Thursday, October 14, 2021

Orion and Friends

It's 5:30AM and there is a nip in the air. You look out from the balcony and your gaze moves up from the empty roads, the streetlights, over the tree-tops, to one single bright star in the sky.

Which one is it? you wonder..

As your eyes get accustomed to the darkness, other less bright stars peek out through the haze, and a familiar pattern emerges - the three stars that make the belt, two for the dagger, another two pairs each for the shoulders and limbs... and Orion the Hunter emerges in all its glory. Then again on either side of the hunter two more bright stars - Aldebaran and Sirius marking the positions staked by the constellations Taurus and Canis Major.

We are now the Navaratri festival season, a period of nine nights when the moon transforms from a thin sliver barely visible in evening sky, to a bright autumn full-moon marking, not only two of the most important festivals in India, Dussehra and Diwali, but also the onset of winter.

I often wonder - why are our night skies filled with stellar patterns that carry mostly Latin names, with a few Arabic ones thrown in for variety? What did the ancients in India, South America or Australia make of these patterns in the night sky?

As Raj Vedam explains so well in his videos, ancient astronomers in India looked at the skies in a very different way, with oral traditions that record and mark the changing positions of the moon, planets and stars with almost obsessive detail. So much so that with modern software simulations it is possible to triangulate the time-period of certain historical events that could only have happened thousands of years ago. 

The Ecliptic, or the path taken by the sun to traverse the sky, is one of the key reference points. They observed that - "The moon appears on the eastern horizon at a different time every day, offset by about 48 minutes, agains a different backdrop of stars." Also, it was noticed that it takes 28 days for the moon to return to the same backdrop of stars. From this emerged a system based on Nakshatras and Raashis.

Nakshatra refers to the principal or brightest star in each segment of the night sky, formed by dividing the ecliptic into 27 segments of 13.33 degrees (13.3 * 27 = 360). As a mnemonic to remember the right sequence these stars were woven into mythology to represent 27 wives of the moon.

Similarly the 12 lunar months were made by dividing the sky into 12 segments of 30 degrees each (12 * 30 = 360), represented by the constellation in which the full moon made its appearance. These were called the Raashis.

So when the full moon appeared in Chittira Nakshatra (Spica in Virgo Constellation) it could immediately be understood that in that month, the sunrise took place 180 degrees opposite in Ashvini Nakshatra (Sheratan or Beta Arietis in the Aries constellation).

What about old familiar friend Orion and his companions? For some reason it seems ancient astronomers in India were not too keen on conjuring up figures from the stellar patterns. They highlighted only three stars in the Orion and Taurus constellations:

One big surprise is that in the subsequent 13.3 degree segment they completely ignored the brightest star in the sky, Sirius and instead selected Pollux (Gemini constellation) as Nakshatra no. 7. To put this in perspective, Pollux  or Beta Geminorium is an orange giant with a magnitude (brightness) of 1.1 while Sirius (Greek for 'scorching' and also called Alpha Canis Majoris) has a magnitude of - 1.5 which is about 2.5 times brighter!

Maybe there is something more to this that I am missing, but ignoring the brightest star in the sky! - you can't be Sirius! 



* Orion Constellation - ultimate guide -

* Inca Astronomy -

Monday, October 04, 2021

The Sense of Smell

Remember this post about 'The Most Translated Books of the World'

Well, a few days ago, I decided to pick one of the few European books that I had not read in that collection - the most translated book from Germany -   Patrick Süskind's "Perfume: The Story of a Murderer', which apparently has been translated into no less than 49 languages.

It seemed to deal with an interesting topic - the sense of smell - which is perhaps the most evocative of our sense perceptions, and one that often triggers a flood of memories. There is a certain agarbatti fragrance that instantly takes me back to my wonder years in Hyderabad, a childhood filled with sunny days squinting at floating kites, of playing and wandering about without a care in the world; The smell of musty books takes me to my grandfather's library in Kerala, of hours spent flipping through books I had been explicitly banned from reading (was that a trick to get me interested in books?). A couple of years ago when I landed up for my first UN assignment in Afghanistan, I kept wondering why buildings at Green Village reminded me so much of Tsukuba University in Japan, until it struck me that they were using a floor cleaner with the exact same fragrance! 

