Tuesday 28 July 2020

A Texas table tennis story

In my childhood, I lived on the same street as Ramanathan “Tennis” Krishnan, and his son Ramesh Krishnan, in CIT Colony. He was the big national celebrity of the colony. The sports I played as a kid were Hide and Seek, its variation Ice Boys, spinning tops, seven stones, and of course street cricket with worn out tennis balls. We had a large open ground across our house, which has since become a park, and we played cricket there in the evenings. Tennis was the game of rich people who could afford a place to play. Tennis was the game of rich people who could afford a place to play.  Our highest ambition then was to one day play cricket with a fresh tennis ball, rather than a ball which was no longer fit for tennis.

Television had recently arrived. My neighbors bought a black and white TV, and for some months I watched cricket, whose rules I knew, and suddenly one day, tennis! Something called Wimbledon and somebody called Bjorn Borg of Sweden played John McEnroe of USA. For the first time, I watched two entire sets played, not just a three second glance of Tennis Krishnan’s court as we passed by in a bus. When we caught Wimbledon fever, my neighbor Sridhar and I marked our cement courtyard with a brick, and played tennis with our bare palms.

One day I found there was another sport which was almost as much a rich man’s game – table tennis. Instead of a lawn, you needed a table, and used very small rackets and a really tiny ball. This too I saw on television. Nobody I knew had a table, and we didn’t have one at school, and cricket kept me happy, so I didn’t think much of table tennis, except that I probably wont be very good at it. After al, I was less than mediocre at cricket, even though I loved playing.

Several years later, I went to college. The hostelites demanded a table tennis, and the management bought one and few bats and balls too! It was kept in the mess, half of which had dining tables, the other mostly open, except for the TT table and a television set. Our batch was the first in the hostel, and about ninety students and six or seven teachers stayed at the hostel. I suspect two thirds of us had never played. We had plenty of opportunity and I learnt to play. Several times a week I played with several classmates, and occasionally a teacher (I remember Mr Ravichandran, our chemistry teacher as the one who played most often). By the time I finished college, I was perhaps in the top ten percent among hostelites. I developed quite a few shots, learnt to spin and drop, and was moderately good at returning serves. The tendency for glorious smashes and spectacular spins was my weakness, which better players would beat. Several years later, the SQL Server team I worked in also got a TT table. I could never beat two guys, Amrish Kumar  and Sam Hakim, a Lebanese colleague, but I beat everyone else at least in one game upto 21 points. I was evenly matched with several guys, sometimes I won, sometimes I lost. I played only for pleasure, and as a break during work, so I was fine with that.

I haven't played TT in nearly twenty years now.

A photo from my days in College station, Texas

In between Krishnankovil and Seattle, I lived three years in Texas. In a small college town – twin towns actually, called Bryan and College Station. One of our neighbors was an Indian family, and the father, Michael invited me and any interested friends to a recreation room in a church that he attended, for games of table tennis and billiards or snooker, in the evenings. He taught me snooker and billiards, and we played a few games.  Some university students from China also frequented the place, and we occasionally played with them also. Most of them were at my level, though one or two were really good. Having seen Chinese guys on television play utterly awesome TT in Asiad games and the Olympics, I was pleasantly surprised that some were only at my level.

I casually mentioned this church recreation room to a friend from Coimbatore, Ramesh – we both attended an AI class the first semester; and he said he would love to come. So we went together a few times. And I played against him. The rallies were simple. The strange thing was that unlike every other player, he never tried anything fancy. No spectacular smashes or brilliant drop shots, or complicated spins on the ball. I guessed he too had learnt to play in college, but was conservative. After a few rallies we played some games. With no spectacular moves at all he took every set, never allowing me to cross fifteen points, before he got to twenty one. I didn’t think much of it; just some bad shots I played – I gave him his victories. And anyway it was all for fun.

Then we went there a couple of days later, and this time a couple of Chinese guys showed up. We mixed and matched and played, and while the rest of us won and lost a few games, Ramesh seemed to never lose a game. I was impressed. His conservative strategy really paid off. Next time I should try that.

