have different attitudes?

This article in Mint has a chart showing that “female supporters of the Congress held views different from not only BJP supporters, but also from male supporters of the Congress”, i.e. while women BJP voters are only mildly more liberal than male BJP voters, female INC voters are very liberal as compared to their male counterparts.

I suspect that something else is at play here. If you look at the second chart, BJP supporters are over 40% of the population, while Congress supporters are closer to 10%. At 40%, the law of large numbers starts kicking in – the views of the BJP-supporting women are closer to that of the general population of women.

With Congress-supporting women, I suspect, a kind of self-selection kicks in. Think of how people engage politically. It could be in one of three ways:

  1. Passive supporters of a party – i.e. you support a party because everyone around you, your family, friends and community does. It is just the default and you don’t think much of it. For example, if you ask any of my relatives, Brahmins from the strongly BJP supporting area of Udupi and Dakshina Kannada, the answer, be it from men or women, would be BJP.
  2. Active supporters – i.e. they deeply engage with the party and its views. They may have strong political views which they express either online or offline, and they may be politically active in their community.
  3. Not engaged politically. They may not identify with political party, and their vote is purely transactional.

Now, the BJP has achieved pole position in Indian politics. When you have 40% support, it is inevitable that a greater proportion of your supporters are “passive supporters” – i.e. entire families and communities support the BJP. Supporting the BJP is just a thing you do, a part of your identity, not an active, engaged choice. With the Congress, on the other hand, given that it has so little support, chances are that a higher proportion of those who support it are people who are actively engaged.

To be clear, I am not claiming that BJP supporters are less engaged. If you look at absolute numbers, you will find a greater number of active, committed BJP supporters than Congress supporters. I am only talking of the proportion of passive supporters within a party’s voter base. This has to go up as a party’s base increases. Back when the BJP was a niche party struggling to break through, it would have had a higher proportion of engaged supporters. Now, the proportion will be lower even though the absolute number is higher.

So the Congress supporters would be self-selected to be more politically engaged. This would be true for both men and women. Now, it is possible that women who are more politically engaged will give more “liberal” answers to questions related to freedom of women, and this is true for BJP as well as Congress supporters. I mean, if you are a woman party worker, how strongly are you going to agree to the statement “Men make better leaders than women”? If you are politically engaged, you are probably used to speaking your mind. How likely is it that you will agree with the statement that women should follow their husband’s views and listen to them?

In other words, I suspect that the difference between the women supporters of the BJP and the Congress is actually the difference in views between less and more politically committed women, and when you correct for that, the gap may go away, at least on these questions – i.e. questions involving women’s freedom and directly relevant to their lives. I strongly doubt that this is a case of political preferences determining conservative or liberal attitudes or vice versa.

Parliamentary Democracy suffers from the Karna Syndrome

I agree with Shruti Rajagopalan’s argument that the 52nd amendment, more popularly known as the anti-defection law was a bad idea. The amendment turns legislatures into glorified electoral colleges. I do not agree though that this is the source of the problem. Jay Panda, a national vice president of the BJP has written multiple articles where he argues for reforms in parliamentary rules that will reduce the agenda-setting power of the Speaker (and by proxy, the government). For example, take this piece written in 2014, this one from 2015 or the one from 2016. The underlying theme in all of Panda’s articles is that our Parliament continues to be hobbled by the rules the British government set for the Central Legislative Assembly, and reforming those rules would go a long way to make our legislature more effective and help it hold the government accountable.

These reforms are worth trying, and I don’t want the perfect to be the enemy of the good, but I am sceptical that these go deep enough. The problem is inherent in parliamentary democracy, which suffers from the Karna Syndrome, the inability to perform its job when it is most needed.

The parliamentary system violates the principle of separation of powers between the legislature and the executive. Because the legislators elect the chief executive and the executive is essentially a standing committee of the legislature, it skews incentives all around.

  • A popular prime minister or chief minister has an incentive to choose pliant legislators who will never waver in their support for him.
  • Voters have only one vote. They are supposed to use this vote to choose their legislator, but they may like to express their choice for the prime minister. I have argued that it is rational for them to do the latter in a situation where everyone else is doing the same.
  • For ruling party legislators, career progression involves becoming a minister. Why would they jeopardise their chances by performing their oversight function too vigorously?