This book tells us the story of an orphan named Grenouille who was born in the 1700s and promptly discarded  in an offal heap at a slaughterhouse in Paris. The child grows up to discover that he has an unusual talent, an obsession for smells and odours as well as the ability to recreate them.  He first starts earning his keep as an apprentice at a tannery, then wheedles into a becoming an assistant to a leading perfumer in Paris, before becoming a serial killer who ultimately never gets punished for his crimes.

As expected, the narrative serves dollops of gyan on the art of making perfumes, but then goes overboard over their power to influence human behaviour: 

"Odours have a power of persuasion stronger than that of words, appearances, emotions or will. The persuasive power of an odour cannot be fended off, it enters into us like breath into our lungs, it fill us up, imbues us totally. There is no remedy for it... for people could close their eyes to greatness, to horrors, to beauty, and their ears to melodies or deceiving sounds. But they cannot escape scent. For scent is the brother of breath...

"There are scents that linger for decades. A cupboard rubbed with musk, a piece of leather drenched with cinnamon oil, a glob of ambergris, a cedar chest - they all possess virtual eternal olfactory life. While other things like lime oil, bergamot, jonquil and tuberose extracts, and many floral scents -- evaporate within a few hours if they are exposed to the air in a pure, unbound form."

The book itself is fast-paced and describes Paris and France in a way that is not very different from Victor Hugo's "Les Misérables". In this storyline you travel from Paris southwards to the barren hills of Plomb du Cantal,  Montpellier, Grenoble and then to Grasse, north of Cannes.  

Yet, unlike Hugo's classic it descends into incredulous levels, like a pet peeve that has run amok, taking the story to a point where you just wonder - Why would anybody want to translate this book into so many languages? Is this really the most translatable book that German language has to offer? 



* Book - Süskind, Patrick (1985): "Perfume - The Story of a Murderer "

* The Smell of Evolution (NatGeo)

Sunday, September 26, 2021

Under the Shadow of Covid: Train Journeys Across India

Paravur Kayal (lagoon), Kerala

Has the Covid Pandemic changed the way Indians travel? What has been the impact of the cascade of lockdowns  imposed across the country since March 2020?

An opportunity to seek answers to these questions presented itself a few weeks ago. A bunch of old friends had planned a get-together in Krishnagiri district of Tamil Nadu and it had been nearly two years since I met my folks in Kerala. So at short notice, I decided to travel across the country to these two states in the cheapest way possible: Second-Class Sleeper on the Indian Railways.

Thanks to the pandemic and the lockdowns that came with it I had grown nostalgic about the magic of unhurried traveling. The joy of settling down with a nice book on a long train journey, of watching the shifting landscapes float by, feeling the rush of wind through the open windows and the occasional explosive rush of a passing train, tasting different foods (and drinking the awful tea!) along the way; the chance to meet and travel with all sorts of different people... just about everything that seemed the opposite end of a lockdown spectrum :)

My two-week itinerary was fairly simple - a 2400km train ride to Bangalore (Train 06528), to be picked up by friends for a drive across the border from Karnataka to Krishnagiri district in Tamil Nadu. A couple of days later, another longer road trip to Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala, a week with the family, and finally,  the 3040km long rail journey (Train 02625) back to Delhi. 

Two train journeys ~ 5,500 km

Traveling under the shadow of an impending "third wave" of the pandemic, I had expected to see a lot of restrictions along the way. Sure enough, railway stations along the route were a lot less crowded than usual. This may have been because access to the platforms is now tightly controlled, visitors are no longer issued "platform tickets", nearly all hawkers were in designated uniforms and everybody was wearing a face-mask, at least to avoid getting penalised. 

