Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Error Messages

Further to the theme of Failure that I've been pursuing, here is a series of ERROR MESSAGES*. Do I need to mention that they were sent to me by the Incomparable Anvar Alikhan? I don't know who designed them and executed the graphics but I would send them a bouquet of roses, if I could.
(*Okay, if you've never seen one before, it means you are not human. Thank you for visiting this blog. I am sincerely honoured)

Monday, March 22, 2010

The Uses of Failure!

[This is a re-run of a piece I wrote years ago for my column in the Pioneer. It was later reproduced in Rediff-on-the-Net and entirely forgotten by me until, through a series of coincidences, I REDIFFcovered it on the net. So if you missed it the first time around 10 years ago, no worries! Here it is again]

If you were given "a piece of wire that is bent to a rectangular, triangular, or otherwise shaped hoop, the end parts of which wire piece form members or tongues lying side by side in contrary directions" -- what would you do with it?

Use it to bind sheets of paper together, I hope, because that is a description of one of the early versions of paper clip, the invention of a Norwegian called Johan Vaaler. This fragment of information is just one of countless revelations made in a fascinating book called The Evolution of Useful Things by Henry Petroski (author of a book about another supremely useful thing, The Pencil).

It is humbling to realise how much thought, effort and, yes, even passion lies behind all manner of objects which we take for granted in the blurred momentum of our urban lives. By describing the conception of such items as zip fasteners, cutlery and "Scotch" tape, Petroski pays homage to the astounding inventiveness and optimism of our species.

Take, for example, sticky tape. I am one of those people who cannot survive for long without at least four different types of tape close at hand: Narrow and clear for basic bonding; broad and opaque for packing parcels; Scotch magic tape for sneaky repairs like torn currency notes: and the absolutely indispensable double-sided tape for any job which requires one sheet of paper to be attached as neatly as possible to another without the mess of wet glue.

According to this book, gummed tape evolved out of the 1925 fashion, in the US, for cars painted in two colours. A young salesman called Richard Drew, who worked for the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing company -- which, at that time, specialised in waterproof sandpaper, heard auto shop workers complaining about the difficulty they had painting these two-tone cars.

Producing clean edges between two shades of paint required some part of the car's surface to be protected while the second colour was being sprayed on. But the adhesive used to fix the protective mask onto the car was often so strong that it took one coat of paint off with it when the mask was removed.

Drew set himself the challenge of producing a type of paper which would adhere to a surface temporarily. It took him two years to chance upon crinkly paper as the ideal medium. The brand name Scotch, belonging to the company we all know now as 3M, is supposed to have arisen because the tape was initially adhesive only along its edges. Users reportedly complained that due to the "Scotch" stinginess of its manufacturers, the tape wasn't sticking properly! This resulted in the tape being gummed across its whole surface.

Similarly, in 1978, Art Fry, a chemical engineer also working for 3M, felt the need to mark the pages in his hymnal with bookmarks which wouldn't fall out. What he needed was an adhesive strong enough to keep a small scrap of paper from falling out of a book, yet weak enough not to damage the page it was on. A fellow employee and researcher called Stephen Silver had accidentally discovered just such an adhesive. Because the company they worked for took a benevolent view of extracurricular inventiveness, Fry was able, in a year-and-a-half of experimenting, to come up with the now ubiquitous little bits of paper called Post-its.

"Form follows function" has been a designer's mantra for many decades now. But, in his book, Petroski contends, "The form of one thing followed from the failure of another thing to function as we would like. Whether it is the bookmarks which fail to stay in place or taped-on notes that fail to leave a once-nice surface clean and intact, their failure... is what leads to the true evolution of artifacts."

What an attractive and hopeful thought this is! I read it to mean that failure is one of the building blocks of success: that failure can be, and often is, the foundation on which strong and vibrant ideas are built. Those of us who fail are generally given little encouragement except to be whipped to perform better the next time around. The celebration of success hides a fear and an abhorrence of failure; and yet, in a sense, failure in the form of death is the ultimate fate of every mortal being. How much gentler and more powerfully inclusive it is, therefore, to recognise that every failure is an invitation to improvise, improve and innovate.