For this reason, I believe that mixing the law-making and oversight functions of the legislature with the electoral college function was a bad idea. It was inevitable that the latter would overshadow the former. When the executive is weak, it leads to unstable governments. When it is strong, it leads to rubber-stamp legislatures. Parliament is able to perform its oversight function when the executive is weak, but like Karna, is unable to do so when it is most needed.

Export of Free Speech can be India’s soft power

As the recent permanent ban imposed on President Trump’s social media demonstrates, Free Speech is under threat even in the home of the First Amendment. France’s craven response to the recent decapitation of a middle-school teacher who was murdered for using the Charlie Hebdo cartoons as a teaching aid underscores that Europe is moving away from enlightenment values. It is telling that in both examples of assault on free speech, the victims found more support in India than in their own countries. This suggests an opportunity for India. We can be the beacon for free speech in the rest of the world.

On the other hand, the recent example of Munawar Faruqui illustrates the dangers of untrammeled free speech for Indians. While we need to champion free speech across the world, there is obviously a need to balance this advocacy with India’s own policy priorities, including, but not limited to, preventing insult to our gods, maintaining peace between communities, stamping out criticism of our leaders and clamping down hard on contempt of court.

Fortunately, there is a tried and tested solution to this conundrum. This has been effectively employed in the economic sphere to balance the need to earn foreign exchange and the imperative of keeping Indians poor and dependent on government handouts. We could deploy the same solution here, in the form of SEZs, or Special Expression Zones. These SEZs can be used to host infrastructure for free speech exiles from other countries – for example, the social network Parler, currently subject to a brutal clampdown in the United States, can find a home here. The only condition should be that Indian passport holders should not be allowed to use these services, obviously as the policy priority is to export free speech. The regulation setting up these zones should provide for international arbitration to settle any disputes that arise, keeping them out of reach of capricious Indian courts to the extent possible.

I think there is great potential in this idea. Global export of Free Speech can be India’s Soft Power. We can be the Vishvaguru for the world. People around the world will look up to us and see us as a shining light and an example for the rest of the world to follow. This is apart from the economic opportunity that this obviously represents. I hope Prime Minister Modi takes this idea seriously, especially given that it already has a catchy acronym and has the potential to be a significant component of our post-COVID strategy in 2021.

A Congress version of Modi will not succeed

Regular leadership transitions are necessary, but even necessary transitions weaken the entity that is being led, as contenders to the gaddi duke it out and governance takes a pause amidst the uncertainty. The transition can be made shorter and smoother by having a well defined and legitimate process.

There are many different ways to decide on the succession – it could be dynastic or democratic. You could have an appointive process where the incumbent or a board makes the choice. You could do a search for the next reincarnation of the bodhisatva, or you could have an elephant with a garland choose the next king. To succeed, the process requires legitimacy. It is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for success.

What is legitimacy? In the words of Thomas Schelling, it is a focal point. In those of Lord Varys, “power resides where men believes it resides”.

If I win a legitimate democratic election, I know that my opponent will not mount a rebellion against me, so I will have no need to conduct a purge and eliminate my opponents. My opponent knows that I know that he will not mount a rebellion, and therefore, I will not attempt a purge, and therefore, he feels safe enough to not mount a rebellion. I also know that once the election is over, norm assures me that barring exceptional circumstances, I am safe from a challenge till the next election, and therefore I do not need to be in a combative posture continually. I can reach out and shake hands with my opponent and strike up a working relationship with him.

The dynastic method of succession also successfully serves as a focal point. It narrows the field of contenders to the throne to a small number within the family. (If you adopt a rule like primogeniture, the field is down to one) While it is disappointing for someone outside the dynasty that he will never gain the top position, the disappointment is somewhat mitigated by the knowledge that others around him are in the same position and he doesn’t have to engage in constant power struggle. Because the dynastic position is for life, the lucky sperm can focus less on power struggles and more on governing, at least till his offspring grow up.

I don’t want to overstate the case for the dynastic system. Historically, most dynasties did not survive for long. They were overthrown by others who established their own dynasties. And the dictum of legitimacy being a necessary but not sufficient condition of success applies particularly with the dynastic system.

Many people are calling for either the democratization of the Indian National Congress or a Modi-style rebellion against Rahul Gandhi, but the problem remains the same with either scenario. The democratic process does not have legitimacy in the current Congress. The dynastic system does. Legitimacy takes a long time to be established. The power struggle that is required to unseat the Gandhis will finish the INC much before legitimacy can be established.