However once the train rolled out of the platform in New Delhi, ticket examiners were not checking to see if passengers had been vaccinated. Hygiene and safety standards had improved though - cleaning of the coaches and mopping with disinfectants was more frequent, a couple of armed police officers patrolled up and down the trains, reminding everybody to keep the doors closed and even warning us to down the shutters and stay away from the windows at a place in Maharashtra because "children pelt stones in this area!".

All along the journey across multiple states, only at one station did RTPCR test results become an issue. At Bangalore Cantonment as soon as passengers disembarked, all of us were lined up for a quick health-check: 

"Are you coming from outside Karnataka? Where are you going? Do you have an RTPCR negative report? If not, what is your mobile number?"

Straight, simple questions. I had not taken an RTPCR test 72 hours prior to this journey. For a moment I though they were going to send me off to a week-long quarantine but quickly realised that this was just a precautionary measure. The staff who noted down my mobile number checked with the national database accessed through the CoWIN app. Once it was confirmed that I had taken both shots of the AZ-CovidShield vaccine, my destination details were logged in and swab samples were taken for an RTPCR test. By the time I stepped out of the railway station, a message had come in, reminding me of the precautions to be taken, and within the next 24 hours, I had a digital certificate confirming an RTPCR negative report - all for free! Totally understated, efficient and super impressive.

On both the long distance journeys - from Delhi to Bangalore and from Thiruvanantapuram back to Delhi - one big change was that there were very few people travelling all the way. On the onward trip, most of my co-passengers were migrant workers - mostly travelling from the northern states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar to serve factories, malls and the gig economy for sending money back home. There were also a few tech workers - interns or trainees taking up their assignments in Bangalore and discussing the finer points of Java and Python along the way.

The return journey from Kerala was quite different. Most of my travel companions from Kerala got off just across the state border in Coimbatore, an industrial city that attracts a lot of workers and students; those who boarded from Tamil Nadu were again traveling a short distance to Tirupati, a centre for pilgrimage. My coach was practically empty when it passed through the states of Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, and Madhya Pradesh. 

The fear of Covid had transformed many of the landmark stations along the way. The famous stalls selling fresh fruit juice had disappeared from Vijayawada station; Chilly chicken was no longer on the menu at the Warangal station canteen. Hygiene seemed to have become an overriding concern - meals were now being sold in sealed plastic trays. Flexible pricing was also in - an egg biryani which cost INR 90 at 12:00 when the train reached Warangal would be available for INR 50 when the train reached Vijayawada a few hours later. If you were not in a hurry to pick up a packet as soon as the train stopped the price would go down still further to INR 40!

Another great transformation was the near seamless availability of broadband internet through the journey. Except for a few uninhabited areas of Telangana and Madhya Pradesh you can use the net to check the news feeds, catch up with old friends on WhatsApp, watch YouTube videos and, most importantly, see your own train moving across the country as a blue dot on Google Maps. This not only allows you to read up on the history and geography of the places you are passing through but also be well prepared to compose photographs of the fleeting yet stunningly beautiful landscapes of !ncredible India!

The Covid Pandemic seems to have changed not only the way in which Indian Railways operates  but also reduced the sense of chaos and uncertainty associated with train travel. If this trend continues I will be looking forward to my next long distance train ride - maybe from Gujarat to the North Eastern states for a change!

Godavari River, Andhra Pradesh

Paddy fields, northern Andhra Pradesh

Windmill farms and cloudscapes, Tamil Nadu

Thiruvanthapuram Central Station, Kerala

Palm plantations, Tamil Nadu

Paddy fields in coastal Andhra Pradesh

Sunset across Wardha river, Maharashtra

Cattle grazing at Vrindavan, Uttar Pradesh

Chambal Ravines, Madhya Pradesh




* Journey Map - 

* Kerala Express (02625) -

Friday, September 03, 2021

Sunny Days

 The precise shifting positions of the rising and setting sun through the year is a phenomenon observed thousands of years ago. The ancient Egyptians aligned their buildings - especially the pyramids - in such a way that sunlight entered the deepest passages only on certain days of the year, such as the summer equinox. The ancient Aztecs did the same, and so did the builders of Angkor Wat, and even the Padmanabha Swamy Temple in Kerala.