Which I did. And he won again. By this time, he got under my skin, and I really wanted to win against him. So I decided to focus, concentrate and avoid rash shots. I could feel my game getting far better; I didn’t try silly or complex serves, and I didn’t gave away easy points but he still won. More confident, this time I tried some aggressive shots; and he returned several of them, impassively, unfluttered. The better I got, the more normal he stayed and still kept beating me. The only thing he ever tried was to put the ball on my side. No gimmicks. He returned even my excellent shots and brilliant spins.

Maybe he didn’t learn to play in college.

“Wow! You are excellent,” I said in admiration. “Utterly unflappable. Were you on your college team or something?” I asked. He gave a nonchalant shrug and a neutral smile. “Were you?” I persisted. He kind of gently nodded. “Wow! You played for college. No wonder I cant beat you. Did you play any tournaments against other colleges?” He gave another nonchalant shrug. “Come on, did you?” He nodded. “Did you win?” Another neutral smile. “Wow, awesome! How good were you?” He was now really being shy. I waited for an answer. “Did you make the university team?” I asked, suddenly wondering if he was that good. There were several dozen universities affiliated to Bharatiyar University, Coimbatore, including engineering colleges, besides arts and science colleges. It was one of the five big universities in Tamilnadu, each of which had more than a hundred colleges affiliated. Madurai Kamaraj University, to which my college AKCE was affiliated then, had nearly 180 affiliated colleges – which I knew because most of them competed in the Cultural Competitions every year, and I had participated in several of those. A university table tennis team would have five to ten players picked from among thousands of students from one of those colleges.

He finally dropped his mask. “I was captain,” he said. “Captain of what?”

“Captain of the university team.”

Boy, did I feel silly. How kind he was to let me get to fifteen points once in a while.

A few weeks later, we ran into a couple of new Chinese guys along with the regulars. And naturally played with them too. One of them really good, spectacular in fact, and he beat everyone of his Chinese friends comfortably.

Then I played against him.

Six points.

This was humiliation. Twenty one to six.

Wait, was this guy that good? I was not happy.

Next it was Ramesh’s turn, and I grinned to myself. Maybe this Chinese guy was a University player or something. Ramesh pretty much could beat every other Chinese player, so here was a fascinating contest. None of the others knew Ramesh was a former University captain, did they?

It was a nice contest, but Ramesh barely crossed ten points.  A couple of the Chinese guys grinned then went back to neutral expressions. I was impressed. But maybe it was a stroke of luck. But it was my turn again, against the new guy. I tried to bring full concentration, nothing silly, but quickly he was leading something like fifteen to three. Abandoning all caution, I tried a few spectacular shots. He just returned them casually, some even quite acrobatically. In fact, I too got in some spectacular returns because his placement were fantastic. A couple of the Chinese guys applauded my shots and returns too.

21 to 4.

Yeah four. Not even six points. Four.

This time I was too shocked to be humiliated. I don’t remember, but I think Ramesh played him again, and got beat again too. He just kept shaking his head in admiration after that.

I told Ramesh, maybe he is a university captain like you too. One of the Chinese guys overheard. He told us, “Don’t feel so bad.  He is a province champ.”

“What does that mean I asked? Province champ?”

“Henan province, in China. He won the state championship.”

Ramesh and I looked at each other and couldn’t help laughing. Wow, no wonder he was that good.

The Chinese guy nodded sagely. Then unleashed the final shot : “Just missed out making the Olympic team.”


I once played table-tennis with an Olympic guy from China and scored six points against him. Cool, huh? 

(PS: It may not have been Henan province, but some other province of China. Still...)

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Thursday 16 July 2020

India doesn't want to know

This essay is a continuation of this previous essay.

“Both parties, however, agreed on the need to codify the laws of India's communities”

Ironically, Jones translated Manu Smriti into English. After this, British courts ruled Hindus according to it, and Muslims according to Sharia which he also translated. The British for the most part, did not mess around with Hindu law, on marriage (including polygamy and child marriage), caste, food habits, property rights, temple administration, festivals, rituals, etc. They siezed whole kingdoms from kings, they killed Indian shipping, they indulged in the slave trade etc, but this was par for the course. The greatest change they implemented was the abolition of sati, which was a practice limited to royalty, and a few very very rich Indians, with pretensions of royalty. 