The BJP does not have a legitimate process for succession either. Modi took over a party whose aging leadership was overdue for retirement. There was no formal leadership challenge, no election or any kind of competitive process. Everyone kind of just decided that he was the right man for the job and the entire party reoriented around him. Modi’s task was made easier by his overwhelming popularity within the party. It also helped that the party has organizational and ideological coherence that ensured that it would stay intact even if there were a power struggle.

The Congress does not have any of these advantages. Its organizational coherence is uneven at best, and it has no ideology to motivate it. A BJP leader or worker does not have a future outside the party, as Keshubhai Patel, Uma Bharti and Kalyan Singh learnt. For a congressman, the INC is one of the many career options. There is no reason the party will stay together during the period of inevitable uncertainty when a leadership struggle happens.

To make this concrete, we can try to imagine a Congress version of Narendra Modi – a challenger to the leadership. Obviously, such a person is unlikely to exist in the current national “leadership” of the INC, because popular leaders have been systematically eliminated from there. So imagine an ambitious and talented leader at the state level, either within the Congress or outside it. He wants to carve out a career path for himself that will take him to the Premiership of India by adopting any strategy that will work. In any plausible scenario, is staying in (or joining) the Congress, deposing and taking over its leadership the dominant strategy? I claim that the answer is no. I would argue that in almost every case, breaking up the state level party to form a new entity and trying the coalition route, or trying to form a new national party that attracts the disaffected leaders of the Congress and other parties dominates in terms of cost-benefit analysis over the strategy of working within the party.

The one exception I can think of is a strategy that does not directly challenge the legitimacy of the dynastic system. This is the method by which the Peshwai was established, the method by which ambitious and competent ministers have risen to be the power behind the throne when the throne is occupied by weak kings, or indeed the method that resulted in constitutional monarchies in many countries of Europe. But for such a strategy to work, this ambitious minister will have to insinuate himself into the good books of a man who has absolutely no discrimination and whose natural instincts are to trust charlatans like Praveen Chakravarty, fight off political machinations and intrigue by a jealous inner circle whose attacks on him will only increase the more successful he gets and somehow also concentrate on his core job of strengthening the party and helping it win elections. Perhaps in some particular combination of circumstances the stars might align and the right person adopting such a strategy may be the right choice, but no, this is not something one can reasonably hope for as a way to form an alternative to the BJP.

India’s election system won’t work in the US

During my BTech, I took an elective named Appropriate Technology, which was offered by the Centre for Technology Alternatives in Rural Areas, or CTARA, a bastion of the Gandhian faction. The course only made me sceptical about the concept of appropriate technology, because my suspicion was that the term was just a euphemism for romanticizing low tech jugaad solutions in the garb of being appropriate for the particular rural setting in which it is used. Prof. Date, who taught the course, saying that “farmers can sing while using it” as a point in favour of some contraption did nothing to allay my suspicion. My argument was, yes, we should gauge the appropriateness of the technology for a particular setting, but sometimes the most appropriate technology is not low-tech, but hi-tech that leapfrogs over the path other countries have taken.

I’ll admit though that the EVM is a very good example of the appropriate technology that the AppTech course was claiming to favour. It doesn’t fetishize low-tech and does not adopt hi-tech for the sake of it. Adopts just enough technology to solve the specific constraints that the Indian system faces – stop rigging via booth-capturing, be sturdy enough to work in dusty places without a steady supply of electricity, etc. It doesn’t try to solve problems that don’t need to be solved. It didn’t succumb to the temptation of connecting to the network to make it easier to tabulate votes. The higher tech a machine is, the less secure it is, so the the fact that it is low-tech is a feature, not a bug. In fact, I was uncomfortable with the idea of adding a paper trail to the voting machines, not because I was opposed to paper trails, but the general principle is that adding moving parts, features and inputs or outputs to anything increases the chances of failure or compromise. In the event, the VVPAT enhancement seems to have been done well, so there is no longer a need to object to it.

Now, every time the Americans hold an election, or for that matter every time we hold elections, many misguided people point to the way Americans hold their election and hold it up as an example to emulate. This is deeply stupid for two reasons:

  1. The American system for conducting elections is objectively terrible. It has probably the worst system among democracies, and if it were any worse, it would no longer remain a democracy.
  2. The American system works under a different set of constraints and requirements from the Indian one.