While it is relatively easy for communities that have lived at a particular location for many years to accurately predict the play of sunlight and shadows in their buildings through the year, the trick is to figure out how this would change in different parts of the globe. Consider this excerpt from an astronomy website - 

At 40°N latitude (Denver, Colorado / Beijing, China), the sun shifts 7° north. Since the sun's diameter equals 1/2 degrees, that means the sun has been traveling its own diameter (14 days x 1/2 degree = 7 degrees) northwards each day. At 60°N latitude (Fairbanks, Alaska / Siberia), the sun moves about 2 sun diameters or one degree daily.

How did they come to the conclusion that "the sun's diameter equals 1/2 degrees"? What exactly does this mean, especially when you consider the fact that the distance between the earth and the sun varies from summer to winter making it appear larger or smaller across the seasons? 

Things get a little more complicated here. Yet all this has been figured out with such amazing accuracy that we have websites that map the position of the sun to any given location on earth, any time of the year.

What we see here is a sun-path polar chart superimposed on an image from Google Maps. Each point on this is worked out by feeding in the local latitude in relation to the elevation of the sun and the time of day, for that location. For instance, Noida located at approx 28°N would see the sun at an elevation of 62° from the horizon  (90° - 28°) on equinox days (21 Mar., and 21 Sep.).

Solar Altitude (cc - Hartz ) 

This explains why cities located on or near the equator (eg., Singapore - 1.29°N) see very little variation in the position of the sun across seasons. So when a Singaporean stretches his neck to squint at the blazing sun right overhead on an equinox day, a Norwegian resident at the northern-most city in the world, Longyearbyne (78.22°N) would find the same mid-day sun hovering near the horizon all day!




- Noida coordinates - 28.5355° N, 77.3910° E


- TED Talk -



- Sun path -




Wednesday, September 01, 2021

Books of the World


Every now and then the great circus of Whatsapp forwards comes up with a gem, and this is one of them. A beautifully illustrated poster on the "Most Translated Books of the World" by Preply.

A closer look at this tells you that some non-empirical method has been chosen for the selections here.  Perhaps they have excluded books of religious nature, or those that may may be categorised as 'adult literature'. How else can one explain the fact that Paramahamsa Yogananda's "The Autobiography of a Yogi" is listed as the most translated book from India over "The Bhagawad Gita" or "Kamasutra"?   

At least according to the referenced list compiled by Wikipedia, the most translated book from India is the Gita, followed by Isha Upanishad and Yogananda's book in the third place. 

The list has its surprises too. For instance I was surprised to learn that a book we studied at school, "My Name is Aram" by William Saroyan the top book from Armenia. Also Arthur Hailey's "Hotel" is listed as the most translated book from... the Bahamas! 

Minor quibbles aside this remains a beautiful piece of work. The books I have not yet read from this list should keep me busy for a while! :)


NB: This is also the first time I am seeing a digital image presented in the <webP> format. At just over 600kB this seems to pack in a much more scalable image compared to JPEG or TIFF.  Seems to be an innovation from Google that uses a technique called predictive coding.

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

A Tragedy Live-Streamed

"There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen"--Vladimir Ilyich Lenin

What has been happening at Kabul's HKIA airport from 15 August 2021 onwards has been surreal, incredulous and depressing all at the same time.

Having been through this airport many times, and seen the many layers of its heavily armed perimeter,  it was amazing to see how thousands of people managed to get past its gates, all the way to military aircraft on the runway. It has been a week now and thousands of people continue to remain there all day, blocking the approach roads, clambering atop aircrafts, sitting inside jet-engine air-vents, getting shot at by security guards, and getting killed in the resulting stampede.