If both the Anglicists and the Orientalists agreed on the “need to codify the laws of Indian communities,” they did very little about it. People like John Shore, the head of the East India Company, who later became Lord Teignmouth, and wrote a biography of William Jones, were passionately Christian, and wrote reams of paper hoping to turn India into a Christian country (Jones himself also wrote letters professing deep Christian belief, and wishing the benevolence of Christianity upon this poor pagan nation, once glorious, now decayed), but one wonders if they were playing to the gallery in London; especially to morally opprobious critics of the like of Edmund Burke. Jones may have been defending himself of the grave charge of turning Hindu himself, like Charles Stuart before him.

What Indians miss, especially Hindus, is how dramatically England and Europe transformed – socially, economically, politically – during this Orientalist phase. Far far far more than India. The industrial revolution, Adam Smith’s economics, the defeat of four Napoleons, the terrifying possibility of the French revolution repeating elsewhere, exposure to very different and strange countries and cultures, the astounding heritage of these cultures, rediscovered by Orientalists, increasing literacy in Europe, increasing living standards, all had a transformative effect – very much like the transformation China has undergone in the last forty years, since Deng Xiaoping’s reforms. Discoveries in biology, like fossils and dinosaurs, microbes and inoculation, drastically reduced the power of the Church, and increased the influence of intellectuals and scientists. The overthrow of the four elements theory by Lavoisier was as significant as the discoveries of Newton and Galileo, or Darwin’s theory of evolution, but it doesn’t get even a fraction of the attention. Different denominations of churches spurted out in England, especially, and a vast army of curates and vicars and bishops and clergy, deeply delved into science – remember Gregor Mendel was a monk; and Darwin almost became a priest.

Joseph Priestley, who discovered carbon dioxide, that plants and animals breathed differently, and produced “different airs”, started his own church, which was burnt down, and he escaped England into the welcoming arms of Thomas Jefferson’s America.

India did not become more English during this era. England became less English.

The single biggest legal social and political reform in India was the abolition of slavery, in 1843. They sepoy mutiny, the abolition of sati, the abolition of untouchability(yes, even that), raising the age of marriage, abolition of princely kingdoms, abolition of the devadasi system, transformation from monarchy to democracy, the unification of 540 kingdoms and zamindari territories, the partition of India and the creation of Pakistan – the two world wars, the famines(yes, even famines), the plagues – all of these pale into comparison, when you consider the abolition of slavery. It is the elephant in the room of history that nobody talks about.

Neither the Anglicists nor the Orientalists in the 1780s even imagined that particular reform. Slavery was still in vogue in Europe. They didn’t imagine the French revolution or the steam engine either. Slavery was abolished in India, not because there were raging social movements or national hunger strikes or threat of revolution by Indian soldiers in the British or other armed forces, but because, in my opinion, technology made it possible to live in a human society without slavery. This is my opinion, I may be totally wrong. Who imagined that the USA would elect a half-black President in 2008, that he would invade Libya, destroy it - and bring back slave markets?! Or that it would be completely not worthy of news or discussion, at all? Well 1843 seems to be a good precursor to this.

Are there any monuments, statues, memorial buildings, celebratory festivals, durbars, even nautch performances celebrating the abolition of slavery in India? Too inconvenient. It is simply not in the collective conscience of the country.

Almost every single Indian pretends that colonial rule itself was a form of slavery, while Indians owning, selling, buying other Indians was nothing significant or egregious. One explanation is that colonial powers merely replaced it with indentured labor, which was “practically the same as slavery”, so they should not get any credit whatsover. Indentured labour was terrible, but it wasn’t slavery. But it may easier to expain algebra to a snail, than convince anyone of this.

We seem to believe that Abraham Lincoln ended slavery in the USA, and the rest of the world magically eradicated it too. Except slavery ended in India, twenty years BEFORE Lincoln ended it in the USA.