This is why, while it is misguided to say that we must emulate the Americans, it is also misguided to say that the Americans should just outsource their elections to the Election Commission. The Indian system won’t work in the US for the same reason we can’t copy the Americans. Our constraints are very different from theirs.

For example, Indians have good reason to envy the fact that Americans have a much greater ability to vote by mail. Postal ballots do exist in India, but only a small fraction of citizens are eligible to cast their franchise by that method. An expansion of postal ballots in India, however, would prove disastrous. There would be widespread vote-buying and intimidation of voters.

Similarly, American systems seem to provide a better ability for a person to figure out whether his vote has been counted or not. He can send his vote by mail, check online to see if it has been received, and if not, go to the polling station and vote. But before we think of adopting a better audit trail, we must realize that there is a trade-off between the secrecy of the ballot and an audit trail. The United States faces a different trade-off from us. Secrecy is a lot more important in India than in the US. In the US, people are quite open about their voting preferences. More importantly, they can rely on rules that require officials who count the vote to maintain secrecy. That choice would be inadvisable here.

So, while we should certainly envy some of the features of the American systems, we should be careful before translating that envy into imitation. Designs involve trade-offs, and we face a different set.

The most important reason, however, for why the Indian Election Commission would face its Waterloo in the United States is cultural. As a rule, I find that Indians design for control while Americans design for convenience. This is true of not just elections. It is the reason why the US is so reluctant to require PINs while making card purchases, and why we had to learn of the benefits of offering easy returns from the Americans. Of course, the reason for the differing cultural choices is partly the differing trade-offs that our nations face – the US can accept a higher risk of fraud because it has a better legal system that is able to catch more of the fraud that occurs. It is equally true that cultural differences take on lives of their own and exist independent of the underlying reasons that gave rise to them. So an American and an Indian, when faced with a similar set of trade-offs, will make differing design choices, the former favouring convenience while the latter, control. An Indian would find it weird that some Americans can register to vote right on election day, for example.

This is of course a generalization, and there are exceptions – for example, Indian voters are registered by EC officials visiting their homes and taking down their names, which is surely more convenient for those who do get registered that way (not so much for those who get left out). But the generalization is valid enough. In case of elections, Americans should probably learn to be a little more rigid, but in general we would do well to learn better how to design for convenience.

Trump is Tamasik

The Bhagavad Gita and many schools of Indian philosophy speak of the three guNas, or categories of human nature – Satvik, Rajasik and Tamasik. My theory of Trump is that he is Tamasik while we expect people in his position to be good or bad in Rajasik ways. This is a mistake that his supporters as well as detractors make.

What are the three guNas? I don’t claim to be an expert, but here is how I would interpret them:

A person with the Satvik guNa will perform his appointed role in life unmoved by the pleasure or pain it gives him. A Satvik president or prime minister, when faced with a difficult political decision, will ask himself only “What will a platonic chief executive do when faced in this situation?” and do it. Whether the outcome of that decision is favourable to him or not does not come into the picture, and the question of what the decision will do to the next elections and to his own political survival are relevant only to the extent that they are good or bad for the country.

Needless to say, a Satvik guNa is an entirely theoretical construct, and no such person exists or has existed in real life. But people may:

  • Rise to the occasion and behave as such when the situation demands
  • Believe, and possibly convince themselves that they are behaving in a Satvik manner
  • At least make an attempt, and struggle with themselves in the process
  • Claim to be be Satvik, and try to convince their constituents that their actions are driven only by Satvik motives

The point to be noted though, is that do any of these things, you need to have the ability to conceive of these higher order motives. To an extent you have to fake it till you make it, but even when you are faking it, you should know what you are faking.

Lee Kuan Yew, the first Prime Minister of Singapore, demonstrated his Satvik nature when he planned his leadership transition – or did he? In his autobiography, he describes, with a high degree of self-awareness, that he realized that his mental acuity was reducing as he got older, and therefore, it was time for him to pass on the mantle to someone else. So he undertook a well-planned search for a successor, found one, and handed over the reins to him.

Except of course, he sincerely believed that his son, Lee Hsein Loong was the right person to succeed him, but he nominated Goh Chok Tong because it would be unseemly to pass on power directly to his son. And oh, having decided to retire, he did not actually retire. He stayed on in the cabinet as Senior Minister and then Minister Mentor till he reached an advanced age and was eventually forced out by his son a few years before his death.