Much has already been said about the levels of desperation and panic in parts of Kabul. What has come as a big surprise to me is that for a city that has been under blanket electronic and police surveillance for decades, mobile networks continue to function normally, streaming live video from people all over the place. 

One particular video clip stands out.  This is a C-17 US military plane attempting to take off from Kabul airport. It is a monster of an aircraft - over 50m long, and capable of carrying over 275 tonnes, but here, as it lumbers on the runway, we see thousands of men were running alongside; some are waving cheerfully at the cameras, a few perched on the wheel carriages or flaps. Among them was one man in a dark Pathan suit, sitting precariously over on a winglet, looking intently looking into his mobile phone!

Incredibly, there is also a clip titled "Last video from the plane" in which we have a man in the same group recording the almost festive spirit of the group perched precariously there. Even as the jet engines rev up into a roar, he is talking a selfie shot, smiling into the camera, panning it around to show his companions waving cheerfully at his friends. Apache helicopters can be seen flying alongside, trying in vain to disperse the crowds. One can almost feel the wind lashing on on those faces, the roar jet engines drowning out the crowds. 

Then another phone records the C-17 taking off. As it climbs up sharply a few men can be seen slipping off and falling to their deaths. One was seen tangles in the concertina wires of a boundary wall, another spattered on a rooftop, and in yet another mobile, recording from inside the aircraft, the body of a man can be seen flailing in the winds, like a rag-doll stuck on a dumpster.

Not one of them would have survived. One can only imagine the levels of desperation and ignorance that led these men to their deaths. One wonders how the "last video" managed to reach FB and Twitter, and how many of them really thought they could get away sitting out there?



Wednesday, August 11, 2021

Gokhale's China

 Indians have been suckers for more than six decades. This was my main takeaway from Vijay Gokhale's recent book, "The Long Game - How the Chinese Negotiate with India".

In this elegantly written book, Gokhale traces the path taken by India-China relations from 1950 onwards - from the time when the government of India became one of the first to recognise the communist regime, of giving it a leg up to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council, through its military take-over of Tibet, escape of the Dalai Lama, the 1962 war, nuclear tests, all the way to the border dispute that festers to this day. 

All through this, the author may have wanted to show the Indian Foreign Service (IFS) in favourable light but seems to have just the opposite effect. One gets the impression that even though the  IFS may have had some of our brightest officers, as an institution it was slow on the uptake, and, as far as China is concerned, it has been incapable of guiding the political leaders through a prudent course of action. 

One of our weaknesses is that we love to talk. Combine this with our lack of meticulous preparations, the ease with which we can be flattered and what you get is a long line of ineffective negotiators. The Chinese, on the other hand, were always better prepared, weighed each word that was spoken and recorded everything and clearly saw that our eagerness to please, to play the 'good neighbour', was a weakness that could be exploited to tie us down with unilateral commitments.

Over the years, it seems some Chinese tactics have become predictable -- setting the agenda by insisting on 'principles' that suit them; things that they do not want to discuss are stonewalled through silence or deemed "not ripe for settlement"; the interpreter ploy of pretending not to know a language to gain time to think through and formulate a response, etc..

We also seem to have realised that that Chinese diplomats are ideological agents of the communist party- not government representatives amenable to logic or reason. Also their leaders, who prefer to stay in the background to "save face" are actually thin-skinned, and that unsettling them by impugning their self-image and how they want the rest of the world to view them can work to the other side's advantage.

Gokhale laments that the dignified and gracious Chinese negotiators of the past have been replaced by the assertive 'wolf warriors' who tend to display aggression, arrogance, irritation and other disagreeable traits. 

Maybe this is just as well because we seem to be better at handling in-your-face aggression rather than the gentle art of gracious negotiations. 



* Gokhale, Vijay (2021): THE LONG GAME - How the Chinese Negotiate With India, Penguin-