In one example after the other, Petroski demonstrates his point: The safety-pin which evolved out of the failure of straight pins to protect their users from getting pricked; the incredible variety of hardware items, each invented and patentable only because they filled a need which some other item failed to satisfy; the endless variety of cans and their corresponding openers. There is such a thing as creative discomfort, Petroski's book suggests, which is the ultimate fount of all creation.

Friday, March 19, 2010


This appeared on the edit page of the Asian Age on Tuesday, 16th March (i.e., one day after International Women's Day), in an article written by the former governor of J&K and former Union Minister, Jagmohan:

"Domestic violence is also quite common. About 45 per cent of women are slapped. One case of cruelty by husband and relatives is reported every nine minutes. General crime against women, too, is widespread. There is one molestation case every 15 minutes, one rape every 29 minutes, one dowry death every 77 minutes, and one incident of sexual harassment every 53 minutes."

No wonder the sex ratio (quoted in this article) currently stands at 927 females for every 1000 males!

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Someone's got it RIGHT ... maybe?

Just looking at the pictures, I feel the book must be great to own -- a beautifully stylized version of the RAMAYANA, by US-based cartoonist/artist Sanjay Patel. I just happened to notice a reference to the book (its full title: RAMAYANA: The Divine Loophole) at CNN GO Asia via TwitterBuddy Elu and instantly fell in love with the visuals. They remind me of the wonderful angular style and colour palette of American wildlife artist, (the late) CHARLEY HARPER -- but exciting and lively in their own unique way. I've never heard of the book, but am assuming that's just becoz I live with my head tucked under my arm.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Rethinking HAPPINESS

Here's a link to an article in the NEW YORKER -- it's worth reading, regardless of how happy/unhappy you are at the moment. A couple of years ago I read a book called HAPPINESS: Lessons from a New Science by Richard Layard which was interesting for several reasons but especially because (a) it suggested that the law of diminishing returns applies to happiness as it does with many other things and (b) this particular books ends with a discussion about chemical solutions to depression. I thought this second point was very odd but then again ... it's about happiness, right? And for many people a little chemical help is entirely crucial to maintaining the brightness of their smile -- please be sure to include white sugar in your definition of "chemical help"!

Anyway. The New Yorker article is an elaboration of the points raised in the book (i.e., if you read the article, you don't really need to read the book). On the one hand, I remember an Arab businessman friend whom we met more than 40 years ago, part of the oil-rich tide that spilled over into India, looking for new markets and business. He said that being rich certainly did not guarantee happiness but if you're going to be sad either way, then "... it's better to be rich and sad than poor and sad."

MEANWHILE! More videos. These two are from my recent trips to FATEHPUR SIKHRI and the TAJ MAHAL.

Create your own video slideshow at

Create your own video slideshow at

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Well and here I am, back in Delhuxe.

Since posting the zebrae I have heard from Tulika books that they will NOT spank me for uploading bits of images from SAME & DIFFERENT, their next title by me. So ... here's another one. I may be unable to resist posting fragments from each of the pages in the days/weeks ahead! I normally lose interest in my work the moment it's delivered and out of my hands, but with picture books, I remain enthusiastic at least until I've seen the printed result.

Meanwhile, I must report I had a funny dream the other night -- all about ring-tailed lemurs!! Nothing much happened in my dream, except that there were a number of the cute little critturs leaping about, making their musical cries and blinking their enormous orange eyes. At the Goa Seminar (see the post just before this one ...) dreams and dream analysis were amongst the topics of discussion and we had a bonafide dream expert, MADHU TANDON, author of DREAMS & BEYOND (Penguin Books) to reveal a little bit about the unconscious mind and the tales it sometimes tells us.

Alas, I missed the dream analysis session at breakfast on the day I left Goa -- even though I no longer pay much attention to my own dreams. I used to, but over a period of time came to the conclusion that I am too prosaic and insensitive a person to have mystical experiences. I dream a great deal but nearly always in the ring-tailed lemur mode -- i.e., there's a great deal of detail and amusement, quite often with sound and light (and sometimes smell) effects, but rarely anything else. Whenever I've tried to write down dreams after waking up, the result is that I have more and more astonishing "adventures" and spend less and less time actually awake. Still. It would have been fun to have been at the session. I like talking about and hearing about the dream world, even though I find it difficult to believe that they (dreams) are anything more than a type of mental hobby for the brain, while it's recovering from its daytime activities.