Was Lee demonstrating his Satvik nature and making disinterested decisions for the benefit of Singapore? Given that both Goh and the younger Lee have turned out to be good Prime Ministers, that is certainly a possibility. Or did he convince himself of the Satvik nature of his actions, but in reality, his decisions were tainted by his love for his family and desire to cling to life? Or perhaps he was aware of his imperfections and tried to do the best he could. Or it is possible that this was all a ruse. We will never know and perhaps he never did; such is human nature.

Most functional adults are Rajasik. They are driven by ambition and desire. This is not necessarily a bad thing. We recognize ambition as natural and even desirable. We celebrate romantic love and love for one’s children. When a politician we support displays the killer instinct and acts like he wants to win the elections, we appreciate it, though if he uses corrupt means to do so, we should ideally oppose it.

If Lee’s retirement was actually a long-drawn strategy to install his son in power, it was a perfect demonstration of the Rajasik guNa. The goal was driven by familial love, but in the means employed to reach it, he was able to control his impulses emotional drives and follow a multi-year strategy to achieve it. This is more than someone driven by his Tamasik nature would be capable of .

Trump, as I was saying, is Tamasik. He is driven by his impulses, and in his case, the impulses are all negative ones. Now, to be fair, all of us struggle with our impulses and emotional drives, but becoming a functional adult involves learning to rein them in, and converting them into higher order goals. We all have sexual desires, for example. The Rajasik nature involves sublimating them into a higher order emotion called love, and pursuit of love involves choosing one person and forgoing others; not giving into the impulse of going after every woman you find sexy. Trump has not made that transition at all. A Clinton may give into his impulse; Trump is his impulse.

You can see that in every one of his behaviours. An example of this that I found fascinating was the bleach incident. In the video, Trump is insecurity given human form. Any person who reaches a senior position in an organization will be familiar with the feeling. You find people reporting to you who have much greater expertise than you in their field. When you talk to them, you, who have always prided yourself on your knowledge, feel that bit of insecurity. You are afraid of asking a dumb question and being shown up. But you are an adult and you reach back to the techniques that you have learnt along the way. You display faux humility, you praise people for being very smart and say things like “Forgive me if this is a dumb question” and then ask your question.

Trump is completely unable to do that. He is unable to recognize his own insecurity and therefore unable to maintain a distance from it. He sees scientists talking and what matters to him is not the content of what they are saying, but the fact that they are coming off as smarter than he, so he has to say something to remedy the situation. Whether it is appropriate in that context is irrelevant to him.

A common thing people say about Trump is that he tells it like it is. That is not actually true. He lies quite flagrantly. The reason for the misconception is that people are confusing the transparency of his lies with honesty. He is like my six year old son, who, when woken up at 7:30 AM to be in time for his class at 8, throws a tantrum complaining about not being woken up at 6 AM as he had asked for the previous night (He always asks to be woken up at some ungodly hour, we say yes and wake him up when we want.) Of course, the real reason for the tantrum is that he is sleepy and is annoyed and having been woken up, but he knows that he can’t complain about that, so he makes up some reason, and it’s clear to us what the real reason is.

Now, we are all human beings, and we continue to get groggy when we do not get enough sleep even in adulthood. A person displaying Satvik guNas would have enough self-awareness to put a distance between himself and his grogginess. He will say “I am not the person who is feeling sleepy and irritable. I am the person who has a job to do and needs to rise about the irritableness.” The Rajasik person will have this self-awareness as well, but his lack of sleep will still steep through and he will show his irritation in some other way that seems completely justified to him but probably leave the target of his ire confused about what his fault was. My secondborn’s tantrum seems much purer in comparison to a Rajasik person’s and a lot more comprehensible.

Trump’s lies are like that – they are much more transparent, communicate his feelings much more viscerally than a normal adult’s lies do. When they reach others who share his feelings, they feel real, never mind the factual content.

The other reason for people getting confused about Trump is that it is difficult to imagine that a purely Tamasik person like Trump can get so far in life, so it is understandable that many people substitute him with an imaginary Rajasik person in their heads, and end up behaving as Vidyottama did with Kalidasa

The princess raised her index finger . Kalidasa, quickly replied by showing two fingers. He had thought that Vidyottama was meaning to poke him in one eye. He was obviously thinking of outdoing her. Actually she had indicated that God is one without a second. Kalidasa’s answer was wisely interpreted as the truth has two parts the supreme God and the individual soul. She was surprised by this wisdom. Venturing further, she showed her five fingers to indicate five senses. Kalidasa thought she was about to slap him so he showed his fist. This time Vidyottama thought it to mean that controlling the five senses can lead to ultimate greatness. Thus impressed, she then agreed to marry Kalidasa.

