Wednesday, March 10, 2021

a bicycle for my mind

The Seen and the Unseen is not just my favourite podcast. It is, and apologies for my inability to come up with a more appropriate phrase now, the world feed I most look forward to across all media. I absolutely adore good conversations, and Amit Varma's podcast has given my way more than I could ever have asked for. He's recorded 215 episodes as of this week and I must've listen to about 50 (including the rare abandoned ones) and I thought I'd list my favourite conversations and highlight one or two memorable takeaways. 

So, in no particular order:

  • Fixing Indian Education with Karthik Muralidharan- Probably, by a tiny margin, my favourite episode. Not only is the subject matter important enough to demand complete attention, on top of that Muralidharan's energy and optimism is infectious. Key takeaways, from memory: the sorting vs the human development functions of education, the ineffectiveness of increasing teacher salaries on teaching standards, implementation of vouchers to create dynamism and competitiveness among government schools. Also, Pareto principle is very useful- 80% outcomes come from 20% of the effort.
  • What have we done with our independence with Pratap Bhanu Mehta- Prof. Mehta says something terrific and I paraphrase, "We usually blame our politicians for changing their statements. While a politician must have principles, we must remember that they do not have an autonomy over truth. It is their responsibility to listen to competing claims, arbitrate between them, and take them to positions of power. In that regard, a politician's willingness to backtrack on previous utterances is a feature not a bug. We should be more afraid of those in authority who steadfastly hold their opinions in the face of contrary evidence. Also, sometime in the last few decades, we mistook respecting others people with respecting all opinions.
  • The Ideas of our Constitution with Madhav Khosla- Madhav is one of my favourite scholars, for his ability to convert seemingly boring Civics textbook stuff to thought-provoking philosophy. He also brings history back to life with terrific immediacy. From this episode, I remember two things: 1. If democracy was just about elections, then we wouldn't need such a big constitution filled with guidelines and rules. They would've just said, win elections and do what you want. 2. The Indian Constitution was created to be an edifying document. And its intention was to make us equal citizens by treating us as one.
  • Who broke our Republic? with Kapil Komireddi- The genius of Nehru's (via Khilnani) Idea of India is that it is expansive enough to hold all the other ideas of India. It is, in my opinion, the highest manifestation of a liberal society because it accommodates, and celebrates, (almost) the entire spectrum of humanity.
  • Jahangir the Curious with Parvati Sharma- There's this lovely bit where she conveys how quickly the Mughuls became 'Hindustan-ized' using a vivid illustration, and I paraphrase, "Babar, who never felt at home in India would go to Afghanistan and Uzbekistan at the slightest pretext. And there he would happily gorge on melons and pomegranates, claiming that they were the best fruits in the world. His great-grandson, 70 years later, when he went to Afghanistan and tasted melons, scowled and said that they were no match to the greatest fruit in the world- the mangoes of Hindostan."
  • The art of narrative non-fiction with Samanth Subramanian- I absolutely love Samanth's writing, my favourite is this autobiographical sketch about quizzing, and in this episode he elucidates on how he designs his non-fiction pieces. Essentially, the quest is to identify the themes around the topic at hand and find angles to interpret them. Once those are in place, the piece must stitch a narrative through them.
  • BJP before Modi with Vinay Sitapati- I find Sitapati to be an electrifying communicator of his work. I liked this conversation so much that I read Jugalbandi the following week and thoroughly enjoyed it. My key learning came when Sitapati said, "Our fears that we will end up in a Hindu Rashtra in the future are moot. We already live in a Hindu Rashtra. The BJP is not fascist. They do not need to abolish elections. Infact, the RSS/ BJP's one hundred year old project is to consolidate the Hindu vote. Once they have it, they will always be in the majority." Another useful framework for understanding BJP's thought process is their obsession with 3 things: 1. Hindu Unity 2. Sacred Geography 3. Demography and Elections. From his method of working, another nugget was, "Perfection is the enemy of production".
  • A scientist in the kitchen with Krish Ashok- Another episode I absolutely loved and bought the book of. I am so grateful to Krish for demystifying and deromanticising the act/ art of cooking. And for unequivocally saying that there is no 'authentic' version of a dish. If you find something tasty and nutritious, then its good enough.
  • Indian Society: the last 30 years with Santosh Desai- This was a lot of fun too primarily because I love listening to anything about India since the 90s. I remember Desai articulating something that I'd always felt but more succinctly, "The ceremonies and rituals of a court house exist to obfuscate and distract us from the fact that an individual, the judge, does not really have the moral right to pass sentence against another individual, the implicated citizen. The rituals of a modern, secular nation-state, then, are not very different from the ceremonies of a medieval kingdom."
  • Political Ideology in India with Rahul Verma- Verma talks about the book he co-authored with Pradeep Chhibber on ideology in India and he argues that the western classifications of Left and Right (Social or Economic) don't apply to societies like India which are much more diverse. Instead, they point to four different axes (federalism vs centralism, reservation vs anti-reservation.. I can't remember the other two) and I found that a much more useful apparatus to differentiate between the ideologies (atleast on paper) of different political parties in India.
  • The Gita Press and Hindu Nationalism with Akshaya Mukul- I discovered the podcast when I started reading Jaithirth Rao's The Indian Conservative on Juggernaut, didn't like it too much, but wanting to learn more about the conservative cause in India, looked up to see if he had spoken in a podcast. That's when I found his Seen and the Unseen episode, and finding him equally unimpressive there as well, abandoned that episode but I guess I must've liked Amit's style of interviewing enough to try another episode; This must've been around Oct 2019. And this is the episode that I selected and boy was it the right choice. It is still in my top 5 episodes of the show and it was an absolute blast listening to the conversation. Mukul's analysis of the Hindu Right's evolution was staggering both in its scope and lucid presentation. And my respect for him increased manyfold when I discovered, months later, that he refused to collect a prize for the book because it was being handed over by Modi.

Honourable mentions- I enjoyed these episodes as well but don't have/ remember one or two 'money insights'- The art of translation with Arunava Sinha, Srinath Raghavan's three episodes, Manu S Pillai's three episodes, Ramachandra Guha's Gandhi episodes, Matt Ridely's Evolution episode among many others. I'm actually surprised by how few episodes I've listed because I could spend hours talking about the stuff I've learned from the show but I guess this list will have to do for now. It's more a sign of my rusty writing than anything else.

That's my very succinct introduction, and a minor recommendation list, to the Seen and the Unseen. In all honesty, until I discovered this podcast, I had no idea a cultural artefact like this could be, would be, created about India today. For that, I'm filled with gratitude and appreciation for Amit. 

I have spent enough hours listening to the podcast while vacuuming the house, setting clothes out for drying, walking around Westmead/ Wentworthville, to the library, to the swimming pool, to Coles/ Woolies, to parks nearby, completely engrossed in one of the conversations and while I hope they have made me atleast a bit smarter, I'm sure they've captivated me immensely. It's been a pleasure and a blessing.

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