We love to pretend that 1947 was the end of real slavery.

Also we simply don’t study the history of law in India. I think most people believe law is something the British gave us. If we don’t, we secretly believe British law was far better than Hindu law, but we don’t want to be caught praising them.

Back to the Indian Constitution.

Only in 1947 did we decide that none of our ancient Smritis is relevant. The Constituent Assembly created a Constitution, guided by those of the USA, France, USSR, Ireland etc with long history in Roman law. We chose a unitary over a federal constitution, parliamentary versus presidential form of government, universal adult franchise, abolition of untouchability.

This replaced the Hindu legal system. Notice that I say Hindu  legal system, not Hindu law. Hindu law has a long history of reform, including under British rule. We learn nothing about Hindu law in schools, in society, in art, in literature, in public entertainment, or even in social discourse.  It is all about how the Gandhi led Congress was heroically fighting the British.  One of these days, we will have a history book that tells us General Manekshaw liberated Bangladesh by going on a salt satyagraha in Dhaka and a hunger strike in Chittagong. It will be a two mark question in a history exam, and by God, two marks in a test are more important than actual history.

Manu was not the only smriti of India, it was one of eighteen, but definitely the most popular and widely used. There were several overlapping concepts among these smritis, and as inscriptions of kings through several centuries attest, a scholar need only know one of these to be a royal official, minister, judge etc. I consider these smritis as akin to the aadhara shruti of a Carnatic singer or traditional singer vs the standardized frequencies in western music, which I think are akin to the unitary Constitutions of almost every democracy. In fact, we see this dominant unitary global standard in European thought - the SI units, universal human rights, Generally Accepted Accounting Practices(GAAP), patent law, architecture standards, road standards, uniform sizes of shipping containers, banking standards, internet protocols, 110V/240V, etc.

  • Different agamas for different temples
  • Choice of astronomy texts - Surya Siddhanta or Pitamaha siddhanta or another, and hence the calendar, almanac or panchangam
  • Choice of silpa sastras for temple, house, and town planning
  • a variety of religious philosphies
  • Local autonomy for administration and certain forms of taxation
  • Variations in property rights, including community trusteeship, like public land, pasture land, forests, water sources
  • Autonomy of merchant guilds to govern themselves, and even set tax and lending rates; and even build mercantile forts (which is why Fort St George, Fort St William etc were allowed - as mercantile forts).

 Whereas in India, in every aspect of art and technology the artist or artisan had freedom to innovate.     

I will stop here. I just think historians, especially Indian historians, do a very poor job of understanding or analysing all of this. And society, for the most part, is happy with this. The white supremacist colonial narrative drowns out the hard facts of far superior technology, military, finance/trade and administrative marvels that the English discovered or invented to transform themselves, while Indians were practically stagnating.

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Wednesday 1 July 2020

Four Napoleons and the Steam Engine


Dr VS Ramachandran sent me this clipping and photo by email a few days ago. It is a memorial  to Sir William Jones, founder of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, at the University College chapel in Oxford university. Ramachandran is a huge fan of Jones and his scholarship, and the founding of Indology (one branch of Orientalism). He believes that the Tamil Heritage Trust can continue where the British Indologists left off, and we can do this best by forming a new Indology society.

The sculpture shows Jones seated at a table, taking notes from Hindu pandits (Sanskrit scholars). This is an artist’s interpretation. One line in the website of Prof Faisal Devji, says He was of the 'Orientalist' party, opposed by the 'Anglicists' who thought Indian knowledge and traditions worthless.”

For this essay, I use this line as a launching pad for my thoughts about this period.

I think this a very poorly studied period, except from the view of colonialism. Before the arrival of Jones and the discoveries of the Asiatic Society, Europeans had an extremely poor understanding of India. They were completely unaware of Sanskrit, its riches, Hinduism, Buddhism, Indian architecture: in fact all the sixteen items listed in Jones' list of things to study, on the ship to India.

But equally, India was almost completely unaware of the amazing progress in Europe since the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. In science, in economics, in military techniques, in seafaring, in conquest. These filtered through to large sections of society, especially Hindu society, only via the Industrial revolution and English education.