Growing into functional adulthood involves overcoming, sublimating or at least rationalizing your basest Tamasik impulses. Perhaps you overcome your cowardice and sublimate your pride into higher order values like courage, honour and bravery. Or perhaps you are a cynic who see your country as worth fighting for, and you rationalize that feeling into a higher order value called pacifism.

When we deal with a normal Rajasik person, it is sometimes possible to see the underlying Tamasik being powering him, but it is also possible to have a dialogue with the Rajasik person he has constructed. Perhaps he is a bully who has sublimated that emotion into support for strong law enforcement, but it is still possible to have a discussion with him on the merits of his policies around law enforcement. Perhaps he is a transactional person who is cynical about US foreign policy engagements and wants to pull back, but it’s still a valid policy option with pros and cons, the timelines around said disengagement and the extent of it.

With Trump, there is no higher order Rajasik person. Sure, maybe his gut feeling aligns with your policy preferences – perhaps his instinct for minimizing the COVID crisis and push for reopening the economy aligns with your considered policy preference on navigating the tradeoff between deaths due to the pandemic and the economic disaster, but do you want someone as impulsive as he in charge of making that tradeoff? In case of Trump, we need to ignore Eleanor Roosevelt’s dictum that “Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people”. There are no big ideas sitting on top of his personality flaws. He is entirely his flawed personality.

It is not just his supporters who mistake him for a Rajasik person. His opponents do as well. Look at Trump’s COVID response. Yes it is not the response of a decent or competent person. But it’s also not the response you would expect if you model Trump solely as a populist authoritarian either. Dictators are Rajasiks. A Rajasik dictator would have taken advantage of the crisis. He would have blamed China, whipping up xenophobia. He would have rallied his people, made it sound like he was fighting a war and he would have cast the inevitable economic hardships as wartime sacrifices from which the nation would emerge stronger. Which idiot dictator wastes a crisis like this? Trump got the blaming China and the xenophobia part down, but his genius was to make himself sound whiny and weak while doing so. The rest of the tricks from the dictator’s playbook were useless to him as it required him to display Rajasik guNas which he is unable to even play-act at, just like my secondborn.

He is unable to make inspiring speeches because he is a cynical man. To cast the economic hardships as wartime sacrifices from which the nation would emerge stronger would require three things that were out of his capability. First, it would require him to acknowledge setbacks, which he is chronically unable to do, because he is continually looking for wins. Secondly, the notion of making sacrifices for the common good is foreign to someone as self-absorbed as he. Thirdly, he is unable to conceive of the future. He lives in the past and the present.

He and his supporters endlessly whine that the Coronavirus crisis was engineered to make him lose his reelection. That is amusing, because there was nothing about the crisis that made it inevitable that his election would be at risk. In fact, if you had told an unbiased observer in 2019 that a virus from China was on its way and that it would cause hardship to the people of the US, that observer, assuming he did not understand Trump’s personality flaws, would have predicted that it would lock in Trump’s reelection, as my friend Karthik did (though this was in April 2020, not 2019).

To summarize, I believe that people’s misunderstanding of Trump comes about in one of two ways:

  • His Tamasik nature is good at communicating his unadulterated visceral feelings to others who think like him. This communication is mostly one-way. He is unable to understand others, pick up cues from others and adjust his messages accordingly, which is why his playbook is limited and repetitive.
  • People are unable to believe that he is who he is, so they mentally substitute a Rajasik in his place. But his madness does not have a method to it. As Groucho Marx said ““Gentlemen, Chicolini here may look like an idiot and talk like an idiot but don’t let that fool you. He really is an idiot.”

And that is all there is.

The South Indian Relationship Chart

I mentioned in my last post that you can explain familial relationships in Kannada using a 2×3 matrix that I wanted to draw some day. The truth is that it is actually a 2xn matrix which I have wanted to draw since childhood. Now that I have reached middle age and in any case the end of the world is near, I have decided that it is not a good idea to delay this any further. So here is the matrix and the explanation.

The matrix has 2 columns, and I have depicted 3 rows, but as each row represents a generation, there are an infinite number of rows. I have numbered the rows 1, 2, and 3, but there will be rows before and after as well.