AND ...

On a completely different note: while reading about gay rights and a recent ruling in the USA which makes it legal for gay couples to marry in yet another state (Maryland?) I got to wondering why people belonging to alternative-gender lifestyles don't frame a different contract altogether. I wrote to someone who is an activist in the gay rights movement, and asked if there were any moves in that direction and was told that there were, but not enough consensus to make the initiative stick.

It would be so cool, I think, if alt-sex groups cobbled together a type of contract that would actually appeal across the board to anyone who is sick of the inanities of the conventional marriage contract while at the same time recognizing the need for formal ties.

AND! A new feature, from a great site called ANIMOTO -- instant little animations! Using your own stuff. In this case, it's a collection of my drawings and 'toons.

Create your own video slideshow at

Tuesday, March 09, 2010


I'm currently in Bombay, enjoying the pleasant aftermath of three days in Goa at the very enjoyable seminar organized jointly by the Sahitya Akademi and Goa University on Fantasy, Science Fiction, and other Forms of the Marvellous in Indian Literature. These two photographs are all that I succeeded in capturing on account of having my camera with me but refusing to take out anywhere, with the result that I could only use my cellphone (All Hail Nokia E71!).

The seminar was only my second experience of an ac-lit seminar but based on these two experiences (the previous one being in Ch'garh ten days ago) I could easily become addicted! It was fun, it was interesting and I think we all came away feeling better and broader for it -- no puns intended. A partial* list participants is:
(* it's not exhaustive becoz this list is cut-and-pasted from the list of those staying at the Hotel NOVA GOA. I'm too lazy to look up the printed list to check to see who else was present at the seminar, if they weren't on this list)

1. Dr. A Krishna Murthy, Secretary Sahitya Akademi
2. Alok Bhalla, Jamia. Delhi, Advisor, Sahitya Akademi,
3. Gitanjali Chatterjee, Dy. Secretary, Sahitya Akademi
4. Arshia Sattar, Bangalore, Seminar Co-Ordinator,
5. Malashri Lal, Seminar Co-Ordinator, Delhi U,
6. Sahitya Akademi accounts/office staff
7. Ahana Lakshmi, translator, Chennai
8. Deepa Agarwal , writer, translator, Delhi
9. Kavita Sharma , writer, academic, Director, India International Centre
10. Madhu Tandan, writer, dream analyst, Delhi
11. Mahesh Sharma, historian, writer, Chandigarh
12. Manjula Padmanabhan, writer, artist Delhi
13. Namita Gokhale, writer, publisher, Delhi
14. Neerja Mattoo, writer, translator, Kashmir
15. Raju Natesh, writer, artist.
16. Reba Som, author, singer and translator, Director, ICCR Tagore Centre, Kolkata.
17. Sanjukta Dasgupta, writer, translator, academic, Calcutta Univ
18. Shilo Shiv Suleiman, Illustrator
19. Sukrita Paul Kumar, poet, academic, ILLL, Delhi Univ.
20. Sumanyu Satpathy, translator, academic, Head, Dept of English, Delhi Univ.
-- ah -- one person who I know was at the seminar, but wasn't on this list is
21. China Meiville, writer, UK, whom we borrowed from the British Council's Lit Sutra.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

March Madness

Need a laugh? Go visit THIS SITE featuring howlers of the political rally kind.

But in other news ... I am still chasing my tail, trying desperately to get one lot of work completed in order to make space for the OTHER lot, which, coincidentally happens to be my primary work (i.e., writing, painting). Ahem. Well ... yep. I'm the sort of degenerate being who cannot even manage to play hooky in a competent fashion, because one way or another it's ALL WORK. *snarl*

I did manage to complete my picture-book-for-the-year, however and am feeling very pleased about it. It's called SAME & DIFFERENT and is another* book of picture puzzles. I am posting a TINY sample below -- and haven't asked my publisher TULIKA's permission yet, so if you return later today and discover that there's NO PICTURE it means I've been smacked on the head and sent to bed without supper. I delivered the artwork last week and the finished result should be out in print, I'm told, in maybe a week from now!! The speed at which books leap off the desk and into the world these days just takes my breath away. (*the first one was called I AM DIFFERENT, also from TULIKA)