Also, there is a reason the Anglicists gained the upper hand by 1840 or so - before that Europeans may have considered themselves superior, but between 1770 and 1840 they had indisputable proof that they were superior, in several fields – science, technology, military ability, seafaring, economics, management. They were not superior to Indians in music, agriculture, medicine, art, architecture, law and order, judiciary, dispute resolution, taxation, water management, etc.

But let us look at some technological and military achievements of the British (not just Europeans)

1740s-1760s The Cotton Revolution, the first Industrial revolution in England

1746: The Battle of Adayar, France captures Madras under Governor la Bourdannais

1747: Major Stringer Lawrence creates the The Madras Regiment, the mother regiment of the Indian Army

1749: France returns Madras to England

1757 : Clive gains an empire, Madras and Bengal

1774 : Lavoisier / Priestley discover modern chemistry

1775 : James Watt patents steam engine

1776 : Adam Smith publishes Wealth of Nations

This is all very inconvenient to the political historians. We have at least three isolated islands of history, one of military conquest and colonialism, one of technological and scientific leaps and a third of the massive collection of information about India and its civilization, the project of the Asiatic Society and similar organizations. We get these as separate streams of discourse, because for each group the other two are quite inconvenient. 

At the start of this period 1770, Imperial France was a mighty rival to England in politics, finance and military strength, perhaps considered superior culturally. The Netherlands was a business equal to England. Germany equal in science and technology, but not quite unified, or even Germany. Spain and Portugal had a larger political base, but far behind in science, technology, trade.

1789: French Revolution, effective American independence

This saw French decline in the colonies, especially their rivalry in India, but Napoleon soon became a major challenge in Europe, and threatened to even make England a French colony. In India there were three Napoleons who were a threat to England : Hyder Ali / Tipu Sultan, the Mahrattas and the Sikhs. These are insignificant names outside India, but the victories over the first two were among the most torrid and coming within such a short time, of very great significance.

But between 1799 and 1840 England saw amazing and significant military conquests in India. Lord Cornwallis who had lost to George Washington in the Revolutionary War that led to the formation of the USA, held off Tipu Sultan in one of the Mysore Wars in 1793. Tipu Sultan was completely routed and killed in 1799. Arthur Wellesley, who served first under Cornwallis, and was Governor of Mysore after Tipu’s defeat, later defeated the Mahrattas at Assaye, in 1803, and used this experience to beat Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815. Wellesley later became the Duke of Wellington. He himself said, that while his defeat of Napoleon was more significant, the battle against the Mahrattas was the fiercest he fought in his life.

And after the death of Ranjit Singh, the Sikh kingdom also fell to England. Only the weak Mughals in Delhi were left to conquer in 1857. In about forty years they conquered as much of India as Muslims did in nearly 700 years (but still less the either Chandragupta Maurya or Samudragupta did). And they were discovering things about India, Egypt, Sumeria, Persia, etc all old civilizations in steep decline, and barely aware of their own past greatness

This was also the period 1799-1840 when England discovered electricity via Faraday and others, improved the steam engine and built the railways, massively exploited mines and discovered minerals and new elements, explored the world, and went far ahead of others in the Industrial revolution.

No wonder the Anglicists felt superior, and triumphed over the Orientalists. No wonder Macaulay and Mill became the guiding lights who would bless and improve India with the benevolence of British knowledge and wisdom.

This was helped by the fact that Indians themselves wanted all the new marvels that the English brought along (long before the steam engine). Paper, printing, clocks, telescopes, a hundred tiny engineering marvels. A number of liberal and progressive Hindus also used the English to reform Hindu law and a number of customs.

Which set the stage for the next quote. Which I will write about in a separate essay. 

“Both parties, however, agreed on the need to codify the laws of India's communities”


New Asiatic Society needed – Times of India report

THT program video - VS Ramachandran announces a new Asiatic society

William Jones and the Asiatic Society

Antoine Lavoisier - The Discovery of Modern Chemistry 

Macaulay, Sanskrit and English

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