To use this matrix, first, you place yourself on it. Then you follow 2 simple rules to find the co-ordinates of anyone related to you. Which box they fall in will tell you how they are related to you. This relationship is unambiguous as long as certain (impractical) conditions are satisfied.

The two rules are:

  1. If a person is in a block, his or her father will be in the block immediately above, and vice versa. For example if you are in A2, your father will be in A1. Conversely, if you are male, your children will be in A3.
  2. If a person is in column A, his or her spouse will be in column B of the same row. So if you are in A2, your wife or husband is in B2.

By applying the above two rules iteratively, you can locate any of your relatives. Once you find the block they should be in, look at the legend. Depending on whether their gender and relative age (relative to whom, will be explained further) their relationship with you will be clear. There are some special cases which are also explained.

Let’s see how this works using a few examples.

  1. If you are in A2, your father is in A1. Your siblings, being children of the same father, will be in the same block as you, i.e. A2. So they will be called aNNa, tamma, akka or tangi, depending on whether they are your elder or younger brother or sister.
  2. You are in A2, your father in A1. Your mother, being your father’s wife, is in B1. Because she is your mother and it’s a special case, she’ll be called Amma.
  3. Your father’s siblings will all be in the same box as he is. So his brothers will be either doDDappa or chikkappa to you depending on whether they are older or younger than your father Their wives will be in box B1 and will be doDDamma or chikkamma depending on whose wives they are.
  4. Your mother is also in B1, so her sisters are also doDDamma or chikkamma depending on whether they are older or younger than she. Their husbands are also doDDappa or chikkappa depending on whose husband they are. (I think it won’t matter here whether they are older or younger than your father)
  5. The children of all people in #3 and #4 will be in the same box as you, and therefore will have the same relationship to you as your siblings do – aNNa, tamma, akka or tangi, depending on their gender, and age relative to you.
  6. Your father’s sister, being his sibling, will be in the same box as he. In her case, her relative age doesn’t matter. She will always be called atthe. Similarly, your mother’s brother will always be called mAma (or mAva). A mAva’s wife will also be called atthe and an atthe’s husband will be called mAva, by rule #2.
  7. You are in A2, your spouse is in B2. His or her father is therefore in B1, and will be a mAva to you, and his wife will be in A1, atthe to you.
  8. If you are in block A2, your mother’s brother’s children will be in B2, as will your father’s sister’s children. They will all be bhAva or maiduna, attige or nAdini, depending on whether they are older or younger than you. If you end up marrying one of them, special case rules apply and she’s your henDathi or ganDa depending on gender.
  9. Likewise, if you are in A2, your spouse is in B2, and his or her siblings will also be bhAva or maiduna, attige or nAdini. Here, the age is considered relative to your spouse rather than to yourself. So your wife’s elder sister will be attige even if she is younger than you, and your husband’s younger brother will be maiduna even if he’s older than you.
  10. The rules for maga, magaLu, aLiya and sose are self-explanatory. I have created 2 charts, one to refer to if you are male and another if female, but this is only for convenience and in fact, there is no material difference between the two. If you are male, your children will show up in the block immediately below yours while if you are female, your children will show up in the block below your husband’s.
  11. Your grandparents are all ajja or ajji – there are no special relationships such as naana or daada, unlike Hindi. Grandchildren are all mommakkaLu.

Using these rules, you can place anyone who is related to you by blood or marriage in the matrix. I mentioned in my last post that I worked out that my maternal uncle’s wife’s brother would be chikkappa to me. Applying the rules should make it clear how it works. I (A2) → MAva (B1) → Atthe (B2) → her brother (B2). In B2, male and younger than my father, therefore chikkappa.

This works in every case as long as a simple rule is followed – if marriages happen between A and B of the same row only. This means no inter-generational marriages and no marrying someone in the same box as you are. These rules, to be clear, are not enforced beyond a certain point. For one thing, in South India, there is also a tradition of women marrying their maternal uncles. This matrix breaks down in this case. For another, there are unusual ways in which this rule can be broken. For example, person A’s wife’s brother marries B. Person A’s brother C marries B’s sister D. This is a perfectly normal marriage between two people not related by blood, but according to the rules, C and D would fall in the same box. So while there is no prohibition on this marriage, this anomaly would definitely be noted in the “hey this is interesting” sense. That is because Kannadigas have a mental image of the matrix I have depicted when they use language.